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Sawangwongse Yawnghwe, Karen National Union, olieverf op linnen, 50 x 40 cm, 2021

Burma Down the House

Curated by Vivian Ziherl.


“The exhibition of textile and painting sits within a cycle of practice by the artist that over many years seeks to identify moments of aesthetic and real political potential amid the backdrop of deteriorating state-failure and international inaction surrounding Burma.” Vivian Ziherl


Saturday 13th of November open 13:00-18:00 PM

Saturday 20th of November open 13:00-18:00 PM

Saturday 13th of November

13:00 PM opening

17:30 PM Shan noodle soup

Essay by Vivian Ziherl:


22 02 2021 is the date of mass uprising against the Burmese Military coup. The number became a symbol of this moment of revolutionary popular expression. 

The exhibition of textile and painting sits within a cycle of practice by the artist that over many years seeks to identify moments of aesthetic and real political potential amid the backdrop of deteriorating state-failure and international inaction surrounding Burma, its ethnically complex population and its long-standing (neo)colonial affliction. Previous cycles of work have encompassed paintings that combine impressionist gestures of childhood memory and family photo archive, monumental history paintings citing the formal echoes of state violence that ricochet through some of Goya and Manet’s best known paintings, as well as austere and technocratic diagrams of state, criminal and corporate networks of influence. 

In this latest political chapter the speed at which the Burmese military coup of February 2021 has evaporated from international headlines is breathtaking even in an era of extraordinary news. G7 Governments moved quickly to normalize relations with the new powers and continue access for interests such as mineral extraction. Meanwhile the NLD, the government of Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has sought to form a unity government in exile but are no longer garnering international support following the exposure of a failure to protect ethnic minorities in fora such as the International Court of Justice in the Hague in 2019.  

The textiles in the exhibition are Pa Zin or silk women’s sarongs. Suspended above the audience, they re-enact a form of protest that emerged in the people’s uprising of February 2021. In practice, these textile barricades detourn power from the profoundly sexist, patriarchal violence of the Burmese army. According to local belief if a man walks under these women’s garments, his “phon” or masculine vitality will be compromised. These barricades were erected as part of a mass civil disobedience movement and while they are in part a canny and humorous gesture, they must be considered in the context of the well-known sexist violence of the Burmese army. Among other charges, a 2019 UN fact-finding mission noted the use of rape as a weapon of war againt Shan, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Chin, and Rohingya groups among other minority communities. Not only this but the barricades are truly effective, needing to be removed before army members are willing to cross through urban areas. As an installation or assemblage this work is a dedication towards this powerful gesture, and artistically stands as an action or continuation of protest.
The paintings in the exhibition were produced by Yawnghwe in Zutphen, as the events themselves were unfolding both in Burma and across world media. The figurative paintings feature soldiers from opposing sides. One captures a troupe of Burmese Army soldiers, featuring a repetition of army helmets and elusively depicted profiles. In another, one military figure stands alongside another dressed in civilian clothes. This is a soldier of the KNU ( Karen National Union) 5th brigade, which was one of the first brigades to respond to post-coup Tatmadaw aggression and retaliate against the Burmese military including helping to train the People’s Military Defense force comprised of members who fled cities into the jungle. For Yawnghwe these scenes are reminiscent of family history, wherein the artists’ Grandmother and parents fled to the jungle in his early childhood. Yawnghwe’s Grandmother was active in forming the first generation of the Shan State Army in which the artists’ father served as First Officer. In the present day however these forces are currently largely un-coordinated and seem rather to be fighting for survival. 

The final two paintings feature the tiger, a symbol of the Shan nation. The loosely inscribed text of this painting - itself closer to a drawing or a protest poster - refers to an ongoing process of the consistent diminishment of the voice and platform of ethnic minorities. This has led to a specific articulation to oppose ‘Burmanization’, or the hegemonic nationalisation of the Bama ethnic group represented by the NLD government even during its time of purported democratic leadership. As such the movements of minorities in Burma speak also to indigenous projects of survivance across the world and critique of the assurances of liberal democracy even amid the stark conditions of nationalist and Bhuddist-majoritarian military oppression. 

Vivian Ziherl
in conversation with Sawangwongse Yawnghwe, 6 October 2021.

Modca Beiroet
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