Et early one morning last February, a group of young people gathered on a street corner in Myanmar, armed with brushes and buckets of paint. In the dim light of dawn, they quickly completed their task and dispersed.
“I felt excited and nervous. I was scared too, because I didn’t want to get caught,” says Tu Tu, the pseudonym of the group’s organizer.
A few hours later, the streets were swarming with people demanding that the army, which had taken power on February 1, withdraw. Media reports from that day show people walking and drone photographs of huge slogans of resistance painted on the road. Tu Tu’s group had succeeded in their mission.
It’s one of the many ways the arts have reinvigorated the pro-democracy movement. In the first weeks after the coup, as protest songs and revolutionary chants echoed across the country, performers energized the crowds with Dance and musicand covered the walls and streets of murals and graffiti.
Within weeks, however, the sound of gunfire and the screams of protesters filled the air as blood smeared the streets. A year later, the army kill around 1,500 people and arrested more than 11,000 – 8,700 of whom are still behind bars.
These violent crackdowns made it too dangerous to make art in public. But some artists continue to work underground.
“Art is as powerful as a weapon,” says Tu Tu. “When we fire a gun, a bullet can only hit one enemy, but if we can clearly illustrate something through art…we can get our message out much faster.”
After the protest turned into a life-threatening enterprise, few of Tu Tu’s friends were willing to continue painting words on the ground. They went out a few more times, but eventually had to stop. “My friends were worried, so they didn’t participate anymore. I got it, but I wanted to do so many things,” says Tu Tu, who asked the Guardian to use pseudonyms for them and anonymize their gender and location.
Determined to continue resisting, Tu Tu started doing illustrations instead and took on the artist name Black Art. “I don’t need a lot of things to do illustrations; I can even do it with just a pen or pencil. I can express anything based on my ideas,” they say.
They have since produced dozens of illustrations highlighting the crisis in Myanmar. Broken Heart shows a girl holding a pink balloon and facing a line of police; in a second image, a policeman kills it and his balloon floats in the air. The coup orphans shows a child crying in front of a soldier who shoots a demonstrator in the head.
Black Art also produces illustrations based on photographs taken across the country. the last kiss shows a boy at his father’s funeral, while Shout from Myanmar has a crying daughter holding the photo of her deceased father. spring revolution and The last bow depict parents mourning their children.
“I even cried when I drew illustrations,” says Black Art. “My illustrations are based on true stories and they are sad stories.”
Since May, armed resistance has intensified across the country and the military has responded with indiscriminate attacks on civilians. Black Art’s most recent illustrations highlight the military’s use of Airstrikes and arson on towns and villages.
The artist told the Guardian he sees art as a way to document what is happening in Myanmar. “I want art to remain a form of history that can be seen by the next generation, to prevent something like this from happening again,” they say.
Although many of their friends have decided to take up arms against the military, Black Art remains determined to fight through art. “I believe that everyone should be involved in this revolution, but having weapons is not enough,” they say. “We can only win this by participating in every way, and I am participating in mine with the belief that we will win.”
Aye Win, a hip-hop artist from Yangon, uses music to rebel. During the February protests, he and a group of friends organized two freestyle rap events under the name of rap against the junta before having to go into hiding. “When [the military] the crackdown started, we couldn’t meet anymore,” says Aye Win. “We’ve all moved on to the internet and used different apps to connect.”
In the months that followed, some of Aye Win’s friends joined the armed resistance against the coup and others left the country, but Aye Win took on the role of director of Rap Against Junta and persevered. as an artist.
On June 30, the band released The dictator must die, a track featuring artists from Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong, India, Taiwan and Myanmar. After that, they released a full album on October 21. Called Dick Council – a play sitting Advice, the Burmese name of the junta – it included 12 tracks by local artists. It was followed by Blood on January 7, which features singers from eight different ethnic backgrounds rapping in their own language.
Throughout this process, Rap Against Junta has not held a single in-person meeting. As the military increasingly uses informants to break up the resistance movement, many contributing artists have kept their identities secret, even from each other.
“Most other rappers don’t know who I am and I don’t know who they are either,” says Aye Win, who reached out to contributing artists through an open social media submission process.
However, the need to remain anonymous made it difficult to identify people who might support the project. “When we ask people for help under a false identity, they don’t really trust us and they always put aside offers of collaboration,” he explains.
Rap Against Junta also had to adapt creatively when promoting their music. In their music videos, their faces are masked or shown in silhouette, while Aye Win has only allowed herself to be photographed behind a full mask or interviewed using voice distortion technology.
As the country’s economic crisis worsens, Aye Win also says that it is increasingly difficult to find people who can donate time to Rap Against Junta as they need to earn an income. “People are trying to make money and put food on the table, so they can’t engage like before,” he says.
Aye Win is also under pressure from her family. “My parents are discussing my future plans. I just got blocked [at home] and do nothing for a year. I do something, but it’s not an established way of making a living,” he says. “[They said] I should go somewhere else and survive while I’m still young; the future is nowhere to be found here for me.
But Aye Win takes protest art seriously. “It’s kind of a groundbreaking job, and we have to finish on time – we have to pay attention to every detail,” he says.
“We have a lot of very raw protest art here, but we have to stay the course and continue consistently, relentlessly.”
Additional reporting by Zau Myet Awng