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Art and Culture in Myanmar's Emerging Democracy

Daire Higgins By Daire Higgins Published on February 15, 2017
This article was updated on April 7, 2017
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Living under the veil of authoritarianism doesn’t often breed creativity or a rich cultural society. Think of the book burning in Nazi Germany, or the rigid censorship under Stalin which shut out all but carefully selected authors and ideas. As John Keane wrote

Information storms are an inevitable feature of democratic societies. Under enduring dictatorships things are quite different. Time appears to stand still. Even though individuals continue to be born, grow up, fall in love, quarrel, have children and die, everything around them becomes motionless, petrified and repetitious. Life is utterly boring.

This gives some perspective to the evolution of culture and art in Myanmar, a country which has been under the cloud of a military dictatorship for the past 60 years. Myanmar (formerly Burma) recently held its first free elections in decades and the democratically elected Aung San Suu Kyi has taken the role of President (or State Counsellor) since April 2016.

After years of being shut off to the world, Myanmar is opening itself up. The country has seen an official end to press censorship and citizens of Myanmar are now connecting enthusiastically to the internet.

Decades of political oppression in Burma have meant that even informal discussion of social issues has been a risky pursuit and it continues to be perceived as such by many.  A lifetime of self-censorship and conditioning to limit public self-expression takes generations to work itself out, as we have seen in the former Communist countries in Europe.

However, Myanmar does have a rich culture which survives. Myanmar’s history is full of kings and queens and Buddhism, so it is understandable that its art and literature would focus on that. Much of Myanmar’s art is living art, adorning the thousands of temples and pagodas around the country.

For instance, Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, from the 9th to 13th centuries and the first kingdom to unify the regions that would later constitute modern Myanmar.  This archaeological zone is brimming with historic and cultural wealth. With over three thousand Buddhist temples, monasteries, stupas and monuments compacted into one area, it is home to the highest density of Buddhist architecture anywhere in the world. The temples present a cross-section of Burma’s history, culture and politics as construction has spanned a millennium. 

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The temples are adorned with murals that are hundreds of years old yet still available to the touch. Temple arches signify the advanced intelligence of the ancient Burmese kingdom and the unique murals adorning interior walls document their artistic skill.

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Myanmar's biggest religious shrine is the Shwedagon pagoda, in the capital, Yangon, and it is a repository of the best in Myanmar heritage – architecture, sculpture and arts.  It is covered with hundreds of gold plates and the top of the stupa is encrusted with 4531 diamonds; the largest of which is a 72 carat diamond. 

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The Shwedagon Pagoda consists of hundreds of colourful temples, stupas, and statues that reflects an architectural era spanning almost a 2,500 years. A tribute to Buddhism, it is one of the wonders of the religious world.

Thus, much of Myanmar’s culture and art is not to be found in quiet, air-conditioned galleries but in the coming and goings of practising Bhuddists in the temples as they go about their daily prayers.

With so many tourists visiting the region, much of the art available in galleries tends to be created for the buyer, rather than being an expression of the soul. However there are some interesting small galleries and just recently an exhibition took place which was of huge interest to both locals and tourists, both politically and culturally.

Wolfgang Laib at The Secretariat

The Secretariat, or Ministers Office, is in downtown Yangon and is one of the most important historical buildings in Myanmar history. Built in the late 1800s, it served the British colonial administration and in the 1940s became the location of the first independent government as they drafted laws before the transfer of power to the Burmese.

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It is here that Aung San, the leader of the Burmese resistance to British rule (and Aung San Suu Kyi's father) was assassinated in 1947 with eight members of his cabinet, sparking decades of military rule. During subsequent decades the military-junta worked from this building until they created a new capital in a different part of Myanmar in 2005, and left it to further ruin. 

It is a beautiful example of British colonial architecture and is an extremely important part of Burmese national history.

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It has been left abandoned and empty, and opens only once a year to the public on Burma Martyrs Day 19 July – the day Aung San was assassinated. 

But for the first time, in January, the government opened the doors to the general public for an exhibition of work by German conceptual artist Wolfgang Laib.

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Many international art critics consider Wolfgang Laib to be one of the 100 most important artists of our time. In 2013 the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York dedicated a solo show to his extraordinary oeuvre. He is known for his ritualistic, meditative work.

Laib has built his career on collecting, exhibiting, and spending time with the treasures of nature: bee pollen, milk, rice, marble and lacquer and he uses these to create intense images of beauty. His works evade the conventional categories of the global art market.

They are deeply rooted in a spiritual vision of our world. Through their immateriality they reveal the deeper meaning of life hidden behind the surface of things around us.

The exhibition is called ‘Where the Land and Water Ends', and exhibits his life work using bee pollen, milk, marble and lacquer.

The title is based on a religious site in Southwest Myanmar, 'where the mighty Ayeyarwaddy flows into the ocean and the land crumbles away into marsh. Where these terrains dissolve, something else begins.'

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Before settling down in his current home in India, Laib had considered getting a pied-a-terre in Myanmar. That didn’t materialise for several reasons, but it remained a dream of this to bring some of this art to Myanmar. His works require large spaces to exert their impact on the visitor. Both of these reasons – Laibs’ affinity with Burma and the spatial prerequisites for this art – were the basis from which a major exhibition at the Secretariat in Yangon arose. 

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The exhibition at the old heritage building is possibly one of the most important art events in Myanmar in the past years. After decades of housing such tumultuous and influential history, the Secretariat’s opening to art, and to a foreign artist no less, shows a shift in the country’s attitudes about art, politics, and how to make use of previously isolated establishments.

It highlights the intention of the city of Yangon, and the new government of Myanmar, to dedicate this unique piece of architecture to arts and culture. And to return its use to the people of Myanmar. 

Writer and Researcher. Ex-BBC World Service. Currently researching PhD in media, new technologies and Aid. Curious about most things though.