After over a half-century of censorship, political turmoil, and being fenced-off to the world, one of Myanmar’s most iconic and historically significant buildings has opened its doors. Now, the Secretariat, a 120-year-old sprawling, red-brick colonial building at the center of downtown Yangon, once the formal seat of British colonial power in Burma, is getting a makeover.
Following independence and hosting the nation's first parliament, the Secretariat gained historical notoriety in 1947 when General Aung San, the father of Burma, was assassinated there along with other cabinet members. In the decades that followed, one of the city’s most magnificent landmarks, a stately compound of colonial brickwork with charming gardens and intricate architecture, stood unused and closed off.
In 2017, authorities breathed life into the Secretariat's dusty halls with a reported $100 million investment, making it Myanmar’s largest restoration project to date. For this, authorities have contracted Italian firm Pomeroy Studios to renovate the interiors, revive the surrounding gardens, and repurpose the heritage site to better suit public cultural needs. Prof. Jason Pomeroy, founder of Pomeroy Studios, said in an interview that he intends to, “restore this grand colonial building to its former glory and reinvigorate its internal spaces with a programme of arts-related functions, seeking to both preserve Yangon’s cultural past, and cultivate Myanmar’s creative future.”
Indeed, the Secretariat has been aiming for just that. In March, Pyinsa Rasa, an art collective comprised of Yangon film makers, musicians, photographers and artists, has been given a six-month residency of the grand Southern Wing. During this period, they are hosting a variety of exhibitions, performances, cultural events, and educational initiatives, demonstrating how Yangon’s impressive colonial buildings can be transformed for public and cultural uses.
Nathalie Johnston, co-founder of Pyinsa Rasa and founder and director of Myanm/art, a contemporary art gallery, seeks to use this iconic space to highlight Myanmar’s unique modern art history. For this particular site, she wants to "take historical and contemporary material and transform or visualize it for public use and discussion."
The examination and influence of history is an important thread connecting the various exhibitions and galleries, "We want to be more into history – we’re looking into film history, music history, art history, and photographic history,” she told the Myanmar Times.
The opening exhibit, “Burmese Photographers,” in partnership with the Goethe Institute, delved into a wide range of Myanmar photography. From portrait photos, to secretive romance letters, to generic NRC passport-style photos, the exhibit provides historical context as well as an insightful frame through which to look at modern Myanmar culture and history. The exhibit will remain open in the Southern Wing until July. Since opening, Pyinsa Rasa has hosted the Yangon Art Fair, The Art & Influence of Myanmar Film Heritage Exhibit, musical performances, documentary film screenings, and more.
To describe the history and condition of the Secretariat as a symbol of Myanmar’s development and statehood as ‘Orwellian’ would be apt. The boom in contemporary art and culture, especially as it examines histories of artistic expression and how they confronted systemic repression, eventually finding a home in Yangon’s most famous building is momentous. Yangon has long been the beacon to signify changes in national culture, politics, or commerce. These days, if looking to learn about Myanmar art and history, look to the Secretariat.
In addition to current exhibits and smaller functions, upcoming events are as follows.
- May - Contemporary Photography and Films
- June - A Beast, a God and a Line, an international traveling exhibition
- July - Contemporary Myanmar Art Exhibition, curated by Htein Lin