Buddhist Art of Myanmar is the first exhibition in the West focusing on works of art from collections in Myanmar. The exhibition comprises approximately 70 spectacular works—including stone, bronze and wood sculptures, textiles, paintings, and lacquer ritual implements—from the fifth through the early twentieth century. Artworks include objects created for temples, monasteries, and personal devotion, which are presented in their historical and ritual contexts. The exhibition explores how Buddhist narratives were communicated visually and the multiplicity of regional styles. Many of the works in the exhibition have never been shown outside of Myanmar. Works are on loan from the National Museum of Myanmar in Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw; Bagan Archeological Museum; Sri Ksetra Archaeological Museum, Hmawza; and the Kaba Aye Buddhist Museum, as well as works from public and private collections in the United States.
Myanmar, also officially known in the English language as “Burma” from the period of British control until 1989, is one of the most ethnically diverse countries on earth. Today the nation is home to over one hundred officially recognized ethnic groups, each with its own distinctive way of life, language, and adherence to a variety of belief systems. Although nearly ninety percent of Myanmar’s inhabitants count themselves as Buddhists, the country also is home to many Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and animists.
Buddhism was established in Myanmar around 500 CE or the middle of the first millennium, centuries after the Buddha’s demise in India. The faith was likely brought to Myanmar by Indian monks and traders during their interactions with local kingdoms. Lower Myanmar was then in the hands of the Mon, while Upper Myanmar was ruled by the Pyu. These two major ethnic groups were eclipsed by Bamar-speaking peoples who had begun to filter into Upper Myanmar by the beginning of the second millennium. The Bamar created their capital overlooking the Irrawaddy River at Pagan, or Bagan, where a frenzy of Buddhist devotion resulted in the construction of over two thousand brick temples, stupas, and monasteries. While Pagan’s art owed a strong and undeniable debt to eastern India, its sculptors, painters, and architects forged a distinctive aesthetic, which in later centuries diverged completely from Indian modes.
Buddhist legends developed locally in Myanmar, reflecting indigenous interpretations of Buddhist texts brought from South Asia. A number of Myanmar’s oldest Buddhist stories describe the Buddha’s visits to the kingdoms of Myanmar. In these tales, the Buddha bestows hair relics and presses the soles of his feet into stone to create what are known as living relics, which have remained under continuous worship in Myanmar. In fact, the Buddha never ventured beyond India, but the relics of the stories were enshrined in many of Myanmar’s temples and stupas along with sculptures and objects commissioned by donors. The objects forming this exhibition, formerly in the service of temples, stupas, and monasteries, embody an enduring tradition in which myth and history blend seamlessly.
Sylvia Fraser-Lu, Guest Curator
Donald Stadtner, Guest Curator
Adriana Proser, John H. Foster Senior Curator for Traditional Asian Art
Asia Society and Museum
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