Myanmar was largely a closed country until cyclone Nargis killed more than 150 000 people 2008. In the humanitarian disaster and intense international pressure that followed, the military decided to open up and receive international aid. Since then Myanmar has continued to see essential changes taking place as they have increasingly opened up to the outside world. 12 years after Nargis, Myanmar has been propelled into a bustling fusion of contrasts; of modernity and tradition, rundown alleyways and fancy office buildings – floating undecidedly in the space between multiple different and fascinating worlds.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Victor Frankl
All these contrasts became evident during a fashion shoot for the French fashion designer Charlotte Barjou, who is based in Yangon. The shoots were set in typically traditional Myanmar contexts, with plenty of locals crowding around us to observe the models, make-up artists and designs. Whereas we were warmly welcomed in the old glass factory, we were met with more curiosity in the crowded Sanchaung district streets. In the warehouse market though, many workers were downright degrading, scolding the model’s poses and outfits and calling her obscene names.
Even though Charlotte Barjou is an ethical fashion designer, who uses locally produced fabrics to reinvent ethnic patterns, the idea of commercial fashion and beauty for women is still quite foreign to everyday Myanmar contexts, where women mainly wear traditional and appropriate clothes and play discrete female roles, entrenched by strict gender norms. One of our models was Miss World Myanmar 2017, who challenges many unwritten gender rules with her short hair, as well as her strong confidence and fame.
Just as Myanmar generally finds itself in a space where it still needs to decide on its response to the outside world in different ways, the experience of shooting this series also reminded me of how foreign many western concepts still are. Everything launched by the west should of course not be embraced, but there is also a lot of truth to the above quote by Victor Frankl. If we could all learn to appreciate and make wise use of the space in which we react and make decisions in regard to what is foreign to us, positive things can happen and many different types of beauty can merge.
Magdalena lives with her family in Myanmar. She has previously worked for a number of NGO:s in Thailand and Laos on access to education for minorities as a means to breaking structural violence and promote sustainable peace. She is currently working as an independent consultant under the auspices of her own business ”Unfiltered Communications”. Her focus is on writing, documenting, and producing material for a variety of actors and organizations in Myanmar and the region.
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