Landmark Exhibition of Burmese Buddhist Art Headed for New York

By Sean Gleeson 29 January 2015

RANGOON — The Asia Society, a New York-based organization that helped facilitate the diplomatic rapprochement between the United States and Burma, will next month open the first solo exhibition of Burma’s Buddhist art ever to be held in the West.

Plans for the exhibition had their genesis in a series of high-level talks between representatives of Burma’s government and US policymakers, held at the Asia Society’s headquarters in 2011 after the Obama administration signaled its intention to move away from a decades-old policy of isolating the country with sanctions.

“Particularly in recent years, the organization has earned a reputation as a public platform, and place where governments come to us, either because they want to have a conference or they want to get people together whom they don’t know or feel comfortable with at the United Nations or any other forum,” Tom Nagorski, the Asia Society’s executive vice president, told The Irrawaddy.

Both President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi began their 2012 official visits to the United States with public speeches at the Asia Society’s New York headquarters, a sign of the organization’s prominent role in bringing the estranged states back together. After spending years advocating for a reconsideration of the US policy on Burma—and with 60 years of history to establish its credentials as one of the leading Western authorities on Asian art and culture—the society emerged from policy discussions with an influential voice of its own within senior levels of the Burmese government.

“We had a profound connection with the country in terms of the arts, and on the policy front,” Nagorski said. “It was on the sidelines of the policy dialogue, because of all these different ministries we’re engaged in it, that somebody had the idea to say, ‘well, if we have some success here, we’d love to share some of our cultural heritage and our history.’ Breaking the policy and the political logjam really led to the beginnings of this exhibition.”

Opening in New York next month, “Buddhist Art of Myanmar” will showcase works from the national museums in Rangoon and Naypyidaw, and other institutions from across the country, with much of the art leaving Burma for the first time. For curator Adriana Proser, the exhibition will be an unprecedented opportunity to show a style of Buddhist iconography, indebted to local religious customs and distinctive even when considered alongside other Theravada traditions in Southeast Asia.

“One of the pieces that we’ve brought in from Bagan is an image of the Buddha holding his long snakelike ponytail as he’s about to cut off his hair—this is just after the great departure, when he’s decided he’s going to become an ascetic and give everything up,” she told The Irrawaddy.

“That particular image is not something that you see frequently in other cultures. This is a country with that really strong emphasis on monasticism and the Pali texts on the life of the historical Buddha. Stories related to the life of the Buddha are really prevalent here in the imagery because of that tradition, along with the local traditions of storytelling and local traditions of mythmaking and superstition, which seem to be ingrained into [Burmese] culture.”

Organizers were determined to stage the exhibition before the end of 2015, fearing that the uncertain outcome of the looming general election could potentially lead to paralysis in the civil service and render years of delicate negotiations void.

Attempting to put together a catalogue in three years, rather than the customary five, proved a challenging endeavour for Proser and her fellow curators. A couple of artworks had to be withdrawn at the last minute after their custodians in the Ministry of Religious Affairs erected unexpected bureaucratic hurdles. The Ministry of Culture’s offer to propose replica works instead of those requested by the curators was the subject of protracted negotiations.

Ultimately, most of the curators’ original requests were satisfied, and a team from the Asia Society traveled to Burma in January to supervise the shipment of works to the States. For those involved, the experience was a fascinating insight into contemporary religious practice, according to Proser.

“There’s an image we’re borrowing from the museum in Bagan, which to our eyes seems to be an image of the Buddha seated in Dharmachakra Mudra,” she said, referring to the representation of Buddha teaching acolytes about the path to Nirvana. “But it turns out that this image is particularly sacred. Every morning, all the museum staff makes obeisances to this particular image. There are local people who come from all around to see this image, because there was a monk who saw the image in a dream and started preaching that it was important.

“Before we started packing, they had a whole ceremony, they’d set up altars and they were making offerings of fruits and flowers to the piece. They were praying and explaining to the piece what was happening to it, where it was going, that it was coming back and that we were going to take good care of it. Just as they had kind of sealed the crate and were lifting it up to go, people just started weeping. The emotional attachment to these objects is profound—I can’t really think of anything analogous in our culture.”

Running from Feb. 10 to May 10 at the Asia Society’s Park Avenue headquarters, “Buddhist Art of Myanmar” will be accompanied by a number of public events, including public lectures, a performance by the renowned Shwe Man Thabin art and dance ensemble, and a panel discussion on the state of civil society, political reform and human rights in Burma.