From influential superpower to repressive regime, Myanmar – also known as Burma – has seen dramatic fluctuations in fortune over the past 1,500 years.
Experiencing decades of civil war and now ruled again by a military dictatorship, Myanmar is an isolated figure on the world stage today, and its story is relatively little known in the West. However, the extraordinary artistic output of its peoples, over more than a millennium of cultural and political change, attests to its pivotal role at the crossroads of Asia.
Picking up the thread around AD 450, the exhibition explores how Myanmar's various peoples interacted with each other and the world around them, leading to new ideas and art forms. From the 14th century several kingdoms jostled for power and expanded important links with Thailand, China, Sri Lanka, and traders from the Middle East and Europe, creating a fertile ground for diverse cultures to flourish; a coin issued by King Dhammaraja Hussain (r. 1612–22) of the Arakan kingdom, inscribed in Arakanese, Bengali and Persian, shows the wide reach of his trade and political networks.
Rulers in central Myanmar came to dominate parts of the region between the 16th and 19th centuries, becoming the largest empire in mainland Southeast Asia. A stunning gold and ruby-studded letter sent by King Alaungpaya to George II in 1756 speaks to the empire's wealth and power.
Annexation by the British in the 19th century saw tremendous changes impacting art, culture and society – and contributed to the turmoil faced by Myanmar today. The show concludes by exploring how modern-day artists have defied state censors, marrying activism with artistic traditions in expressions of resistance and hope.
Interconnected yet cut-off, rich in natural resources such as jade, rubies and teak but with much of the country living below the poverty line, Myanmar is a country that defies categorisation. This unprecedented exhibition offers the chance to see the history behind the headlines.