Htein Lin has six and a half years' worth of art painted on white cotton prison uniforms. The paintings? His own. The uniforms? Also his own.
Lin is a Burmese painter and performance artist who spent more than seven years as a political prisoner — seven months of that time on death row. And during all that time, he has never stopped creating art.
Born in a small village in Burma, Lin was a highly creative child. "I used to draw and tell stories to my school friends [to] keep them entertained, and that continued at university," he says. His path changed when he participated in Burma's 1988 democratic uprisings, which led to the country's severe military clampdown (the same one that placed Burmese democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years). After the protests, Lin and many of his fellow activists fled to the Indian border, where they lived in exile until being told by Indian authorities that they had to leave the country. Upon returning to Burma, Lin and the rest of his group fled through the jungle to join democratic activists near the Chinese border. Only around 20 survived the harsh journey. Shortly afterward, he and 80 others were imprisoned and tortured, again for political reasons, and held for seven months. Several of his comrades died there in jail, tortured to death. After being released, only six years passed before he was imprisoned a second time, and for years instead of months.
But somehow even in such conditions, he continued the painting and drawing that he'd loved since he was a kid. When he found himself living as a fugitive in the jungle, art remained. He would draw pictures in the mud with sticks, creating tools out of whatever was available. And later, while in prison, he created the pieces that are the most striking of his oeuvre.
Painted on thin, white, cotton sarongs, Lin's prison paintings are conceptual and vary in subject from abstract ideas like "1st Century Civilization" to more recognizable horrors. One, called "Six Fingers," shows a person seemingly twisted in pain with only six fingers. Prisoners who were too poor to bribe the guards would almost certainly be sent to harsh labor camps in swamps and stone quarries, and having an "accident" was the only way to escape the trip. So they would ask another prisoner to use a garden spade or hoe to cut off their fingers, and show the injuries to the prison doctor.
Other paintings depict figures hunched over awaiting beatings, or skeletal, starving bodies. Lin was able to get his hands on art supplies from time to time with the help of the occasional friendly guard, but most of his pieces from this period attest to his ingenuity with materials. Many paintings have descriptions like "acrylic painted with syringe on cotton" or "housepaint on cotton."
In 2004, Burmese authorities concluded that there had never been any case against Lin, and he was released, walking out of prison with a bag containing more than 200 paintings. His prison paintings were first shown in London, where Lin currently resides and works.
Although eight years have passed since his release — eight artistically productive years — it can be difficult for anyone who hears his story not to fixate on the artist's time in prison. That, at least, has been the case for some College of Charleston art history students, who are preparing for Lin's week-long visit to the school as a Quattlebaum Artist-in-Residence. "I think they're a little stunned, maybe a little intimidated, because none of us has had anything even approaching that in our own lives," says Mark Sloan, director of CofC's Halsey Institute. "We ... don't really know how to approach it, and I speak for myself and the students, because there are so many survival questions we want to ask. How did creating art help keep you sane, essentially?"
Lin's answer to that question is given with a directness belying the magnitude of what he experienced. "Art has always been a balancing mechanism for me when I am facing difficulties, a bit like the pole a tightrope walker uses to get from one side of the rope to another. I have found it essential for life in the jungle, in jail, and also life generally, including now that I live outside my country." He adds, "I wrote a poem a few years ago after learning to dive, when I described my art as like a tank of air and a regulator, that kept me alive when I was underwater."
A complementary and equally important piece to Lin's work as an artist is Buddhist meditation, which he calls "the other major power" in his life. According to Dr. Mary Beth Heston, who directs CofC's Asian Studies program and met Htein Lin a few years ago at a conference, his meditative spirit is unmistakable. "He's a very low-key, humble, soft-spoken and self-possessed individual," she says. "People who have really suffered, and taken on the suffering of others as their responsibility, in a sense I suspect [they] have to be much bigger than the situation. They really do have to transcend it, and that for me was part of what was so powerful about him and his work."
Nowadays, Lin continues to paint and create performance art. He's also recently expanded into video and three-dimensional media, embracing them with a characteristic expansiveness. "I am always keen to experience new environments and make the most of them, whether it's the jungle, the prison, underwater, a meditation center, or Charleston," he says. "I feel the same way about new media. There's always a potential to expand your understanding."
But in Lin's opinion, the medium is secondary. "For me, and judging by what I experience of the work of others, the most powerful work is not a matter of medium," he says. "It's a question of how far you can recognize the wisdom and intelligence that created the concept."
Lin will participate in several events during his visit, including a public lecture at the Halsey and a student-led forum organized by the CofC's Political Science Club (also open to the public) where he'll share his experiences as a Burmese artist and activist. "I hope I can share a little about the Burmese art scene, as well as how my experience has shaped my art. I want people to understand how important Buddhist philosophy is to my art, and how I want to use it to achieve balance, harmony, peace, and wisdom."
Though Sloan and Heston don't yet know whether Lin will incorporate any performance pieces into his events, it is unfortunately certain that the prison paintings will not accompany him here. "They're really too fragile to travel anymore," Heston says. Instead, art history students are working together in small groups to curate virtual galleries of Lin's paintings that will eventually find a home on the Halsey's website.
People throw around the phrase "art saved my life" with relative ease. And for many, it's probably true, in some sense at least. But it's rare to come across someone who, having suffered such horrors, has also proven so viscerally the life-saving power of creating. "[One] thing that draws me to him is a myth that he collapses, and that is this tendency — particularly in people who really aren't involved in the arts — to believe that art is sort of a self-indulgence, that it's not really important," Heston says. "Here is an artist whose message is so powerful, and whose message is embodied in both the work and in the person himself. In a sense, there's no difference between those two."