At L & L Fine Art Gallery located in the budding Art Colony called Trinidad Colorado an artist busily prepares his paints, sketches and a massive canvas stretching 1.95 meters X 5.49 meters. What started out as a simple project to design and paint a Thingyan Festival poster for a Buddhist Monastery turned into quite an eye pleasing event for the discerning art aficionado. Folks were fortunate to find the reclusive Sitt Nyein Aye in his element creating with brush in hand.
Since the project was so big it was fortunate gallery owner Lucky Murphy more than happy to accommodate Sitt with a well lit and secure location where he could paint this giant poster. The Thingyan Celebration and Water Festival was going to begin on April 18 in Austin Texas so Sitt had little time to spare and it was already April 10th. Within 2 full days and part of the 3rd day Sitt completed this enormous poster, from a raw roll of canvas to a completed work of art.
See the evolution of the poster on this video provided;
As mesmerized onlookers watched in awe, he performed his magic and transformed this blank roll of canvas stroke by colorful stroke. Little did anyone know he was an accomplished artist whose works hanging in museums, galleries and personal collections around the world but it was clear he was ‘The Real Deal’. His journey to this humble art community was not just a matter of moving from Texas to Colorado it was an epic journey for Sitt was also a political exile from his homeland of Burma.
His escape from the clutches of the military dictatorship was nothing short of a miracle for he and his friend escaped with just the cloths on their backs in 1988 when Burma was in transition, from one military dictatorship to another. Sitt was not only an accomplished and renowned artist, he was a restaurateur, and a journalist who’s newspapers sold throughout the South Asian region. He was also a political activist who was very critical of the previous military regimes who ruled Burma with an Iron fist.
With a new dictator coming into power, General Than Shwe, Sitt was targeted for torture and death. He was on the hit list of ‘Intellectuals’ that posed a political threat to the new military dictatorship. Sitt escaped with the cloths on his back leaving behind a popular newspaper, restaurants, home and his beloved gallery/studio. He lived in the jungle with other pro democracy activists and jungle fighters for three years before finding asylum in India. The tale of survival and being hunted by the military is an epic tale unto itself.
He spent 16 years in India where his artistic prowess was utilized by the government in a multitude of ways, from travel brochures, booklets, maps to painting larger than life portraits of the royal families that still hang in the royal grounds of India to this day. His love of Burma was unsurpassed and though he was a wanted man within his homeland he continued to support the democracy movement by painting and selling his works to finance organizations both within Burma and abroad.
His works always commanded high prices at gallery auctions and all the proceeds went to his comrades while not keeping a cent to himself. There are so many layers to Sitt Nyein Aye for he was recognized as a child prodigy when he was very young. His list of achievements over the years are endless. As for his successful businesses, newspaper and other things he left behind, it was not a big thing to loose his possessions. Sitt faced rags to riches on more than one occasion in Burma’s turbulent history but loosing his mother while in exile was the only thing he looked back on with great sadness.
I watched as a local newspaper reporter and Sitt discussed the arts but I knew what lay between the lines, the hardships, sorrows and joy Sitt experienced in his epic tale surviving insurmountable odds. Now here was Sitt smiling and laughing with fellow artists and a newsman chatting about this poster and I said to myself, “If only they knew the saga of this Burmese Pro Democracy Icon and the numerous accomplishments and sacrifices he made for Burma and his people, if only they knew”.
Sitt is one of the hallowed ‘Old Guard’ of Burma’s Democracy Movement, long before Daw Aung San Suu Kyi entered the arena and he continues to be an activist and proponent of freedom and civil society. Maybe one day real democracy will come to Burma, not this photo-op democracy made for the western media and tourists dollar. Sitt’s only wish would come true and maybe we can enjoying a spot of tea in the shadow of the Dhammayangji Temple in his place of birth Bagan, once Burma is truly free.
Your Devil’s Advocate