Chuu Wai Nyein was 18 years old when she went for a motorbike ride that would carry her to her station in the fight against sexism. As she rode through the streets of Mandalay one day with her 16-year-old sister sitting behind her, a man they didn’t know rode up beside them.
“He grabbed my sister’s boob and drove away,” she said, standing among the paintings that have become her weapon of choice against the culture that had allowed the assault to happen.
“I told my sister to hold on, and I went after the guy,” she said. She eventually caught up to the man, stopped him and filed charges against him.
“I went to the court for one day to testify, but I wasn’t there for the judge’s decision.”
Whether the man was convicted or not was not within her control; she and her sister do not know how the case ended. What was within her control, however, was whether she would commit her life and her talent to dismantling the ancient deceit that led men to believe they could violate or restrict a woman’s freedom.
The dismantling began two years ago, when she started creating a series of 61 paintings that encourages women to be themselves and ignore all haters; to be confident and independent, even in a society that expects women to be passive and obedient.
“Men wear Western clothing but still blame women who don’t wear a htamein for the erosion of Myanmar traditional culture,” said Chuu Wai Nyein, who is now 24 and recently curated “Synonym of Self” – an exhibition of her own work at Yangon’s Gallery 65.
“Women’s ways of thinking have become subject to monitoring. Their thoughts and their clothes, the shape of their bodies are scrutinized by society. Women are trapped,” reads the introduction to the installation. “Here, the ladies emerge from this state with the brilliant glow of newly born stars.”
A lady painted on longyi canvas.
The women in Chuu Wai Nyein’s paintings are carefree and sexy, and they smirk at the viewer like they couldn’t care less what he thinks. But the subversion doesn’t end there. Many of them have their legs spread, revealing underwear decorated with ganote patterns – rhythmic foliage that usually adorns surfaces inside Buddhist temples. Some of the women hold bead necklaces resembling a seikbadi – Buddhist prayer beads. One woman wears an outfit reserved for the King of Burma.
Another jab at Myanmar’s male-dominated society comes in the form of her canvases, many of which are made from the fabric of a longyi – a skirt popular among Burmese men that is considered by many to be staple of Myanmar traditional culture (though its current iteration gained popularity under colonial rule).
While most visitors to her exhibition liked what they saw, the artist said that has not been the case on Facebook, where angry, conservative men have accused her of insulting Myanmar traditions. But like the women in her art, Chuu Wai Nyein does not care what they think.
“It’s fine. I already expected that,” she said.
The idea of resisting change seems ridiculous to her. She listed the various periods of Myanmar history (“Bagan, Inwa, etc.”) to illustrate her thinking.
“If people during any of those periods said Myanmar culture should never change, we never would have had the next period. This would make history very boring,” she said.
Each layer of Chuu Wai Nyein’s paintings conveys meaning. All of the women depicted in the exhibition appear to be in their early 20s. In part, this is because her sister Zin Pwint Phyu, now 21, modeled for many of the paintings. It is also because Chuu Wai Nyein wants to convey the gravity of being a young woman.
The artist’s sister Zin Pwint Phyu.
“Anything can happen with women in their 20s. For the first time, they have freedom to make their own decisions, and each decision can lead to a different life. If I get married now, I may be married for a long time. If I have a baby, I’ll be a mother forever,” she said.
This is especially relevant to the artist herself, who, in addition to studying art, also has a degree in engineering. She doesn’t yet know whether she will choose the life of an engineer or of an artist, but she says: “I really prefer art.”
And like the women in her art who lounge casually while the patriarchy rages around them, Chuu Wai Nyein knows that the decision will be hers alone to make.
Chuu Wai Nyein’s paintings can now be viewed at the Pansodan Gallery.