Htein Lin: Survival Art

{Last night, I had the good fortune of hearing distinguished artist Htein Lin speak about his work, life, and inspirations. Because I found it so profoundly moving, his story so incredibly interesting, I wrote up a brief summation of his lecture. If so inspired by future lectures, perhaps I will do the same to pass on some of the knowledge I have been learning at university. This post probably does no justice to the beauty this man espouses, but I have tried, in the plainest terms, to convey it.}


Born in Burma under a military regime, Htein Lin spent his life struggling as an artist suppressed by Burma’s government. He works in the mediums of painting, performance, and video, practicing what he calls “Survival Art,” which is to take the negative out of life and turn it into something positive. As Htein Lin put it, “making misery into art.”

He began his artistic career as a comedian while he studied law at the university. During this time, he joined an art organization that cultivated his artistic sensibilities but in the most conservative way possible. During his school term, he became involved in many protests which made him unpopular among the local regime. Because no social media existed in 1988, no Facebook or Twitter, the uprising that followed garnered little press coverage.

To fight for democracy, he needed to work outside of Burma, moving to India to work as an illustrator for a magazine. Soon after, he moved toward the border of China to join the “iunale.” These were peaceful rebels for democracy, carrying no guns, starting no conflict. The presence of guns would make them vulnerable to attack—they were safer without weapons, seeming to pose no real threat.

During his exile, he suffered many horrors, the least of which was nature. Each night, he taped his eyes shut in fear leeches would suckle his eyeballs just as they often latched onto his feet, arms, and back. After staying for a little while, the group split, one half accusing the other of being spies, including Htein Lin. They tortured the accused with freezing temperatures, by burning their skin, and by making incisions in their fingers.

15 of the accused escaped into China, only to be arrested again. This quickly blew over, though.

Htein Lin’s life as a captive truly began in 1998 when his name appeared on a circulating list of possible rebels. For this, he was sentenced to seven years in jail. According to Htein Lin, American and British prisons seemed like “a Bed and Breakfast.” He survived on a metal-mesh bed barely large enough to accommodate him while sitting cross-legged.

He continued, however, to work on his art. He used old prison uniforms on which to paint upon, paying off guards to smuggle in paints. For a brush, he used once a roller from a lighter, another time the tip of a hospital syringe. He became what he described as the “resident artist of the prison.” Despite being confined, his creativity bloomed.

After prison, he “fell in love with art,” marrying a British artist and moving to Britain.

He lived his life, transforming pain into beauty. When he broke his elbow in a car wreck, he used the plaster to create a sculpture. When

Depicted here is a Burmese prisoner who has cut off his fingers to avoid being sent to a labor camps.

tested for a deadly disease, he allowed the doctors to use a special micro-camera to snap pictures of his digestion system, swallowing the pill-like device. He used the images to create a video for Youtube, a living art piece.

Htein Lin’s art focuses on sampling simple things from his life to create sculptures or paintings or useful tools. He transformed his fears, his regrets into something others could learn from, something we could wonder at.

I encourage you to check out his artwork as well as research individually his remarkable biography (I have only given small details). Best of luck.


5 thoughts on “Htein Lin: Survival Art

  1. I have meet similar people in both Cambodia and Timor Leste. I went to these places to run some educational workshops for the teachers. Their dedication and enthusiasm for their students was inspiring. Most of them had only received a basic education themselves, as wars had interrupted their education. but they knew that it is only through education that their countries will have their own people to lead them into a positive future.

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