Showcasing a national treasure

A new art exhibition space at Yangon’s Secretariat building aims to showcase the city’s ability to become an international capital for culture. 

By OLIVER SLOW | FRONTIER

CLOSED OFF for decades, in recent years members of the public have been able to enjoy more time inside the grounds of the Secretariat in downtown Yangon, one of the country’s most historically significant buildings. It holds particular importance for the people of Myanmar because it is where eight independence heroes – including Bogyoke Aung San – and a bodyguard were gunned down at 10.37am on July 19, 1947.

For the last three Martyrs’ Days, which is held on the anniversary of the killings, the grounds have been opened to the public. Last year’s crowd, which saw thousands queue around the block for several hours, highlights how much this building means to the Myanmar people.

In 2012, the Anawmar Art Group won a government tender to manage the Secretariat, although specific details about their plans for the sprawling site remain unclear.

In February, a new art space, Pyinsa Rasa, was established in the Southeast wing of the building, and its organisers say it represents a small step towards opening up to the public.

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Pyinsa Rasa describes itself as a collective dedicated to local arts promotion and development in Yangon, and is collaboration between five local groups, Wathann Film Festival, music event organisers Jam It! and The Rough Cut, and exhibition spaces Myanmar Deitta and Myanm/Art.

Ms Nathalie Johnston, founder and director of Myanm/Art, said the management behind the Secretariat is keen to open the space to the public, but warned that much of it is still a construction site, which comes with potential health and safety risks.

“They want to show that they’re engaged with the public, but of course there are concerns about damage to the building,” Johnston told Frontier during a recent tour of the space.

The current exhibition “Contemporary Photography and Filmmaking in Myanmar”, which runs until May 27, looks at Myanmar today through the eyes of contemporary Myanmar photographers. It includes a powerful photo exhibition by Nyan Zay Htet, showing the struggles faced by shipyard workers across the Yangon River in Dala, and another by Zarni Phyo, a confronting look at the lives of the country’s lethwei fighters.

The next exhibition, from June 6 to 19, is “A beast, a god and a line”, the largest international contemporary exhibition ever to show in Myanmar, according to Pyinsa Rasa.

As things stand, Pyinsa Rasa’s run at the Secretariat will end in July.

Eaid Dhi, who runs Jam It!, said his involvement with the project came as he wanted to use a space as historic the Secretariat to celebrate Myanmar’s music.

“Pyinsa Rasa supports a bigger platform for Myanmar musicians, from indie rock to hip hop to experimental. So we are happy to be a part of something that believes in positive change,” he told Frontier.

Thu Thu Sein, a founder of Wathann Film Festival, said the space could strengthen the presence of film, filmmaking and film workshops in Yangon.

“The more we work collaboratively with other creative fields, the better it is for Yangon’s creative scene,” she said.

Johnston said the aim of Pyinsa Rasa was to show the Secretariat’s management that “it is possible to have a cultural, public and donor-funded space in this historic building, and that people can enjoy it”.

“We also want to showcase what Pyinsa Rasa is and show what we’re capable of. We want to petition the city and show that we can have these sorts of events around the city, and help to make Yangon an international centre for culture,” she said.

By Oliver Slow

By Oliver Slow

Oliver Slow is a Southeast Asia-based journalist. He is a former Chief-of-Staff at Frontier, and is writing a book about Myanmar's transition.
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