Poetry of Darkness

Complicit | 
An exhibition by Maung Day
Myanm/Art Gallery
Bogale Ze Street, Yangon

The first public exhibition from one of Myanmar’s most daring artists is a bleak reflection of this country’s troubling past and present. Complicit, by the poet Maung Day, is a confronting collection of pencil on paper drawings, installation, and experimental film. In their stark simplicity, Maung Day has produced the preliminary sketches for a Myanmar version of a Hieronymus Bosch tableau. 

Two traditional Burmese formal black jackets are suspended from the ceiling, one with plastic tubing emerging underneath and stretching over a pile of rice like the legs of an alien, or the arms of an octopus. You don’t notice them at first, even though the Myanm/Art gallery is an old Yangon downtown one-room loft-style space, but when you do, you tend to a take a few steps back, imagining the tentacles will come madly to life, twitching to life in search of your throat.

Maung Day is one of Myanmar’s best known poets, writing in both English and Burmese. A regular contributor to international poetry magazines, he is also a prominent translator and — perhaps incongruously — responsible for the Burmese version of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

His 2016 collection, Gasoline, is a powerful and unsettling collection of poems that cover aspects of modern Myanmar’s incomplete transition from military rule, and demonstrates a prescience that is again evident in Complicit.

In “Monkey Poem” — written before before the military-backed carnage in Rakhine State and the escalation of conflicts in Kachin and Shan, which have displaced hundreds of thousands of people — he writes: “The valley is damned beautiful, but the bodies they found in it have made everyone nervous. You would go into the toilet and find a body. You slip under the covers and there would be another dying next to you”.

Complicit picks up these same themes, directly challenging the viewer. As the artist explains in the catalogue, “This is about you and other people, especially you. I am a mass expanding gradually and your malaria parasite. The temple choking in my throat is an illegitimate star. Infinities are the length of the Independence Monument. A million mad horses run across the country. I am sucking on the rims of oil rigs.”

“King of Birds” (2013) depicts a running human figure with a grotesquely large birdlike head brandishing a peacock feather and a plastic garden windmill in either hand, naked except for traditional tattoos, with a crow snapping at its back, a spraying penis between its legs, and a rat recoiling at its feet. 

“Where I Come from, People Eat Lotus” (2014) has a central figure wearing a traditional Burmese man’s jacket and a dead caribou mask, surrounded by flowers. “The Soldier Dreams about Wild Horses” (2014) sketches the unmistakable image of a Myanmar army soldier in uniform, slouch-hat and an assault rifle, horses grazing peacefully on either side of him. “My Duty is to Protect Him” (2012) has as central figure a hirsute upper torso with blank eyes and a fat grin, with a distended erect penis coming out of its forehead, its hairy mitts on the shoulders of a skeleton with a human boy’s face wearing a traditional boxing crown. 

Maung Day

Cats, insects, flowers, rodents, felines with human faces and elephants coexist with half-people wearing an assortment of masks, grown human dick-heads connected to a child through an umbilical cord. A group of three people arrayed as in an old style group portrait, but with husk-masks instead of faces, are flanked by centipedes and above them rutting dogs. A naked figure playing a traditional Myanmar harp with a reindeer head is having no luck with the child standing beside him, who has fingers in their ears to drown out the serenade. 

One of the few apparently female figures in the exhibition is in “Snake Queen” (2016), drawn demurely holding a lamb-like creature (or one of the bald and destitute street dogs that abound in Yangon?), with a chest tattoo that is eerily reminiscent of the official flag of the Myanmar Socialist era — three stars above a rice stalk.

The short film of the exhibition, “Bloodflowers” is a surreal and unsettling rumination on village violence, blending text and jagged footage of ghostly figures in fields. It talks of a farmer explaining a new deadly virus to a field of dead pigs. A “man-shaped creature” runs around the village at night, but no-one knows where he is from or where he hides during the day. The dénouement is a reflection on the village’s population growth, but then “somewhere upstream, three men rape and kill a young girl on her way home, after picking mushrooms in the forest.” The girl’s violation and death colours the flowers that come afterwards.

Complicit is a dark reminder not just of the vibrancy of Myanmar’s modern art scene and its thriving poetry tradition, but also what bleak and complex material artists have to draw on around the country as violence from the past has impeded on the optimism of the vaunted but now morally bankrupt democratic transition. The sketches contained in Complicit both predicted and condemns the violence all around in modern Myanmar. 

Maung Day is one of the poets of this darkness, and his written and visual work deserves a much broader audience to understand the deeper undercurrents of where this violence stems from.


David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst working on conflict, peace and human rights issues

May 31, 2018