GCY Interviews an Artist: Seeing the World Through Maw’s Eyes
GCY- Can you tell me a little about yourself?
Maw- I am a first-generation refugee from Karenni, Burma. I advocate for the Karenni community here in Phoenix with the hope of establishing a strong united community. I am currently pursuing my BA in Fine Arts at ASU and it is my deepest wish to unite my people through my Fine Arts degree.
When my sister came home with the news that we were approved to resettle in America after many years in the process, I was filled with optimism and excitement. 9-year old me was ready to embrace all the wonders of living in the United States. It was time for us to abandon our lifestyle in the refugee camp and begin our long journey to the U.S. in 2009.
GCY- How many trips have you been on with GCY and which rivers?
Maw- I have been on a GCY river trip two times, the Upper Grand Canyon (9 days) in 2018 and the Lower San Juan (6 days) in 2022.
GCY- When you think back to your first trip, had you ever done anything like it before?
Maw- I had never done anything like this before my first trip, and I didn’t know what to expect because I didn’t know how to swim and I hadn’t been around water that much.
GCY- What were you nervous about before you left?
Maw- Though not being able to swim was my main issue at that time, I was surprisingly calm and excited for the unknown. Recalling some pictures I saw from the previous participants’ experiences helped, and I was ready to embrace all of what GCY would provide me.
GCY- What surprised you that you didn’t expect on the trip?
Maw- The whole trip was a big surprise for me, being the first generation in my family to experience such a rich and diverse adventure like this. It benefited me tremendously in social aspects as well as in self-development opportunities.
GCY- What was your favorite part of the trip?
Maw- I loved every moment of the trip but if I had to choose one, it would be the morning call “COFFEE” by one guide named Will. That morning call gave me such nostalgia because I didn’t take it only as a morning call. I found the call to be the start of our next adventurous day going down the Colorado River: the start of talking and engaging with new people, enjoying the laughs, and learning something new.
GCY- How did you grow or change after your trips?
Maw- Growing up, I have always shut myself out from society and I experienced extreme anxiety and depression throughout high school and into the first couple years in college. Prior to the trip, I had already taken some communication skills classes which helped me temporarily by teaching me to start the conversation first. I felt like the first trip made me discover more things about myself and other people all while improving my confidence. From that trip on, I experienced myself developing confidence. I started taking on challenges in my community such as hosting a community event called “December to Remember” which required me to initiate ideas, host meetings, and do all the things a confident person would do.
GCY- What is an example of when you participated in teamwork on a GCY trip?
Maw- Participating in a Science project was super fun. It reminded me of when I was just a little kid in a refugee camp in Thailand. During the hot summer school break of the refugee camp, my friends and I would go to a little stream by our section and lure tiny fishes into our net and we were super stoked to catch them. The GCY science project was very similar, and I was one of the people tasked with guiding fishes into the net.
GCY- What is an example of individual empowerment or a time you felt independently competent on your trip?
Maw- An example of my individual empowerment on the trip would be my project presentation about dams in Karenni state. I felt empowered to share such personal political issues with the group about the Karenni people. I initially was nervous, but after seeing everyone so engaged and attentive, it gave me motivation to try my best and I ultimately felt more comfortable answering some questions.
GCY- What have your river trips with GCY meant to you?
Maw- My GCY trips enriched my individuality and gave me a perspective that I can confidently implement in my daily life; I intend to live with honesty to self and others. This trip meant an important turn in life for me.
GCY- What do you feel is valuable about going on a multi-day educational expedition in the outdoors?
Maw- I personally believe that trips like this can help individuals to focus on many different aspects of life, perspective, individuality, self-development and sustainable mindset. Most of which we can never fully or understandably comprehend without such engaging trips like GCY.
GCY- Why do you want to share this experience with other Karenni youth?
Maw- I want to share this trip with Karenni youth so they can experience what I experienced and discover things about themselves and enrich their understanding about nature and their nature in such magical places like the Grand Canyon. Just like this trip being a turning point for me, I want them to experience something similar.
GCY- Did it feel different to go on a river trip as a mentor than as a youth?
Maw- I felt happily responsible for the youth and found empowerment through that. I was trying to consistently engage with the youths and offer some advice or just have fun doing activities and laughing.
GCY- Can you tell me a little bit about the big trip you went on recently to Thailand? Why you went and what it meant to you?
Maw- My recent trip to Thailand was the highlight of my life since I moved to the U.S. 13 years ago from Thailand. It was my first time going back and I went all the way back into the Karenni state despite the civil war. This trip was to rediscover my precious childhood memories and reconnect with those memories by engaging and visiting around the community and meeting family members. My other objective for going into the Karenni state was to witness the situation of my people and capture their moments on camera. I want to repurpose their moments through art and show to the world and teach people about Karenni. While I was there, I couldn’t help but put my people as my purpose in life. As the dire needs are becoming more extreme in the refugee camp and internally displaced people in Karenni state, I have some plans in the future to incorporate my artist teams’ efforts to help Karenni people in the education aspect of living.
GCY- What are you up to now and in the near future?
Maw- My goals for the future are very ambitious and I cannot wait to tackle them. I am going to get my bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts Painting and Drawing at ASU. My team and I are working on our first ever Karenni artist exhibition in Minnesota next summer. I want to fully establish my Karenni artist teams so we can do trips together and do what we believe in. I want to help to create a well-organized Karenni community around the U.S.
Maw Reh is a 24-year-old visual artist from Phoenix, pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Arizona State University. His artwork has been showcased at galleries, in private homes, in businesses, at cultural festivals, as outdoor murals, and with other selected students at the Phoenix Art Museum. Maw’s journey as an artist started when teachers noticed that he liked to draw. From a boy with a sketch pad, he is now excited to develop himself in many media: sculpture, digital art, mural, photography, film, graphic design. As an evolving artist, his goal is to be versatile and adaptable.
Born in diaspora to parents who fled ethnic persecution in Burma, Maw came with his family as a refugee to the United States when he was young. While he worked hard to become an American citizen, his Karenni culture and people are always part of his consciousness. In his art, his greatest inspiration comes from the unforgettable stories, culture and faces of the Karenni people.
Pursuing opportunities and accepting invitations, he believes in being open to experiences, like GCY trips. As he strives to overcome obstacles in life, his goal is to be of assistance to younger people, particularly those in his Karenni community who, like him, must figure out how they fit in, where they belong, what’s important and who they are. Maw’s art and life overlap, they deal with the same universal themes. The challenge to be understood –in art and life– is universal.