Staring down the male gaze

The paintings of emerging feminist artist Chuu Wai Nyein aim for the heart of Myanmar’s gender sensibilities.

By JARED DOWNING | FRONTIER

A QUICK squeeze of a breast and the motorbike-riding groper was already vanishing into the Mandalay traffic.

Ma Chuu Wai Nyein barely saw it happen. It would have been easy to forget and not make a scene, as usual, and perhaps that’s what she would have done if she were the victim. But the groper had targeted her teenaged sister, who was riding pillion.

“Close your eyes and hold me tight,” Chuu Wai Nyein told her sister, and then she sped off after the man, caught him at a traffic light and rammed him at speed.

Her bike was trashed, but the man was arrested and eventually charged. Yet Chuu Wai Nyein remained angry: angry at men who think they can do what they want to women and angry at the society that tells women to ignore it.

Support more independent journalism like this. Sign up to be a Frontier member.

That anger would eventually become the inspiration for her aggressively lascivious portraits designed to beat the male gaze at its own game.

“Maybe if it just happened to me, and maybe if it just happened once, maybe I would forget about it,” Chuu Wai Nyein said. “But [afterwards] I found out most of my friends had a really similar story … I thought, ‘What can I do? I can paint.’ ”

Chuu Wai Nyein is preparing for her sixth exhibition, which will be held in late October in Paris. She usually paints women, often nude or semi-nude, legs apart, chest out, staring directly at the viewer. Her angles are sharp, the colours violent and garish. Her figures are often splayed across canvasses made from men’s longyis.

“Maybe they are in sexy positions, but when you look at them, their eyes are confident and strong, and you don’t dare to touch them,” Chuu Wai Nyein said. “Men like to watch porn like this, but then they control the Burmese girls, saying, ‘You have to cover yourself.’”

The problem isn’t with rules of modesty and behaviour for women, Chuu Wai Nyein explained, but that these rules are written by and enforced at the leisure of men. She describes her work as both a reconquest of female identity and a send-up of the traditional idea of the Myanmar woman, who at the demands of men must be a portrait of modesty yet also quietly abide ogling, catcalling, groping – even rape.

It was a message that Chuu Wai Nyein was able to share by sacrificing another motorbike – sold rather than crashed, this time. She used the money raised to travel from Mandalay to Yangon in 2017 for “Synonym of a Self”, her first exhibition in the commercial capital. She was sure it would be her last.

“I asked myself, ‘Are you ready to lose your money for nothing?’ And I told myself, ‘Yeah, I’m ok with that.’”

It was not only men who were caught off guard by her paintings. Chuu Wai Nyein’s mother had fretted that if the works were exhibited, her daughter would be ostracised from polite society. Although her mother attended the show, she had wrung her hands as she overheard viewers scoffing and sneering at the portraits.

Yet others admired the work, including Ms Gill Pattison of River Gallery, who exhibited Chuu Wai Nyein’s paintings and helped her gain some traction in the Yangon contemporary art scene. Chuu Wai Nyein eventually travelled to New York and Paris, and held a full exhibition, “Our Turn Now”, near Avignon in France. ­

“Some people asked me if I would have any trouble [back in Myanmar] because of these paintings, but for the European eye, they were not shocked. It was completely normal. They’ve been showing nude art since the Renaissance.”

But Chuu Wai Nyein said her art is not about dispensing with Myanmar traditions and helping her culture move towards some foreign ideal. Rather, she argues that the concept of “Myanmar tradition” has been merely used as a cheap and erroneous justification for oppression.

“People say, ‘Don’t destroy the tradition.’ They tell women, ‘You should behave like women from the old days.’ But I say this has never been the culture and tradition. I was reading newspapers from a long time ago, and they had the same story, ‘People from this age, they should be like the women from the old days.’ So I wondered, ‘What is the real history?’”

Chuu Wai Nyein went back to the paintings and frescos of the Konbaung dynasty, when King Mindon ruled from Mandalay during a golden age of Myanmar culture. 

“I was shocked,” she said. “The women were smoking cigarettes. They had open blouses, swinging their breasts. Sometimes they were topless.”

The images inspired a recent series of Chuu Wai Nyein’s classic immodest women painted in the courtly style of old Mandalay. She has also begun painting ogres, guardian spirits and other traditionally male mythological figures in female forms.

She said that the exploration of new styles and subject matter represented the evolution of her own worldview and feminist ideas, which, she explained, have matured considerably since she chased down the groper on a motorbike.

“I’m still trying to figure things out, slowly, and I understand a little more every day, and my paintings are changing, too.”

Her mother, too, has begun to understand and to see more in her daughter’s paintings than shame and social ruin. That is the best Chuu Wai Nyein can hope for, she said: not merely to make people uncomfortable, embarrassed or angry, but to help both men and women question what they have always taken for granted about gender, morality and tradition.

“Now I realise I was completely like one of them, too. I was one of the girls who was accepting the way things were, living happily in the wrong,” she said.

“And some men don’t even realise what they are doing is bad. In their minds it is totally normal … So I told myself, ‘I won’t keep quiet anymore. I want to show them what they are doing to us.’”

By Jared Downing

By Jared Downing

Jared Downing is an American journalist from Colorado and Alabama. He likes podcasts, radio theatre and hitchhiking and collects cans of sardines from around the world.
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

More stories

Latest Issue

Stories in this issue
Who gets to vote?
For Muslim communities in rural Mandalay Region, the right to vote is at the mercy of exclusionary laws and a bureaucracy steeped in discrimination.
Defaming democracy
If the government really wants to introduce a fair framework for defamation, it needs to overhaul or replace all six related laws.

Stay on top of Myanmar current affairs with our Daily Briefing and Media Monitor newsletters

Our fortnightly magazine is available in print, digital, or a combination beginning at $80 a year

Sign up for our Frontier Fridays newsletter. It’s a free weekly round-up featuring the most important events shaping Myanmar