Essentialist Images is an exhibition of contemporary Burmese art, and its oscillation between the static past and the persistently intrusive present. The writer and collector Andrew Ranard wrote of the modern era as it unfolded in Myanmar: “It was as if everything that Burma had achieved in the arts in the 20th century was worth nothing. Such attitudes … are soothing to some Burmese, especially those who yearn to remain prisoners of that fantastic lost space which lies in ruins about them.”
While the ubiquitous panoply of traditionally-derived images that dominate popular forms of Burmese art – from monks to landscapes – are absent here, the work in this exhibition foreground other familiar tropes that have come to define the country in the twentieth century and beyond: political authoritarianism, the anticolonial legacy, and, especially, the lingering spectre of its long, rich cultural history. The essentialist character of these works is not one of fixed geo-cultural essence, but a complication of received ideas and images, from iconography to anatomy to photographs to film, that serve as a response to contemporary issues that have increasingly stereotyped depictions of Myanmar today.