This was given to me as a gift by a Swiss journalist. I attach it to my head and film myself working. I often use the films as part of my exhibitions, projecting them on a screen alongside the casts and photos that document the process.
I broke my arm falling off a bicycle when I was living in England in 2008. I was in plaster for months and became interested in how the material helps to strengthen something that is broken. That’s when I began to develop the idea for this project.
The cling film doesn’t wrap easily around fingers, so the prisoners wear a glove for protection. I’ve also used these in my art. In an exhibition after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, I filled gloves with water to memorialize the more than 100,000 who died.
It is important for the last steps of the process. The wool goes between the plaster and the cling wrap to protect the skin when I’m sawing the plaster off the arm. The process has always worked well. I’ve never had any accidents or injuries.
This kind of hacksaw blade is made to cut metal, but it works well for me. The subjects sometimes get afraid when I do this part, but they’ve seen videos of me at work before, whether at my shows or on Facebook, so they know it’s safe.
These carry the names of the detainees whose arms I’ve cast. On a sheet, they write details of their time in jail — where they stayed and for how long. Some have been jailed multiple times. For one, I cast his arm and then he went back to prison soon after.
This coats the arm so that no plaster sticks to it. I sometimes joke with the political prisoners that I might accidently hurt their arms, but they generally have a good sense of humor about it. I think this quality helped them survive in prison.
I use these to cut the cotton wool. I have a doctor friend who specializes in broken bones; he taught me how to do all this. We sat together and went through the equipment and the casting process while I explained my project.
This is to attach the identity labels to the plaster. The subjects are proud to use their names. In prison, we were given numbers — that’s how the guards first would identify us. But then they came to call us by our names, which made us feel more human.
Putting plaster all over someone’s arm can be messy. This sheeting shields their clothes from any plaster that falls. I’m not always so careful with myself. Often, my clothes and my floor get covered in specks of white.
For Htein Lin, ex-convicts are impeccable artistic muses. The sculptor and painter regularly welcomes former political prisoners at his studio in Yangon, Myanmar, where they sit patiently as Htein Lin coats one of their hands — from the fingertips to just above the wrist — in gypsum plaster. Within 15 minutes, the coating dries and a stiff white cast forms, which the artist carefully saws and slides off. So far, Htein Lin has molded more than 450 hands.
The project, “A Show of Hands,” commemorates the sacrifices that dissidents made under Myanmar’s military junta. Over nearly half a century, the government incarcerated thousands of people for opposition activities (both real and perceived): staging public protests, waging armed resistance, and penning anti-junta poetry, to name a few. “Burma was broken by this regime, but those people made it stronger,” Htein Lin says. “I see political prisoners as the plaster” that eventually bolstered the forces of democratic change: In 2010, Myanmar held multiparty elections that began the transition to civilian rule.
Htein Lin, who himself spent nearly seven years in prison for allegedly planning a protest, thinks this project helps the people he’s honoring. As he casts their hands, subjects tell him stories of their time behind bars. “Some prisoners find it therapeutic,” he explains.
Myanmar’s democracy remains deeply flawed. Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won a majority of parliamentary seats in the November 2015 election, yet the military, which by law holds a quarter of seats, is still powerful. Meanwhile, dissidents continue to live under threat: In December alone, seven people were sentenced for political activity. “When they’re released,” Htein Lin recently told Foreign Policy, “I’ll cast them.”