Artists came together with political leaders, journalists, academics and lawyers for two days of presentations and discussion on Art of Transition Symposium in Rangoon on 30-31 March.
The programme was another in the series of firsts as the space for expression in Burma opens up.
Of course, this freedom is still a work in progress. The conference had a visit from an official who asked politely how things were going, and Index was told there were a couple of undercover government agents present, who kept an eye on who was saying what.
Some of the most respected artists in the country spoke, including film-maker Min Thin Ko Ko Kyi — who produced the Art of Freedom Film Festival last year with Zarganar and Aung San Suu Kyi — poet Zeyar Lin, who represented Myanmar in Poetry Parnassus as part of the Cultural Olympiad in London, and performance artists Moe Satt, Ma Ei and Aye Ko.
Zarganar, comedian, film-maker and partner of the symposium gave the opening and closing speeches; U Win Tin, patron of the National League for Democracy, and Min Ko Naing, a leading voice in the Generation 88 group, gave the key note speeches on the first and second days respectively.
One of the key questions the symposium asked was how the reforms had affected artists who had developed a nuanced and subtle vocabulary to circumvent censorship. For some it is difficult to find their bearings; several poets admitted it would take time, maybe two years, to make work under such different conditions.
One speaker claimed that poets were being criticised for sounding more like journalists than poets, that the subtlety of their voice had been lost. Another said that he did not want to publish his poems that had been banned in the past because they would no longer be of the moment. Another artist, who had created hundreds of artworks in prison, said that he felt his most free when he was behind bars.
Some of the younger artists Index spoke to felt very differently about the influence of new reforms. They welcomed the openness, the free exchange of ideas, particularly online.
A young performance artist said that her art form was now considered “sexy” and she had plenty of invitations to perform so opening up her work to new audiences. An established poet said that poets have to be more accountable now for what they write. Previously, when all work had to be passed by the censors, the decision about what was published was completely out of the writer’s hands.
As the first symposium of its kind in the country it was necessarily experimental and as much as anything about finding a Burmese way to have a conversation about artistic freedom in public.
Index is producing a short documentary which will be translated into English. An English language podcast is also in production.
Julia Farrington is head of arts at Index on Censorship