Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – When the Burmese artist Paw Thame, a political prisoner in Shwebo Prison, ran out of canvas one day in 1970, he ripped off the plywood ceiling of his jail cell and continued painting on that.
Destroying a jail cell in Burma was—and presumably still is—a serious offence. But Paw Thame was lucky—the Shwebo Prison governor was an art lover. Instead of disciplining his recalcitrant prisoner he invited Paw Thame to his office for a chat about art.
Fresh supplies of canvas arrived, and for the rest of his three months jail term Paw Tame worked away happily under the supervision of an appreciative prison governor.
Paw Thame tells the heartening story in a brief biography printed in the catalogue to an exhibition of his work now on show at the Suvannabhumi Art Gallery in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
The exhibition contains none of the prison works of Paw Thame, who resettled in the United States in the early 1990s and now lives in Hawaii. Yet Burma has never really left Paw Thame—his work is international in its daring clashes of primary color and its semi-abstract images, yet traditional Burmese themes and motifs are always present.
Stylized, featureless monks and temple architecture fill many of the canvases, while others—a simple classroom slate writing tablet or a beautifully assembled collection of toys—evoke childhood associations. Just one identifiable political work, “Eyes on Burma,” breaks the nostalgic mood.
“His thoughts of home overwhelm his conscious and unconscious mind to such an extent that they spill onto his canvas,” says a catalogue foreword. “It is more than homesickness, it is a painful illness of yearning and a driving force of his art.”
In his biographical catalogue notes, Paw Thame pays warm tribute to his alma mater, Mandalay University, which “gave birth to me as an artist…she sent me into the art world.”
But he also gives due credit to that prison governor and paints a vivid verbal picture of life in a caged community, where he said even condemned murderers befriended him because “they liked my sketches and paintings. They offered me food, cigarettes, two packs a day!”
The favorable treatment handed out by the authorities to Paw Thame began even before he entered prison. He was given 15 days notice of the start of his jail term, so he had time to assemble his canvases, paints, brushes and art books, which were waived through at the prison gates.
The Paw Thame exhibition, “I am Cadmium Red,” opened at the Suvannabhumi Art Gallery in Chiang Mai on August 27 and runs until September 10.