In Myanmar, the LGBTQI community suffers constant setbacks and discrimination. Even in popular culture, especially cinema, there is always one character who is perceived as a silly, frivolous and scheming extra, and that character is almost always part of the LGBTQI community.
Richie Htet works toward changing the traditional narrative of the gay community, and root it in traditional Myanmar and other cultural influences for a modern audience. As an illustrator and creative director, he has always appreciated traditional motifs, textile designs and mythology. Characters from folklore coloured his childhood, and he wants to instrumentalize these characters and reinvent their purpose – to teach people about acceptance, positivity, and understanding when engaging and including the LGBTQI community through popular culture.
This latest series is driven by personal experiences of being called ‘a chauk’. Growing up in Yangon, it was used by others as reference point, always with a tone of mocking or disdain. This word creates a physical response in the body, an anger and humiliation. The discomfort it elicits for the person to whom it is addressed can not be debated. As with so many derogatory remarks, there are always those who argue for its usage – that it was not meant to cause offence, that it doesn’t mean what others think it means, that there are worse words to use. But these are all just excuses to continue to use a word that hurts of the feelings of those who identify as LGBTQI.
Perhaps, without changing the word, we the community can reclaim it. Make it our own. Without celebrating it, we can enjoy it. Without glorifying it, we can use it to create new meanings. Without giving others permission to use it, we can confront the pain that it causes.
‘A chauk’ is a term that exposes the insecurities and conservative social norms in society: gender as binary, relationships as heterosexual, females as feminine and males and masculine. Deviate from these structures and you are chastised, humiliated, told to act as society determines, as the sex you were born, as the widely accepted role you were meant to play. But these structures are inherently false, and built on fragile and temporal moral codes established by religions, governments, and communities. We can choose another way and expose the wonder and joy of multiple avenues of identity and ways of living.
As an artist, aesthetics are important to me. Color, light, fabrics, postures, make-up, stories, myths and symbols. All of these I celebrate in my artwork. My inspiration draws from the societies of the Ancient Greeks, to the Ramayana epic of India; from Nat spirit and the tales of Buddha to the Catholic saints; from fashion designers to interior design. They come together in this exhibition to breath a new life into this term ‘a chauk’. Not one of shame, but of shine. Whatever the cruelest person means by the term ‘a chauk’, I reject it. I am proud of my influences, of who I love, of who I am. Beyond gender, be you. Be who you were meant to be, not who society tells you to be.
Richie Htet (b. 1995) is an illustrator, painter and creative director. He studied at the London College of Fashion and currently lives and works in Yangon. His work often explores themes of female energy and empowerment, fashion and fabrics, as well as reinterpreting the historical gaze.