Jackfruit tree limbs snake across the sketchpad page. The artist, sweating through his uniform, dips his pen in a bottle of watered-down India ink. A palm fans out its fronds, outlined in ink and brushed with muted color. More than half of the page is filled in with leaves, dark green, gray-green, brown-gold. Well-camouflaged in this extravagant foliage, a thatch-covered tent bears a bright red cross. Supplies in boxes are stacked outside. Soldiers’ gear: boots, a pack, a helmet, rifles. At the entrance a stretcher holds a soldier — in pain? Unconscious?
This is “A First Aid Post in the Jungle near Kyaukpenduywama,” painted in 1943 by the British War Artist Anthony Gross. I happened upon this picture and other works by Gross when I was searching for World War II images of Arakan, on Burma’s western coast. Arakan is now called Rakhine State, Myanmar, notorious for the genocidal persecution of Rohingya Muslims. I found online an Imperial War Museum (IWM) trove of Anthony Gross watercolors of British and Indian troops in Arakan and Chin guerrillas in Burma’s northwest mountains.
If you peer into Gross’s first aid tent you’ll find patients reclining on platforms and men at an improvised desk. A medical officer stands farther inside as another bends to examine a patient. A soldier leans against a tree next to the tent’s entrance, the tones of his skin and uniform making him seem carved into the tree trunk. Above his head a sign reads “MI [Medical Inspection] Room,” the British military term for a treatment station close to the frontline.
To the side of the MI Room and further back you may notice two small figures at what seems to be a well and a third carrying water jugs on a bamboo pole. A fence, a house, the leaves of a bamboo grove. These are civilians living in the war zone, just trying to survive the cataclysmic forces surrounding them.
World War II devastated Burma, from its cities and towns to the most remote villages, places like Kyaukpenduywama. Burma was a British colony, a line drawn on a map around disparate ethnic homelands, when Japan invaded in 1942. British troops retreated to India from Burma, then made repeated attempts to drive the Japanese forces out, including three campaigns in Arakan. The peoples of Burma’s plains usually sided with Japan and those of the hills with the British/Allies. This ignited geo-ethnic conflict which has lasted into the 21st Century.
“Watercolors All Coated in Fungus”
The War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC) was a program devised in 1939 by art historian Kenneth Clark and poet John Betjeman because of the loss of British poets and artists in the trenches of the preceding “Great War.” WAAC’s intent was to keep some of Britain’s most prominent visual artists from becoming cannon fodder in the looming Second World War by arming them only with paints and sketchbooks, commissioned as British officers in non-combat roles. The program also had an aesthetic intent, seeking to assemble a body of “high quality” representational works. As art historian Laura Brandon has noted, “The committee avoided commissioning or accepting anything overtly didactic or obviously morale-raising.”
A recognizable British War Artist style soon emerged with elements of Cubism and Surrealism, painted swiftly in subdued colors (especially battleship gray, khaki and olive drab).The majority of War Artists commissioned by WAAC portrayed the home front, most notably Henry Moore with his mythic crayon-sculpted drawings of blanket-swaddled figures sheltering in the London Underground. Carel Weight produced four glorious images of an escaped zoo zebra at large in the Blitz and Evelyn Dunbar made modern icons of stalwart Land Girls taking up their rural chores. But other official War Artists were dispatched overseas, directly into harm’s way. A few would die (a landmine, a missing plane) or be captured.
American artists also recorded World War II, but they were part of regular units, including Marine combat forces in the Pacific. The Americans’ media and styles varied wildly, from advertising slick to cartoonish to intense, visceral Expressionism. Among the masterpieces produced were Coast Guard combat artist Jacob Lawrence’s staccato-patterned sea boards painted during the war (48 of which were later lost) and his “War Series” produced immediately afterwards. As revealed in his most recent illustrated book, “Infinite Hope,” as a young Cooper Union student Ashley Bryan was drafted into a Black battalion, sketching and painting in every free moment from Glasgow port to Omaha Beach to ruined Rouen. Stateside, Philip Guston painted a few very weird pictures of Air Force training and off-duty Richard Diebenkorn sketched his fellow Marines at Quantico when not heading off-base for museum visits or gazing at an art journal’s Henry Moore drawings.
Some American artists served in the China/Burma/India Theater of World War II. Milford Zornes charcoal-sketched soldiers and workers on the Ledo Road through northern Burma. When funding for American combat artists was cut, a pharmaceutical company sponsored several, among them Howard Baer. He painted gripping scenes of isolated medical units in Burma’s rainforests struggling to save wounded Chinese Nationalist soldiers. The Burma field hospitals also treated troops suffering from pervasive malaria, scrub typhus, and other tropical diseases.
Like Gross’s “A First Aid Post in the Jungle…” Baer’s “Jungle Hospital” entwines tree trunks, vines, and palm fronds around a medical post. The ambulances and staff of Shingbwiyang Evacuation Hospital in the Kachin region of Burma are almost hidden, except for one American nurse striding up a trail. In her blue uniform dress she is framed by a looming, creature-like tree. This nurse is one small, determined person defying an impossible, terrifying situation.
As well as Anthony Gross, British War Artists in Burma included Leslie Cole who lamented, “my watercolors all coated in fungus.” Cole painted guerrillas supporting the Allies north of Rangoon, firing Sten guns and carbines under churning skies or examining a map with a shirtless, longyi-clad British officer, all in hues unusually vivid for a British War Artist. In 1945 one final vine-slashing Burma jungle patrol emerged under Cole’s paintbrush and then Thomas Hennell watercolored Mountbatten’s June 15, 1945, Rangoon Victory Parade.
The Communist organizer, poet and painter Clive Branson was not an official WAAC War Artist. He served as a tank officer in Arakan and was killed there in February 1944. Branson believed in fighting fascism there as he had in Spain, although he actively supported the Indian independence movement against British colonialism. He was buried in Taukkyan War Cemetery, Rangoon (Yangon). I have not found any drawings or paintings from Branson’s time in Burma, but he wrote letters (collected in a fine book, “British Soldier in India”). His last letter ended with a poem, its final verse:
Women and children build up the only road
Where overhead the shells of death whine past
And cattle graze indifferent to the din.
I felt perhaps I’d understood at last
By close observance of all that nature showed
“When life has gone, then where does death begin?”
“Scattering Easels, Paints, and Papers”
Anthony Gross was perhaps the most widely travelled of the official British War Artists. The son of a cartographer and a suffragist playwright, before the war Gross lived in France, where he became an accomplished painter, printmaker, and film animator. Enlisted by the WAAC in 1940, he would take on far-ranging assignments including Syria, El Alamein, Iran, and India/Burma. In “The Sketchbook War” Richard Knott describes his participation in D-Day: “Gross waded ashore, with his watercolors and paper held high above his head away from the sea water.”
Anthony Gross had stylistic similarities with fellow War Artist Edward Ardizzone, later known for his children’s book illustrations. Both worked with lively ink outlining tinted by quick watercolor washes. This kind of ink/watercolor sketching was practical in conditions where mobility was crucial. Gross used Italian watercolor paper purchased in Cairo and a palette well-stocked with tubes of yellow ochre, Van Dyke brown, burnt umber, and ultramarine blue, adding a few related colors to illustrate the changes in light, climate, and terrain he would experience.
Gross traveled to the frontlines of the unsuccessful 1st Arakan Campaign in early 1943. The catalog of his 1943 National Gallery exhibit “India in Action” includes excerpts from his wartime diary, describing how he reached Arakan by paddle-steamer and a small boat on the Mayu River. His “Sampan Convoy” shows British soldiers (one with oddly truncated legs, as though Gross had neglected to paint his boots) being rowed by a standing Muslim boatman.
Muslim (Rohingya) support was integral to the British war effort in the region, but most Buddhist Rakhines were backing the Japanese and their Burmese allies. The 1942 onset of the war had provoked sudden, horrifying clashes between Arakan’s previously amicable Muslim and Buddhist civilians. The enmity and fear has persisted like the recurrent form of malaria which sporadically bursts into fever.
During the remote, unheralded 1st Arakan Campaign, Gross commented, “the main enjoyment of the place seemed to be the firing of mortars at each other.” Japanese troops held positions in the hills and on the shoreline. “Shell-fire could be heard coming from the Dombaik [sic] front, ack-ack was bursting high up beyond the Arakan Hills,” Gross wrote. Three Japanese Zero fighter planes “came skimming low over the track we were following… Somehow I found myself with the mule in tow, scattering easels, paints, and papers in all directions, making for a bush I hoped would hide us!”
Gross was especially interested in portraying the British Army’s Indian soldiers during a time when some Indian troops had joined with Japan as a way to fight for their country’s independence. His paintings from the Middle East and elsewhere often revealed the role of colonized peoples in the Allied war effort. He shows the 1st Arakan Campaign from the British Army Indians’ sniper positions. “Except for a few dives into a comfortable slit-trench, decorated with picture-postcards of Hindu deities, I got through this day’s work successfully.”
In “Gunners Pinpointing Japanese positions on Donbaik Battlefield” your eye is first attracted to individual facial expressions (intense, preoccupied, almost pensive) of a cluster of helmeted Indian artillerymen in position and then to the vertical stripes of their bamboo grove. Gross adored the light effects of bamboo. He told an IWM interviewer in 1980, “It was bamboo that was the source of green everywhere. You could look through it… for me it was beautiful, it was like the Italian Renaissance paintings when they used to paint under tents in their courtyards, you had the same sort of light, you could see every detail of the face.”
But we can also detect a meticulous depiction, almost a map, of the littoral battlefield far below. A stream winds down to the sea and as Gross notes in the exhibit caption, “Small specks to the right of the creek are our dead, Inniskilling Fusiliers and Punjabis, left on the battlefield (18th Feb).” Another painting, “Battle of Donbaik. Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers on the Beaches” is a sort of zoom-in on those “specks.” Two lifeless soldiers lie crumpled together in a blasted deathscape of smoke and charred treeline. This picture was not included in Gross’s National Gallery show, the soldier-corpses presumably considered inappropriate for home front viewing.
“It was dicey country, the Arakan,” Gross reminisced in the 1980 interview, “You weren’t going to run your luck too long. I’d got a lot of work done there and I’d seen as many of the troops as I could. And met some delightful people who since disappeared, were killed. Most of them were, I think, unfortunately.”
“The Fabulous Gross”
Gross left Arakan, journeying north into India’s Naga Hills and Burma’s Chin Hills, where indigenous peoples resisted the Japanese push toward India. “Up into the mountains we went till we were among pine forests, pine trees covered in orchids. Here at last we met the Chin Levies…” Gross wrote, “Dressed in uniforms of their own fancy — odds and ends of army equipment spread out through an entire village platoon, for the rest turbans and blankets of their own design, the whole capped with a feather, the sign of the levies. They are armed with flint-locks — I saw the date of 1796 on one — powder horns and tinder-boxes, and dahs (a Burmese knife).”
One of those antique rifles lies across the foreground in “A Platoon of Chin Village Levies of the Sokte Tribe,” Gross’s naturally arranged group portrait of seated and standing fighters including old men and boys. The transparency of the color wash blends them with the blue-tinged ridges of the land they are defending. The Chin Levies manufactured their own gunpowder. “They can blow a man’s head off at a couple of hundred feet,” Gross noted. Another group portrait of Chin Levies in which they are seated around pipe-smoking Capt. Harold Braund is reproduced in Braund’s lively memoir “Distinctly I Remember,” but the artist’s visit is not recalled in its pages.
Gross next encountered the regular Chin Hills Battalion, which he noted had been “originally part of the Burma Frontier Force.” “They form the basis of resistance to and fighting the Japanese in these hills. They have all the combined advantages of guerillas [sic] and of disciplined troops. They are well armed with modern weapons.”
“Mountain Patrol (Chin Hills Battalion), Section Comprising Whelngo, Sahau and Khongsai Tribesmen” presents five formidable-looking soldiers, slung with ammo belts, carbines at hand, long hair bound up in styles according to their Tiddim or Falam origin, their homeland a mountain fortress. “They are all hunters by nature, know all the paths through the hills,” Gross observed. When asked why they were fighting they told Gross, “We don’t want the Japanese in our villages.” After World War II, the traditional independence of indigenous hill peoples would manifest itself in decades of armed resistance against Burma’s military dictatorship.
When the Japanese cut the only road out, Gross joined a platoon of Hakha Chin soldiers on a 450 mile [724 km] trek from Falam to Manipur, India. “For days we marched along, high up above the valleys 6,000 feet below us, treading softly on a carpet of pine needles, stopping at times to gather wild raspberries, to drink at a mountain stream. Occasionally we had mountain goat, barking deer, or a jungle fowl to add to our rations.” This was the khasi pine ecosystem that still exists today, although I have observed severe deforestation in the region, which is now subject to disastrous flooding.
En route Gross painted another “Chins at War” group portrait, “Our Party and Escort,” which he annotated “our party after a terrible climb.” Two exhausted British men are sprawled on the ground. Three unfazed Hakha Chin soldiers look ready to march hours more. Indian muleteers and their pack mules take the center of the picture along with two Chin boys, So Non (a.k.a. Shonan) and Van Ling, who hunted for food and helped with cooking on the march. The boys were excited when the platoon finally reached a newly bulldozed jeep road as “they had never seen a car before,” and when they got to India they taught themselves to sing the Andrews Sisters’ “Hold Tight” from a gramophone record.
The more traditional Chin way of life is shown on the right side of the painting with a Chin archer crouched in his blanket, wooden effigies and a memorial cairn topped with a gaur (wild bovine) skull. I’ve seen such a cairn near Falam in Tashon village, adjacent to a row of Chin memorial stones commemorating great hunters and their WWII exploits. Gross met a carver of such stones, examining the tools he used and comparing his work favorably to that of a Parisian sculptor friend. He told his IWM interviewer that the Chins “used to have chaps that would make the gravestones for them. And they did beautiful drawings of animals, cows [mithun, domesticated relative of the gaur]… engraved bas relief drawings in slate.”
“Our Party and Escort” appears carefully drawn but rather hastily colored with strokes of rust and gold. It was probably hard to keep the mules still. In the foreground the artist’s topee (helmet), paintbrushes, mug of water with pen, and uncapped ink bottle give the scene an extraordinary immediacy. In his caption Gross mentions that there was an “official cinematograph cameraman” on the trek, Capt. Bryan Langley (camera operator on “Dark Eyes of London” and much later, “Dr. Who”). The bespectacled man holding a cloth on his head is Langley and his extravagantly mustachioed companion is Capt. Jack Potter, war correspondent.
In his memoir “No Time for Breakfast,” Potter records his first impression of “elfin Anthony Gross, official war artist, a small wiry man with a bald head… he did not look the sort of chap who could endure several hundred miles hiking in the jungle. We were not sure if we could do it ourselves, and he was forty and frail. Yet this man Gross, who rapidly became known as the Fabulous Gross, not only walked us off our feet, and painted tirelessly at every halt, but did all the cooking for the trip.” The three observers entertained British officers and Chin villagers alike, delighting them with “one look at the Fabulous Gross, his pockets bulging with sketch books, his topee festooned with rare orchids…” and their tales of film stars, Fleet Street scandals, and “La Vie Boheme in several countries.”
Missing from this painting is the Chin wife of a British officer who according to Potter was being escorted to her husband’s base by the Hakha platoon. An indigenous intelligence operative, she “tripped steadily along the jungle paths, sometimes in her bare feet, sometimes wearing her carpet slippers,” with a cardigan wrapped around her head as a turban. I wish I could see her picture and know her name. Perhaps she had already arrived at her destination when the group portrait was made.
A segment of Langley’s film of Chin Levies is listed in the Imperial War Museum’s catalog but is not digitally available. 250 rolls of undeveloped film shot by Cecil Beaton (the celebrity photographer), including a 1944 supply convoy trip to Tiddim, were lost forever in shipment, although a few wonderful photographs he took of the Arakan campaign survived, including a sniper of the 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles and a British Corporal engrossed in a book beside his camouflaged Bren gun carrier. Antony Beauchamp (also a photographer of celebrities) was in Arakan and Chin State as a war artist, photographer and cameraman but I’ve only seen his film footage of the Arakan front (it’s on the IWM website). So it is Gross’s paintings that must give us the best visual impression of World War II in the land of the Chins, a region which is still a hard-to-reach corner of “Zomia” (highland South/Southeast Asia).
“Canons of Work”
Our wars (just, unjust, post-colonial, neocolonial, conquest, liberation, forever) are not only illuminated by British or American military artists, but also by many of their enemies. Japan sent its own war artists out with its armed forces, including Kenichi Nakamura, the son of an Admiral. His “Battle of Kota Bharu” astoundingly shows the British Army’s Indian troops defending a concertina-wired Malay Peninsula beach instead of the Japanese troops who would incur many casualties invading it. In style and subject it is not unlike Anthony Gross’s Donbaik pictures.
Another Japanese War Artist who reminds me of Gross is Konosuke Tamura. Like Gross he arrived in Burma in 1943, but he was in the predominantly Buddhist interior of the country where initially the Japanese invasion was welcomed by many as liberation from colonialism. Tamura and novelist Takami Jun published a book of idyllic vignettes of the Burmese landscape. The destruction of all that smolders through the three arches of Tamura’s “Battle Front of Burma, Attack on Mandalay,” a deft watercolor sketch of Japanese infantrymen confronting a wrecked fire-zone. This and other “senso sakusen kirokuga” (“war campaign documentation”) paintings can be still seen on postcards that were issued by Japan’s Army Art Association during the war. After Japan’s defeat the US Army confiscated most of the original works; some are still “on permanent loan” to the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.
Vietnamese forces fighting the French and Americans from 1946 to 1975 included detachments of artists who produced works as elaborate as eggshell-mosaic lacquer panels or as improvised as tube colors from children’s paint sets squeezed directly onto scraps of paper. Le Duy Ung’s 1970 watercolor “Crossing Bas Sac River” (reproduced in Sherry Buchanan’s book of Viet Cong war art, “Mekong Diaries”) reminds me of “Sampan Convoy” by Anthony Gross in both subject and composition. “Battlefield painter” Le Duy Ung was blinded in a rocket attack, but survived with his sight restored.
Huynh Phuong Dong, trained at Hanoi’s École Supérieure des Beaux Arts de l’Indochine, joined fighters against the French and Americans and produced jaggedly rendered battle paintings. He held drawing classes for soldiers and improvised “art galleries” in their camps. Lindsey Kiang quoted him in an essay on his life: “Even though the war was going on, we could still sing and make art.”
After the war, Huynh Phuong Dong taught, travelled, and painted peaceful landscapes, as did many of the British and American artists who survived combat in World War II and sought solace in California’s sun-soaked oak groves or bountiful Parisian market scenes. Unlike adrenaline-junkie war correspondents chasing their demons from bunker to trench, the war artists rarely stayed war artists.
The British War Artist tradition marches on. The special horrors of the Bosnian war were officially painted by tormented soul Peter Howson. “War, conflict and violence have been an abiding theme,” John Keane commented about his Middle East “canon of work.”
American artists, “embedded” or independent, also continue to depict war after interminable war. Joe Sacco raked the mayhem in Bosnia and the Middle East across the panels of his graphic novels. Artist-journalist Molly Crabapple illustrated Marwan Hisham’s memoir of the Syrian war with her ornate line and spattered ink. “Drawings are still kind of rare,” she commented in 2016, “and when you draw something you’re investing it with a very obvious human touch and a very obvious perspective and a very obvious amount of time and it’s like a way of saying ‘look, this is important.’”
A U.S. Marine Corps rifleman who served in Afghanistan, Rob Bates became an official USMC combat artist in 2011. He has drawn wounded soldiers overseas and stateside. Bates’ unflinching portraits of Burma-born American Marine Sgt. Than Naing reveal a torso bullet-scarred by tours of duty in both Iraq (wounded in 2006) and Afghanistan (wounded in 2010). A 2012 ceremony honoring Sgt. Than Naing as a Marine Corps Wounded Warrior cited his encouragement of fellow soldiers and his impressive archery skills. The stage was shared by a friend of his, a woman wearing traditional crimson woven Hakha Chin clothing like some of the hill people painted by Anthony Gross. Sgt. Than Naing’s story seems to me like the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries bleeding into each other.
War artists will be witnesses. The best paint bare truth, not propaganda. They reveal context and meaning. Ruins, foliage, terrain, casualties dripping crimson, the indigenous supporters who will inevitably be left behind, perhaps a doomed civilian trying to ignore the whole thing. Perhaps a nurse in a blue dress hurrying to meet a patient being carried to the malaria ward.
Burma, Also Known as Myanmar
As soon as I saw them, the Anthony Gross pictures resonated strongly with me because they came out of a world I’ve known. Like many wars before and since, the war that ripped, blasted, shredded Burma from 1942 to 1945 used proxy armies and shifting ethnic alliances. That has had lasting effects on Kachins, Karens, Chins and other peoples of the Burma borderlands where armed ethnic organizations fight for autonomy or independence, decade after bloody decade.
In my first Burma book, “Burmese Looking Glass” (1993) I wrote, “In the war zone, I felt more like my parents’ generation than my own. There, people thought of an American as a friendly Yank helping them to drive away invaders. The only books that spoke of the conditions I was observing in the [1980s] were about the legendary allied/tribal units like Merrill’s Marauders and the Chindits of World War II.” Like Anthony Gross I’ve accompanied troops on mountain trails through Burma’s bamboo forests, sleeping in huts or monasteries, and like the British artist (and the Vietnamese) I crossed dangerous rivers on narrow boats. I carried cameras of various worth but I always had sketchbooks.
In 1991 when I followed a flood-broken route to Pajau, the China-border headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army, I had to travel light but I packed a Windsor & Newton watercolor set the size of a pack of cards. One pencil, a fine-tip pen, one miniature brush and one larger Chinese brush for color washes. I sketched our pack animals and the hill farmers along the way. At Pajau I painted portraits of Kachin soldiers. With a wood stove warming them, the young men and women posed holding, as I put it in my second Burma book “Down the Rat Hole” (2005), “their various rifles: old Chinese AK47s and M22s, and an even older American M18.”
The Kachins’ war to defend their northern land against Burma’s national military was suspended for a 17 year ceasefire that paid some peace dividends but also a sorry price of corruption and deforestation. In 2011 the pitched battles, bombardment, raiding parties, punji stakes, and bagpipe bands started up again, so northern Myanmar (Burma) continues to be a place for drawing soldiers.
This can be an art of documentation but also an art of protest. Lately the task has fallen to a color-field painter and installation artist of endless creativity and interesting background. Sawangwongse Yawnghwe is the son of an aristocrat turned revolutionary from the Shan ethnic group of Burma’s northeast. In a trajectory like that of the Karen-American novelist Charmaine Craig, Yawnghwe, who grew up in Canada, has addressed a family history of armed/political resistance with new narrative interpretations.
Yawnghwe used watercolor versions of his father’s Shan State Army photos as part of an “Office in Exile” installation in galleries across Europe. “If this were to be shown in a village somewhere in Shan State, it would not be the same as it is here,” he said in a 2015 interview, “We might risk getting shot at. Recently there had been attacks by the Myanmar Military in the Northern Shan State. There, in Shan State, art is magic, art is somehow this special power.”
“Office in Exile” also contained Yawnghwe’s sketches of trauma suffered by Rohingyas. “We Escaped in the Night” crayons the outline of a small boat, this one not commandeered for soldiers but for civilians in the 2014 refugee crisis, with a smudge in the air like a clouded-over moon or a burning village. This drawing takes us directly back to Henry Moore’s burdened, vulnerable Blitz shelter-seekers.
A 2018 group show in Chiangmai, Thailand featured Yawnghwe in his best Larry Rivers mode with a large painting of Kachin soldiers with their distinctive caps and kit against lurid house-paint brushwork and a furiously stenciled profane admonition to “pay attention” to the ongoing war in Kachin and Northern Shan States.
This war in which the Kachin Independence Army (descended from the Kachins who fought for the World War II Allies) are fighting the Myanmar government’s army, the Tatmadaw (descended from soldier/politicians who sided with the Japanese invaders) involves landmines, Tatmadaw massacres of civilians, Myanmar’s Russian MiG bombers, and outsiders, especially China, grasping at Kachin jade, amber, and hydropower.
In factionally complex neighboring northern Shan State, added to the mix are narcotics, arson by the same Tatmadaw Light Infantry Divisions that burned Rohingya villages in Rakhine State, and in 2018 the rape/torture/execution of six female medics of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army. The medics’ story has been told by cellphone photos of their violated corpses, found in a pit, flung together like Gross’s Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers on the Donbaik sand. I wish instead there were paintings that would show them treating malaria and tuberculosis in the hill villages, how brave they were, how kind they were when debriding someone else’s bullet wound.
“A Bunch of Paints in a Box”
With an astonishing reversal of misfortune, Myanmar human rights activists, for so long the subject of concern from other countries, issued an Open Letter on June 2, 2020 “in solidarity with American people protesting against racism and police brutality.” Noting that “structural and systematic racism and social injustices are rooted both in our societies for centuries now and they won’t go away easily,” the letter continued, “We ask the U.S. Government to respect freedom of expression of each individual.” 18 civil society groups signed it, including Ta’ang Women Organization and Kachin National Youth Network, both from regions of Myanmar where “war torn” is an understatement. Mid-2020, conflict also continues to ravage Northern Rakhine (Arakan) and southern Chin State.
In Portland, Oregon, the city where I live, waves of Black Lives Matters protesters had flooded into streets emptied by COVID-19, sometimes with an insouciant disregard for the hushed temples of contrived consumer desire. Downtown echoed with sporadic explosions of police crowd control munitions, the air a rolling chemical thunderhead.
Smashed windows at an Apple Store and a Louis Vuitton boutique were hastily replaced with plywood carapace. Within a day, illustrator Emma Berger, like any war artist, “just got up and shoved a bunch of paints in a box” to depict George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery as well as Portlanders Kendra James and Jason Washington, killed by law enforcement officers.
Spray paint sensei Atlioux Tchén and other artists, Jason Washington’s family members and passersby added more art to the plywood. The Apple/Louis wall images were layered with text, the text layered with meaning. Handsome, angelic memorial portraits appeared in response to the mugshot “war on drugs” vilification of Black victims of police violence. In reaction to their deliberate erasure the names of the fallen were chanted, were painted.
Packing supplies into cross-marked bags were Portland’s volunteer protest medics (basic first aid, medical students, nurses, war zone experience). By mid-July Federal troops had been brought in to “quell” our protests, bringing sudden national attention to the dire spectacle of a military occupation in which Portlanders’ spray paint, bonfires, and free barbeque were dealt impact munitions and abduction detention. Medics kept busy.
Night approached on July 16 with conflict zones on both sides of Portland’s Willamette River. Downtown, local journalist Sergio Olmos would film a person with a stigmatic chest wound, a huddle of helmeted medics at the scene. On the Eastside as marchers gathered to confront a police facility I sharpened a pencil and began to draw the medics.
Edith Mirante is the author of “The Wind in the Bamboo: Journeys in Search of Asia’s ‘Negrito’ Indigenous Peoples” and two books about Burma (Myanmar.) In 1986 she founded Project Maje which distributes information on Burma’s human rights and environmental issues. www.projectmaje.org
Follow @edithmirante for her Twitter History Threads on topics including armed struggle, mining and land rights.