PanSuriya Art Post


A Flower wants just to Bloom — San Zaw Htway

On 13 January 2012, when a major amnesty was announced, San Zaw Htway was in prison near Taunggyi, working on a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi executed in the crimped edges of Coffeemix[1] packets on a black plastic bag. He did not know whether he would be included in the amnesty or not, so kept working on the picture late into the night. The next day he was freed.

I wondered if my thoughts would be happier if I tried creating some flower beds.

Among the things he left behind was a large picture of tulips, hung in the prison library. It is one of many pictures he made out of scraps of card, bags, and plastic scavenged from family parcels. He took boxes which had come into the prison full of treats brought by families of prisoners, smoothed them out, covered them in cut-up bags, and then snipped sweet wrappers, powdered-drink packets, labels of every kind. San Zaw Htway had started making these pictures in 2006, when such work was sometimes tolerated, but not officially allowed. Some early ones were lost, but he comforted himself with the knowledge that he had to skill in his mind and hands to make more.

San Zaw Htway had been a cloth merchant before his arrest at the age of 24. Years later, in 2006, he heard about an artist, Htein Lin, who had exhibited paintings made from recycled materials when he was released from prison. At that time, in San Zaw Htway’s prison, they could not get brushes, paints, canvas, or even paper. But the word ‘recycle’ stuck in his mind. Then he noticed the colourful plastics which sometimes blew about the prison grounds, and began to collect them.

The first picture he made was a replica of a well-known photograph of Bogyoke Aung San. San Zaw Htway felt strengthened by the presence of the leader’s gaze in his cell. As he composed the pictures in his mind, and worked on collecting and arranging the materials, the annoyances and sadnesses of prison life receded.

San Zaw Htway Prison recycled art Flowers

With the thought of how it might be like this if I could revive the withered lives of the 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids who I saw convicted for stealing, pickpocketing, disturbing, hiding, to make them beautiful again.

He cleverly used the materials at hand. Translucent white pagodas glimmer in the moonlight on the night of a black plastic bag. Trunks of palms are given texture from the portions of coffeemix bags which feature coffee beans. Little tulips are cut from the crinkly heat seals and scalloped edges of wrappers. In his pictures of flowers, each blossom has many different colours.

‘Flowers want just to bloom; they don’t expect anything more from it’, he says. ‘And no flower fails to bloom just because it is afraid to fade and fall.’

By the time San Zaw Htway was released, his pictures were known and appreciated in the prison. He was allowed to take out his remaining work upon his release. When he arrived home, he continued to make pictures from cuttings, but he was no longer retricted to the scale of flattened cake boxes. He has made large pictures of peacocks using the same techniques, which will be for sale at Pansodan Art Gallery in October, as well as works on canvas. The pictures he made in prison are not for sale; he plans to take them on tour as part of a larger project. “I could never recapture the mood that is in those pictures,” he said. “Not even if I went back to prison. The prisons now are not the same as then.”

23 – 27 October 2012

286 Pansodan, first floor (upper block)

Kyauktada, Yangon. Mobile: 0951 30846

Open daily 10 – 6.


[1] In this country where some of the best tea in the world is produced, most people do not care much about the quality of coffee, and favour packets of pre-mixed instant coffee, sugar, and coffee whitener.


3 Comments so far
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[…] If you’re interested in learning more about San Zaw Htway and his art, the art gallery has a blog post about him here: https://pansuriya.wordpress.com/2012/10/20/a-flower-wants-just-to-bloom-san-zaw-htwe/ […]

Pingback by Hope and Redemption: Trash becomes beauty « Got the Willies?

I love these pictures, wish him good luck and am glad he is FREE –

keep painting –

Kyi May Kaung

Comment by Kyi May Kaung

[…] artist is San Zaw Htway, a former student at the University of Yangon who was arrested and sentenced to 36 years […]

Pingback by Artist Karl Ingar Røys talks about his film: Burmese Days




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