Walks of Life

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - Weekend | Exhibition - Pho­tos: Nyo Me NYO ME

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.

Cre­at­ing mean­ings

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.

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