Aug 25, 2023
The gifted dissident
Pasatiempo reporter You might have seen her in line at the grocery store, sitting at a coffee shop, or pumping gasoline. Santa Fe’s Chaw Ei Thein cuts a stylish-but-unassuming figure around town and
You might have seen her in line at the grocery store, sitting at a coffee shop, or pumping gasoline. Santa Fe’s Chaw Ei Thein cuts a stylish-but-unassuming figure around town and might strike the uninitiated as a college professor, or maybe a doctor. Nothing in her demeanor would suggest “dissident” — and that’s for the best, given Chaw, 54, faces an arrest warrant in her native Myanmar for creating art that criticizes its dictatorial government.
10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through September 16 (WANTED special performance is 1 p.m. September 9)
form & concept, 435 S. Guadalupe Street
Some of that art is featured in WANTED, running through September 16 at form & concept. It includes sculptures, repurposed army flags, and a one-time performance, all aimed at shedding light on — and criticizing — Myanmar’s series of oppressive regimes that dates back 75 years.
WANTED, its title a reference to Chaw’s statues in Myanmar as well as her desires for change at home, is her first Myanmar-focused show in New Mexico. It comes nearly 20 years after her first-ever show focused on her native country, in 2004 at the Nippon International Performance Art Festival in Japan. That was followed by shows in Thailand, China, Slovakia, Budapest, and Canada, as well as a presentation in London.
Augmented Burmese army flags and Buddha statues with covered heads are two of the Santa Fe exhibition’s main features. The latter bear the title I wish Buddha free from Danger in Burma and sometimes are misconstrued as criticism of religion, Chaw says. In fact, they reference the destruction of Buddhist monasteries by Myanmar’s military, as well as the regime’s use of Buddhism as a vehicle to further its own messages. Five Buddha statues in WANTED are intact, the largest of them 29 inches tall. A sixth is shattered, reflecting the Myanmar government’s destruction of religious sites.
Works by Santa Fe artist Chaw Ei Thein featured in WANTED at form & concept include I wish Buddha free from Danger in Burma #01 (2015), acrylic pigment, gauze, faux oxidized iron patina, cast resin. Photo Marylene Mey; courtesy form & concept
The army flags’ camouflage patterns lend themselves to creating landscapes, both physical and emotional. Chaw uses the flags as a backdrop for several pieces, including What a Wonderful World No. 2 from 2015, in which human figures are visible amid the swirling earth tones. Many are smiling, as if to collectively reclaim a piece of cloth formerly associated with war and oppression.
Voices from Who Were Not Allowed to Speak, from 2023, incorporates words instead of human figures. Among the provocative phrasings: “They Shoot in Day; They Kidnap in Night,” “We Do Not Want Military Government,” and, simply, “Fight for Democracy.” Voices is 5 feet by 5 feet, ensuring the words stand out even from a distance. Wanted No. 3 is the same size, its various embroidery patterns representing each of Myanmar’s approximately 135 Indigenous groups.
Chaw also repurposed a series of everyday objects to reflect Myanmar’s military misery, such as bullet casings fashioned into lipstick containers.
“My show is all about changing the context of the material,” she says. “A bullet itself can kill someone. So I turn the material into a useful thing.”
Works by Santa Fe artist Chaw Ei Thein featured in WANTED at form & concept include I wish Buddha free from Danger in Burma #04 (detail, 2015), acrylic pigment, gauze, faux oxidized iron patina, cast resin. Photo Marylene Mey; courtesy form & concept
Chaw will be at form & concept for what’s billed as a special performance on September 9. She’s coy about what the performance will entail but says she’ll be available to answer questions after.
Chaw and her husband decided to move with their daughter to Santa Fe in 2017. Several months after arriving, Chaw says, she had an idea for the family to take a barefoot walk at Railyard Park and pick up energy from the art there. She picked up an unexpected ally in the process.
Jordan Eddy, form & concept director, happened to be at the park. Chaw and Eddy struck up a conversation, learning of each other’s connections to the art world. They kept in touch in the years that followed, a fruitful association that resulted in WANTED.
Chaw last set foot in Myanmar in 2007. She was organizing an art exhibition in London when she learned that her nation’s military leadership had issued a warrant for her arrest.
“I didn’t have a plan to live here,” says Chaw, who was granted political asylum to remain in the U.S. “I came for an artist residency with one piece of luggage, thinking I could go back at any time. I left my business, I left my gallery, I left my art club, everything.”
Works by Santa Fe artist Chaw Ei Thein featured in WANTED at form & concept include I wish Buddha free from Danger in Burma #01 (detail, 2015), acrylic pigment, gauze, faux oxidized iron patina, cast resin. Photo Marylene Mey; courtesy form & concept
The Santa Fe show comes at a time when Chaw is smarting from Myanmar’s tantalizing-but-brief foray into democracy. In 2015, Myanmar voters installed Aung San Suu Kyi as state counselor and Win Myint as president, giving Chaw hope that she’d finally be able to return home with her husband and young daughter to be reunited with family members, including her parents.
On February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military detained the two leaders, along with ministers and members of the nation’s parliament. The coup occurred the day before parliament was set to swear in democratically elected officials.
Chaw is aware of the parallels to the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol and doesn’t diminish the latter’s threat to democracy, but she says Americans have a lot to be thankful for.
“I always compare with my country,” she says. “There, even on social media, if you click ‘like’ to support the revolution, the next day they will come and arrest you. In this country, people are protected by law. Some of my American friends here, maybe 75 percent of them, complain about even the very little things here.
“Whenever I talk about what’s going on in my country, they don’t want to complain anymore.
The nation, officially named the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, also was known as Burma until 1989. Its largest city is Yangon, formerly Rangoon, where Chaw Ei Thein grew up.
England conquered what’s now known as Myanmar in three 1800s conflicts dubbed the Anglo-Burmese wars. It remained under English control from 1885 until 1942, when Japan occupied the country. Myanmar declared independence in 1948; unfortunately, it ended up trading external pressures for internal conflict.
In 1962, a coup resulted in a long-running military dictatorship that appeared to be in danger starting in 1988, when hundreds of thousands of people marched and protested in what’s called the 8888 Uprising. In a mirage of acquiescence, the dictatorship arranged for elections in 1990, only to disregard the results.
The party of politician and author Aung San Suu Kyi won 81 percent of the seats in parliament in that election. In 2015, the first year Myanmar had open elections since 1990, her party won 86 percent of the governing body’s seats. She was named state counselor — a job on the level of prime minister — and Win Myint president.
She remained in the role after her party won the November 2020 election, then was arrested February 1, 2021, following a military coup. Various show trials followed, with Aung San Suu Kyi sentenced to a combined 27 years in prison. She is 78. — B.S.
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