It took a year to get the artwork from Myanmar to St. Paul.
Artist and curator Saw Kennedy said the Myanmar government considers some of the artwork illegal, so to bypass censorship he said he smuggled the artwork to Thailand and then shipped the pieces to the U.S.
The art is now on display in a new exhibit at Xia Gallery and Cafe, where organizers say is the largest collection of Myanmar artwork exhibited in the U.S.
“This showing is sharing about the beauty of Burma,” Kennedy said with an air of deep respect. He is from a Karen village in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, and came to the U.S. in 2008.
The exhibit is “sharing about what’s behind the story. Every painting tells about every artist’s imagination, feelings, and creations. That’s what we’d like to share with the international communities.”
On an icy Friday evening in December, a couple dozen people joined Kennedy at Xia Gallery to celebrate the opening of the exhibit and watch performances of Karen songs and traditional dance. “Window to the Soul: A Myanmar Group Exhibit” features 31 artists and is free to view until February.
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It’s only the second exhibit for Xia Gallery, which opened in October on University Ave. W near Western Ave. N in an area known as Little Mekong, a business and cultural district near the Capitol in St. Paul, and focuses on showcasing Asian and Asian American art and artists.
A brief history of the Karen presence in Minnesota
The gallery features art and artists from Myanmar, specifically several ethnic minorities like the Karen, Karenni, and Pa’O and more to showcase unity.
According to the Karen Organization of Minnesota, there are estimated to be 20,000 Karen and 1,500 Karenni people in Minnesota. Karen people are from the area of Myanmar, formerly Burma. The Karen origin story claims they traveled from Tibet and China and then settled in the Myanmar area roughly 2,000 years ago.
When World War II began, the Karen allied with the British while the Burmese sided with the Japanese. In 1886, Britain colonized Burma, so ethnic groups such as the Mon, Shan, Thai, Burmese, Karen, and Karenni became part of Burma. In 1948, Burma was granted independence from Britain, but the Karen were not granted their own rights to land.
January 31, 1949, is Karen Revolution Day and marks the beginning of the Karen uprising, a fight for independence from the Burmese government. Since then it’s been the world’s longest ongoing civil war for almost 74 years. Today Myanmar is made up of more than 135 ethnic groups, with Burman making up ⅔ of the population and Karen and Karenni being some of the largest minority nationalities in Myanmar.
In the early 2000s, Karen people began to settle in Minnesota. Today, Minnesota is considered to have the largest Karen population outside of Southeast Asia.