IEAS Exhibit Series — Arts of Asia

Through a Glass Darkly: Colonial Images of Burma


Framing History in British Burma by Penny Edwards
December 1, 2009 – March 10, 2010
Monday through Friday, 9 am – 5 pm
IEAS Lobby, 2223 Fulton Street, 6th Floor

The images on display in Through a Glass Darkly: Colonial Images of Burma are digitized reproductions of select portrayals of colonial Burma from two rare collections: Eighteen Views Taken at and near Rangoon by Joseph Moore, and R. B. Graham's Photographic Illustrations of Mandalay and Upper Burmah Expeditionary Force, 1886–87. The artist Moore and the amateur photographer, Graham, accompanied British naval and military campaigns at two critical junctures in the colonization of Burma.

Moore's sketches document Rangoon in the first Anglo-Burmese War, from 1824–1826. Graham's photographs record scenes from Mandalay at the time of the 1885–1886 annexation of Upper Burma. Both series include imagery of two cultural epicenters under siege: Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon and the Royal Palace in Mandalay.

Each of these conquests signaled serious ruptures of the Burmese moral order: Shwedagonwas converted to a barracks and arsenal. The Royal Palace became Fort Dufferin, a British military operational headquarters, complete with Christian chapel. The accomponaying dispossession and desecration of sacred space – as soldiers and collectors ransacked Buddhist reliquaries and palace chambers for personal gain and museum collections was soon followed by the sacralization of colonial space, as Christian cemeteries and memorials were established for fallen soldiers.

Recent work on the history of the image stresses the subjectivity of the genre, and the dangers of taking photographs at face value. Such scholarship has highlighted the significance of context, and enhanced the sense of nuance with which we gaze on and through colonial photographs. But to read these images as nothing more than a lens on the mindset of the producer, and a mirror of colonial hierarchies, is to neglect a valuable historical record.

What kind of history can we read through such impressions? Are these the random visual footnotes of colonial encounters, the careful output of artistes intent on capturing the moment, or larger framing devices for narratives of British mastery? We invite visitors to reflect on such questions as they contemplate this series. One way to read these images is as early steps towards, and examples of, war photography. Another is as mute colonial testimony to racial hierarchies reflected in their composition. Several images are clearly choreographed to underscore the centrality of British officers; some highlight the central role of Indian infantry and medical auxiliaries. Many scenes reveal details of landscape, dress, architecture and design that ordinarily escape war reports. All lend themselves to multiple interpretation, and offer a valuable supplement to textual records.

Through a Glass Darkly: Colonial Images of Burma, is curated by Penny Edwards and Caverlee Cary of the IEAS, with vital assistance from Rosalie Fanshel. The curators gratefully acknowledge the National Library of Australia, who generously furnished Edwards with copies of these images during her tenure as a Harold White Fellow in 2002, and the University of California Junior Faculty Research Grant, made available to Penny Edwards in 2008, and which financed reproduction of the digital images by Nelson Otter.

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