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Gallery Review | ‘Burma in Transition’ highlights cultural evolution

Tufts students showcase their immersive experiences in Burma

Published: Monday, January 28, 2013

Updated: Monday, January 28, 2013 01:01

In May of last year, a group of Tufts students who spent the year in a seminar with the Program for Narrative and Documentary Practice (PNDP) traveled to Burma for a 10−day, on−site workshop to explore Burmese life. PNDP, which is a program under the Tufts Institute for Global Leadership (IGL), allows students from various disciplines to gain skills in narrative storytelling through multimedia. The students journeyed to Yangon, the country’s largest city, and their work has culminated in a photo exhibition entitled “Burma in Transition” at the Tufts Art Gallery. The exhibition opened at the Slater Concourse Gallery on Jan. 23. and will continue through the end of February.

The exhibition is divided into 11 sections, each of which showcases the work of a particular student and focuses on a specific theme or location in Yangon. These sections distill the work of the artists, as their portfolios and the photographs they took over the course of an entire year culminate in a display of about 12 photographs per student. Next to each of the pieces is a description of the student’s chosen theme or location and how it relates to the larger social atmosphere in Burma.

One of the first pieces in the concourse examines the Yangon Circular Railway and was photographed by senior Molly Ferrill. The descriptive passage explains that the railway is undergoing significant changes and the station general asserts that it may be unrecognizable in a decade’s time. This narrative allows the viewer to absorb the photographs as though this particular aspect of Burmese life must be committed to memory before it disappears altogether. Nearly every photograph in this piece introduces a personal narrative that draws the viewer in and simultaneously sparks interest in understanding the lives of the men and women riding the railway.

An exemplary piece by sophomore Nicola Pardy showcases street portraits of various men and women — this one portfolio alone is worth the visit. The colors in the photographs are absolutely stunning, with backdrops of corrugated metal walls in bright pinks and teals in some portraits paired with clothing of the same hues in others. Just as the coloring evinces both luminosity and tranquility, so too are the facial expressions, marked by sublime strength and reflection.

An unexpected surprise lies in the works on “Youth Culture” by sophomore Elizabeth Mealey and “Burmese Hip−Hop” by senior Ben Ross. These photographs in particular portray the ways young Burmese are moving away from traditional culture and are building a new form of identity for themselves. “Youth Culture” contrasts starkly from the majority of other works in the exhibition, as black, red and purple engulf the young women made up with dark eye shadow and men covered in tattoos. “Burmese Hip−Hop” studies musician Ye’Naung and is an inspiring display of the creative process. Each photograph acts as a lens into a different part of music production, from writing to experimenting to recording.

Because the photographs in “Burma in Transition” provide distinctive narratives so successfully, the viewer gains a sense of real knowledge of Burmese life. The Shwedagon Pagoda is described as a “maze of pavilions and gardens,” but it isn’t until the viewer observes the gamut of local types in this piece that the diversity of the Pagoda becomes apparent. One photograph steals a look into several people having a discussion in a secluded garden, while another shows a group of women during a prayer session. The piece focusing on Su Su Nway, a well−known female democracy activist in Burma, provides insight into social issues of the country while simultaneously telling the personal story of a woman’s sustained fight for equality.

As a whole, “Burma in Transition” effectively echoes the current transformation of the country, as some pieces explore the fast−paced change occurring in Yangon currently while others examine more traditional Burmese culture. As individual pieces, the works of these 11 students succeed magnificently in telling engaging stories and compel the viewer to seek more. Although “Burma in Transition” is a smaller exhibition and may not capture one’s interest upon first sight, these photographs deserve far more than a casual walk−by.

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