Walks of Life
MYTHOS and narratives play a key role in how museums and official establishments can present history and culture to the people, feeding national selfunderstanding - often selectively. What is saved and what is shared will shape what is remembered and celebrated about a people’s history. Now, in order to combat the historic forced invisibility of LGBT individuals who can and do leave a great impact on the nation and our cultures, Walks of Life, a travelling exhibit, is exploring and detailing the intricate and emotionally harrowing living memories of LGBT individuals.
Walks of Life is led by project leader Thar Ko, who is dedicated to telling the kinds of stories of LGBT people that would disappear without curation. Everyone’s life is difficult, Thar Ko says. But for nonheterosxual people, the struggles can run deeper still. The project’s logo is a rainbow coloured lamp with a single flame placed above it, reflecting the effective loneliness of living a life shunned by society. In that vein, Thar Ko is going out of his way to collect the stories of mature queer people in order to delve into a less civilised world.
The inspiration and support is coming from the Unstraight Museum, A Swedish youth-activist led exhibition museum that, since 2008, has been collecting LGBT stories from across the globe and encouraging documentation. Their activities have reached as far as Russia and Vietnam. They began operating in Myanmar in 2016 with the support of the Swedish Institute.
Thar Ko and team have interviewed and taken records of over 100 LGBT individuals harnessing a number of different mediums (text, photographs and video) across twelve cities in Myanmar. They record the histories, memories and lifestyles of mostly older non-hetero interviewees who can give insight into a darker time in history when non-heterosexual activity was uniformly, inescapably taboo.
What most interviewees say, the team reports, is that they just want the new generation to enjoy greater freedom and understanding than what they grew up with. One of the interviewees shared their own experience of attempting suicide to escape the shame of their identity, but failed the attempt. The extremeness of the situation caused a reckoning with that person’s family, and things improved once they understood the conviction of their identify. This would prove to be one of the more positive interviews.
“There have been many times I needed to stop this work since I cannot sleep at night after hearing some of these stories,” Thar Ko said. “Sometimes, you hear about so much trauma”.
But ultimately, Thar Ko returns to the work because he is committed to making a difference. The materials collected won’t only be shown in Sweden, either. Walks of Life has held exhibitions in the cities it has visited in its work, the last one to date being in Dawei, Thanintharyi region.
The shows are a combination of art, historical preservation and advocacy. According to Thar Ko, the weight of the material being presented usually makes the events a friendly and supportive atmosphere.
Even though the project is ultimately intended to create hope, the material is, overall, moribund and distressing. Photographs of precious items are included in the exhibit including mementos such as a small bronze box bequeathed to interviewee Win Aung by his best friend, taken by AIDS. According to Win Aung, his friend died at home, hidden from the public to disguise his condition.
Another precious memento was a sketch of a royal throne. The artist of the piece was a descendant of the Burmese royal family, and nonhetero. The message of the piece, it was told, is that LGBT individuals live in every sphere of life. All the stories of the people interviewed are included in a thick book, In English and in Bamar language.
Feedback on the project
Feedback early on in the project, according to the team, was mostly poor. People would ask why they were wasting their time telling stories of gay people, but positive feedback since then has grown. Thar Ko shared that some people, mostly students, have had strong reactions to the exhibits, with one person reporting that they had made fun of LGBT people in the past, but no longer felt comfortable doing so. Some others reported learning something profound about their own romantic feelings through the experience.
Thar Ko said that more than holding Walks of Life exhibits, he wishes he could open a complete LGBT museum in Myanmar. ................................................................ For more information, one can look at the Walks of Life social media page https://www.facebook.com/ myanmarunstraightstories/
Hanging on the walls of the exhibition.
Thar Ko talks with a local transgender woman at the Dawei exhibition in December, 2018.
Drawing by an LGBT interviewee who said a flower is beautiful when it is young but with HIV virus, becomes old.