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The Liberty Project is an artwork in six chapters inspired by democracy heroine and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. During the time these photographs were taken- 2007-2010- Aung San Suu Kyi was under military house arrest in Rangoon.
Bayin, whose maternal grandfather was Burmese, travelled with her camera to places relevant to Suu Kyi’s story as an expression of visual solidarity.
She photographed people wearing a paper mask – an image of Aung San Suu Kyi commonly used in political rallies – in Toronto, Ottawa, New York, Manchester, Geneva, Prague, Istanbul, Oxford and Havana.
By taking Suu on imaginary journeys, as symbolic witness and observer, Bayin used the mask to outline the struggle of the people of Burma, while exploring issues of human rights and freedoms everywhere.
Aung San Suu Kyi was released in November, 2010.
Sections in The Liberty Project include “Half-Mask“, a series of portraits of writers, musicians, human rights activists and supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi; ”Ulla Uses Her Liberty“, pictures of daily life exploring simple freedoms we take for granted in a democracy; “Havana Libre?“, a whimsical visit, with undertones, to Havana, birthplace of Aung San Suu Kyi’s late husband, Michael Aris, a tourist paradise that is a paradox; “Turkish Delights“, a journey to another ancient culture and struggling democracy, in honor of Aung San Suu Kyi’s role with PEN International; ”Suu Kyi At The Oscars“, a large scale montage exploring ideas of celebrity and freedom during the 2008 Academy Awards; and “Memories of Oxford“, photographs of people wearing the mask in and around Aung San Suu Kyi’s neighbourhoods, her university and the family home she left 20 years earlier on a visit to Rangoon to tend her ailing mother, from which she would not return.
Following the Saffron Revolution in 2007, at a Free Burma rally in Toronto, I was handed a black and white paper face mask of Aung San Suu Kyi. It was nearing Halloween and a mask seemed eerily appropriate. The democracy heroine and Nobel Peace Prize winner had been in prison or under house arrest for years. I wore the mask, alongside others, to protest a brutal regime that was killing innocent monks and civilians. Our hands were bound with string and a photographer took our picture.
Being an “activist” was outside my comfort zone, yet I needed to support the country of my heritage. My Burmese grandfather, Dr. U Ba Yin, a medical doctor and politician, was a founder of the original democracy movement in Burma.
I found the mask compelling. It originated, I would discover, from a photograph by Nic Dunlop. I was struck by the look in Suu Kyi’s eyes, her fearless expression, as if she were calling us to action. The mask became the device for The Liberty Project.
Aung San Suu Kyi famously said: “Please Use Your Liberty to Promote Ours”. Inspired by her words and using the mask as the face of freedom, I began an artistic journey.
For the portraits, I cut the mask in half and invited supporters to pose in solidarity. I chose not to vary the size to match facial proportions but stayed with the original handout.
“Half Mask” features people linked to Aung San Suu Kyi in a variety of ways, some obvious, some not. Writers, fellow Nobel Laureates; family members; a senator to represent Suu Kyi’s Honorary Canadian Citizenship; a jazz composer whose song about Suu Kyi won a Grammy Award; a Cuban peace activist whose role model was Aung San Suu Kyi; an esteemed monk, a leader in the 1988 democracy revolution in Mandalay.
Some portraits took months to achieve. A key figure, the late Vaclav Havel, former President of the Czech Republic, who nominated Suu Kyi for the Nobel Peace Prize, had been in hospital. When we finally met at his office in Prague, he was charming and apologetic about the delay. Sartorially elegant, he posed patiently in the courtyard as I adjusted and readjusted the angle of the mask. Afterwards, he sent me an endorsement with a hand-drawn heart.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu had the schedule of a rock star. We had near misses for over a year. Then, at 3pm one afternoon, I received a call asking could I be in Springfield, Massachusetts by noon the next day? Without a clue where Springfield was I said yes. The Bishop’s flight to Europe had been cancelled due to volcanic ash over Iceland. I was the beneficiary.
Bishop Tutu was a treat, eager to help Suu Kyi, whom he referred to as ‘sister’. He chuckled when I requested he change into his signature clerical collar and again when I asked him to move from the hotel suite to a construction zone for better window light. His handlers were not amused.
I wanted people photographed in the full mask to represent Aung San Suu Kyi as everyman/everywoman. While she herself was locked up, the mask would allow me to take her on journeys. I experimented with various shapes for the eye cutouts and found narrow triangles worked best. My Suu Kyi had to be able to see.
The segment “Ulla Uses Her Liberty” shows Ulla Laidlaw, a young Toronto Burma activist, exercising everyday freedoms and enjoying life without fear of arrest, imprisonment or death. Basic rights that Aung San Suu Kyi and people living under repressive regimes don’t have.
For two years I travelled with the mask, to UN headquarters in Geneva and New York, to the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, Canada. Through Suu Kyi’s symbolic eyes, I began to explore the boundaries of freedom versus tyranny beyond Burma’s borders, in popular tourist destinations like Turkey (“Turkish Delights”) and Cuba (“Havana Libre?”) . Both countries struggled with issues of free speech and human rights.
Havana was the birthplace of Suu Kyi’s late husband, Michael Aris and home to the famous dissident group Ladies in White. These wives and daughters of unjustly imprisoned political prisoners had, like Aung San Suu Kyi, won the distinguished Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Expression. Their leader, the late Laura Pollan, had been motivated by Aung San Suu Kyi.
The photo montage “Suu Kyi At The Oscars, 2008” came about thanks to static cling. I playfully placed a laminated version of the mask on my television screen and it stuck. Images viewed through the outline of Aung San Suu Kyi’s face became new narratives, compelling and stark. The Oscar ceremony was upcoming and Best Picture contenders included “No Country For Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood”, titles which resonated. What if I were to photograph the awards ceremony through her eyes, as if she were present, a guest?
The photographs became a study in contrasts: fiction/reality; freedom/oppression; glamour/simplicity; Oscar/Nobel; freedom of expression/enforced silence; celebration/isolation.
In the spring of 2010, I visited Oxford, England, Aung San Suu Kyi’s hometown, for my final chapter “Memories of Oxford”. This was where she lived with her family before making the fateful journey to Rangoon in 1988 to tend her ailing mother.
Returned to Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi would get caught up in a revolution and remain. I wanted to portray what she had sacrificed and left behind: her former Park Town residence; her niece’s home; young family members she had never met; her college library at St. Hughes; her favourite neighbourhood.
On November 13, 2010, after 15 of 22 years under military house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi was released. While the world celebrated her freedom, she knew it was only another small step on the road to democracy. As she cautioned Bishop Tutu during one of her first congratulatory phone conversations: “Now is not the time for the international community to turn away from Burma; the country is not yet free”.
The Liberty Project honors Aung San Suu Kyi’s courageous and on-going struggle. When I had the privilege of meeting her in February, 2011, we spoke about art as a powerful tool in bringing awareness to the cause.
I hope these pictures remind us to be mindful of the freedoms we enjoy, to never take freedom for granted and to use our liberty to promote the liberty of others.