Art and Resistance: The Power of Creativity in a Turbulent Nation

A golden letter, 7 May 1756
British Burma File Pictorial Magazine
Divination manual, About 1750-1820
Shan map, About 1889
Shell letter, 1907
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Burma to Myanmar: A Tapestry of History, Faith and Resistance

On the seventy-fifth anniversary of Myanmar’s independence, the British Museum unveiled Burma to Myanmar, a poignant exhibition exploring the country’s rich tapestry of history, diverse faiths and unwavering resilience. Though modest in size, the exhibition packs a powerful punch, showcasing beautiful artefacts that whisper of both prosperity and the tumultuous chapters that have shaped the nation.

Whispers of the Past: Kingdoms, Empires and Kinship Networks

Myanmar’s story stretches back to 200 BC, with diverse kingdoms, states and kinship networks thriving amidst a stunning landscape. From the snow-capped Himalayas to the tropical rainforests, the country has long been a crossroads of trade, religion and politics. The exhibition captures this complexity through maps, each serving a distinct purpose: from intricately marking villages to delineating colonial borders.

Mapping Trade Routes: Connecting with the World

A prominent 1860 map on cotton cloth immediately captures attention. It meticulously details villages and Myanmar’s diverse topography, hinting at the wealth of natural resources that have fuelled global trade for millennia. Gold, a coveted resource, stands out, with stringent laws restricting its use to specific social ranks. A Burmese manuscript inscribed on rolled gold and adorned with rubies, sent by King Alaungpaya to King George II in 1756, exemplifies its significance. Despite its sumptuous materials, the letter was never acknowledged, adding a layer of tension to the historical narrative.

The Golden Thread: Power, Conflict and Resistance

Intertwined with the abundant resources is a story of power, conflict and resistance. A lacquer offering vessel, intricately coiled from bamboo strips and adorned with gold and coloured glass, showcases the artistry and religious devotion of the people. However, Myanmar’s natural wealth also fuelled exploitation during the British colonial period and subsequent conflicts, paving the way for unregulated black markets.

A Tapestry of Faith: Buddhism’s Legacy and Religious Diversity

Buddhism’s profound influence is evident throughout the exhibition, with diverse Buddha figures and ceremonial vessels. From the third to thirteenth centuries, kingdoms like Arakan, Thaton and Bagan maintained strong connections with the Buddhist world. However, the 1800s witnessed increasing religious diversity, with Muslims and Hindus coexisting alongside the dominant Buddhist majority. A statue of Hindu deities, a lacquer box with Quran inscriptions, and a Burmese-dialect Bible illuminate this dynamic religious landscape.

Post-Colonial Struggles and Modern Echoes

King Mindon’s modernisation efforts in the 19th century, including establishing factories and sending students abroad, are reflected in a mosaic intended for a Buddha image. But the abolishment of the monarchy in 1885 marked a turning point, severing the head of state’s role as protector of religion.

The concluding section delves into Myanmar’s recent political struggles, featuring artworks that depict the Japanese invasion during World War II, the 1962 military coup, and the ongoing military control since 2021. A photograph of a Rohingya refugee camp starkly reflects the government’s violence against ethnic minorities.

By weaving together threads of beauty, conflict, and resilience, the exhibition offers a nuanced understanding of Myanmar and its people, leaving a lasting impression that resonates long after the final visit.

A Hopeful Future: Resilience and the Power of Art

The exhibition culminates with a slideshow capturing protests against the 2021 coup, showcasing the unwavering spirit of resistance. Amidst the ongoing Civil Disobedience Movement, art becomes a powerful tool for reimagining politics and envisioning a hopeful future for Myanmar.

Burma to Myanmar is a powerful and thought-provoking journey through a nation’s complex history. By weaving together threads of beauty, conflict, and resilience, the exhibition offers a nuanced understanding of Myanmar and its people, leaving a lasting impression that resonates long after the final visit.

Text Yang Jiang / Photo Yang Jiang and courtesy of the British Museum