Since 2010, Berlin photographer Martin Seeliger has traveled a number of times to Mrauk U, the former royal seat of the lost Arakan kingdom, today a part of Myanmar. His meetings with local painter Shwe Maung Thar (1955–2015) have resulted in the “Legendary Arakan” exhibition, on display at Galerie Kuhn & Partner in Berlin, from May 15 to June 6, 2015.
Q: Mr. Seeliger, how did you discover Mrauk U?
A: Before my first trip to Myanmar in 2010, I had no real sense of what to expect when I got there. However, what I had read about Mrauk U and what is known today as the Rakhine State sounded incredibly exciting. Mrauk U was the last royal seat of the lost kingdom of Arakan. It was a cosmopolitan metropolis with around 120,000 inhabitants, which at its highest point during the 16th and 17th century, ruled over the regions of the Bay of Bengal and also the western part of Burma. I had hardly found any pictures, however, so I went to Mrauk U with very few expectations. But then, as I walked over the hills and through the fields surrounding the great temples of Shite-taung and Htukkanthein, with the afternoon sun bathing the landscape in a warm, flickering light, the reality far surpassed my few expectations.

Q: What photographic challenges did you face?
A: Immediately after my arrival, it was obvious that I had to approach the archaic atmosphere of the place with a lot of patience, sensitivity and, above all, time. Because of the changes taking place all over the world, it is highly unlikely that you will be able to experience ancient Asia for much longer, even in a remote heritage site like Mrauk U. So, to capture that rare quiet, the stillness and the lingering magic with the necessary awareness, I consciously chose the use of a Leica M with analogue slide film. This was, in fact, the photographic challenge that forced me to work carefully and, as much as possible, not to waste great amounts of film. At the same time, it also made me work in a decidedly foresighted manner – in other words to pre-empt how the situation would develop in front of the camera, so as to be able to capture the right moment – the moment where the before and the after meet.
Q: How are the buildings from the era of the Arakan Kingdom arranged?
A: You can’t picture Mrauk U as a pulsing, cultural metropolis. Mrauk U today is a fairly dusty settlement structured like a village. The only treasures in the region are the countless, archaeologically-unique temple complexes and pagodas, buried in the surrounding hills and fields, or hidden in the thick, tropical rainforest, where it takes hours of hiking to discover them. Contrary to Bagan, for example, Mrauk U’s cultural heritage has, with the exception of the great main temple, fallen into decay. In 2014 I was already unable to reproduce many of the pictures I had taken in 2011 and 2012, because the landscape has been transformed by cellular radio towers, overland electricity lines and bridge heads for train tracks. The “Legendary Arakan” exhibition aims to encourage photo enthusiasts, as well as those interested in culture and those traveling throughout Asia, to visit a region with truly outstanding cultural value.

Q: In addition to your photographs, the exhibition includes paintings by Shwe Maung Thar who, up until his sudden death at the beginning of this year, lived in Mrauk U. How did you meet him?
A: Shwe Maung Thar was a friend of my local guide, and it was he who introduced us. I was immediately fascinated by his persona and energy. What I was particularly impressed by was his keen desire to always continue learning – something he fought for all his life. It was a struggle because, for oil painting according to European ideals, the selection of appropriate study materials and art supplies is very limited – even in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial and cultural metropolis.
Stylistically speaking, Shwe Maung Thar’s work was mostly inspired by French and German impressionists, such as Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne and Max Liebermann. He found his motifs in the limitless landscapes of Mrauk U. The special appeal of his art is this unusual combination of regional (for Europeans very exotic) motifs with a European stylistic approach. Located close to the main temple, Shwe Maung Thar’s atelier, L’Amitié, is an important meeting place for cultural buffs from around the world. His son, Khine Min Tun, who trained under him, is carrying this cultural heritage and the L’Amitié gallery forward. We’re really happy that Khine Min Tun will come to Berlin for the exhibition, to present his own work next to that of his father’s.

Q: How has the dialogue between painting and photography been designed for the exhibition?
A: Since our first meeting in 2010, Shwe Maung Thar and I talked about local motifs, picture composition and perspectives. This on-going dialogue is also the exhibition’s Leitmotiv. Our conversations inspired us both to discover new ideas for pictures. Shwe Maung Thar gave me valuable tips about special places, perspectives and light conditions, and, in exchange, he often used my photographs as study material, to be able to refine colour nuances and compositions in his atelier. In “Legendary Arakan” the oil paintings and corresponding photographs reveal the many layers of this fascinating place, from the very different viewpoints of a knowledgeable local and an amazed traveller. Visitors to the exhibition are given an exceptional glimpse into a region with unique cultural value.
Thank you for your time, Martin!
– Leica Internet Team
Read the interview in its original German. Learn more about the exhibition here.