Glass snake sculpture on a table surrounded by other glass and ceramic works.

Pythons, porcelain and power: an artist's fascination with snakes

Publication date: 30 January 2024

Soe Yu Nwe is an ethnic Chinese-Myanmar artist who grew up in Myanmar, and whose multicultural experience inspires her to reflect on identity through the act of making.

In our latest blog, Soe Yu Nwe discusses the symbolism of snakes in Burmese and wider Asian culture – and how these traditions influenced her sculpture Green Burmese Python, which was on display in our special exhibition, Burma to Myanmar.  

Intro

My fascination with snakes started when I learned about my Chinese zodiac sign. Born in 1989, I am an earth snake (each 12-year cycle of animals in the zodiac is also associated with one of the five elements: earth, metal, fire, water and wood). I remember feeling disappointed because I was not something as cool as a dragon – if I had only been born one year earlier! In Chinese culture, dragons are emblematic of many desirable characteristics and are auspicious symbols of prosperity and virtue. In comparison, the snake is an earth-bound, shadowy slithering creature that stereotypically invokes fear and disgust, with an aura of evil about it. However, snakes and serpents have gone on to play an integral role in my work as an artist.  

Early inspiration

A spirit house in the branches of a tree.
Spirit houses in the branches of a tree, Yangon, Myanmar 2020. Photo: Soe Yu Nwe. 

During my years of graduate study at the Rhode Island School of Design in the US, I made a body of work using spirit houses as symbols of the self. Often found on the streets of Myanmar and Thailand, spirit houses are outdoor structures believed to house the guardian spirits of the area, or elements within the landscape such as trees. This is a form of worship known as Animism, which involves attributing sentience to objects, animals and natural phenomena. Inspired by such shrines, I created a series of ceramic houses to shelter my metaphorical spirit from the alienation I felt while living in a foreign country away from home. 

Ceramic spirit house sculpture
Soe Yu Nwe (b. 1989), House. Glazed stoneware, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist. 

Following this work, I wanted to continue to explore the concept of self, multicultural identity and femininity in relation to Animism, as well as Buddhism, the majority religion in Myanmar. My inspiration for creating a ceramic serpent came in 2014 after seeing American artist Beth Cavener's large-scale ceramic sculpture of a snake devouring a rabbit. Somehow, the whole sculpture surprisingly exuded tenderness and beauty despite depicting an act of violent consumption. This prompted me to create my own serpents using porcelain. Growing up in a Chinese household, I was surrounded by images of a Buddhist deity known as Guanyin, who is often represented in white porcelain in China. I love how pristine and pure translucent porcelain feels, which is why it became the material of choice for my serpent series.

Buddhist traditions

Glazed ceramic serpent sculpture with gold and mother-of-pearl lustre.
Soe Yu Nwe (b. 1989), Feminine Wound (detail). Glazed porcelain, gold and mother-of-pearl lustre, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.

When I was studying in the US, I always felt that westerners looked at Buddhism as a kind of escapist religion, something other than the traditions that they grew up with. I often hear arguments saying that in contrast to Christianity, Buddhism is not a religion, that it is a philosophy. It is an argument that confuses me as it conflicts with my experience of living in heavily Buddhist countries, such as Myanmar and Thailand, where the religion is institutionalised. We have holidays related to the religion. When you visit a pagoda or religious site, you have to wear proper clothing that covers your body and remove your shoes. There are places that women can't enter as they are seen as spiritually lower than men and are somehow tainted due to menstruation. It is often believed that one is born a woman or inter-sex because one has not accrued enough merit to be born as a man. Growing up, I was told by a teacher at school that you can only achieve enlightenment or become a Buddha in a man's body – therefore I could never achieve Buddhahood in my current life because of my body. In the first snake series that I created in 2015, titled 'Feminine Wound', I aimed to narrate the pain that resulted from internalised feelings of sexism and otherness due to my gender and cultural identity.

Sign from inside a pagoda saying 'Ladies are not allowed to enter'
Sign forbidding women to enter the Maha Myat Muni Pagoda, Mandalay, Myanmar, 2020. Photo: Soe Yu Nwe.

Snake pagodas

View inside the snake pagoda at Twante, with a tree and sculpted figures.
Inside the snake pagoda at Twante, near Yangon, Myanmar, 2020. Photo: Soe Yu Nwe.  

Myanmar's snake pagodas, as havens for Burmese pythons, are another inspiration for my serpent sculptures. The story goes that when a Burmese python repeatedly returned to a Buddhist temple after being constantly driven off into the surrounding forest, the local monks became convinced that the snake was actually the reincarnation of a devoted monk who had passed away. This belief led the monks to accept the python as a guardian of the pagoda and the practice of keeping serpents in temples began.

Inside a snake pagoda, with two snakes in front of a statue of the Buddha.
Inside a snake pagoda in Mandalay, Myanmar, 2020. Donations to the temple are placed in front of a Buddha statue. Photo: Soe Yu Nwe.

I find the way that Animism is syncretised with Buddhism in this tradition quite interesting as a cultural phenomenon. Green Burmese Python (created in 2018), which is currently being exhibited at the British Museum's Burma to Myanmar exhibition, was inspired by such temples. 

Visitor looking at the snake sculpture inside the exhibition.
Visitor with Green Burmese Python inside the Burma to Myanmar exhibition.

Nagas

I am also fascinated by mythical serpents called nagas¸ which exist in many Asian religious traditions. In 2018, I visited the Botataung Pagoda in Yangon where I was inspired by the story of the woman Mya Nan Nwe. Mya Nan Nwe was born in 1897 in Mogok, British Burma. Because of her devotion to Buddhism, she was enshrined after her death and mythologised as a naga queen due to the belief that she was a naga who had been reborn as human. 

Inside a temple in Yangon.
Mya Nan Nwe Temple in Botataung Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar, 2020. Photo: Soe Yu Nwe. 

Now revered as the mother goddess Naga Mae Daw, her power is believed to be great. For instance, General Than Shwe (head of state in Myanmar from 1992–2011) issued an order to handcuff her statue every night because she haunted him in his dreams. Inspired by Mya Nan Nwe's story and her beautiful and bountiful green temple, I created the Naga Mae Daw serpent series during my artist's residency in Jingdezhen in China, a city famous for ceramic production. 

Glazed porcelain serpent with gold and mother-of-pearl lustre.
Soe Yu Nwe (b. 1989), Naga Mae Daw Serpent, glazed porcelain, gold and mother-of-pearl lustre. Collection of Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation. Image courtesy of Jia Tong. 

The goddess Nüwa and Chinese myth

Drawing of the goddess Nüwa receiving precious stones to repair the pillars that separate heaven and earth
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), the goddess Nüwa receives precious stones to repair the pillars that separate heaven and earth. Ink on paper, about 1820–40. 

Another inspiration for the Naga Mae Daw series is the Nüwa goddess from Chinese and Japanese creation myths. In some representations, this serpentine goddess has the head of a human and the body of a snake, and she is credited as the creator of the universe and of humans. In one version of the myth, Nüwa was living on the earth and, being lonely, she created humans from yellow clay to keep her company. In some traditions, she also saved the sky from collapsing by supporting it with pillars harvested from a tortoise's legs and repairing the cracks by filling them with melted stones of five colours. Since reading the myth, I often wonder how the erasure of a matriarchal system happened within popular culture and belief. How did the snake change from a symbol of female power, a creative and healing goddess, to something that represents evil, wickedness, poison, destruction and death? This transformation in meaning across time and cultures fascinates me. Therefore, in my newest body of work produced for the 2023 Thailand Biennale, I created a glass and ceramic snake to explore these changes and the disappearance of positive meanings in the serpent symbol. My sculpted snake is part corporeal, represented by the ceramic segments and part ghostly, represented by the glassy transparent segments. By combining two opposing materials in fragments, I am striving to create an artwork that represents an intermediary state between the living and the other world. In future projects, I hope to delve deeper into learning about this shift in beliefs. 

Glass snake sculpture on a table surrounded by other glass and ceramic works.
Soe Yu Nwe (b. 1989), Inspirations from Shan State and Chiang Rai. Glazed ceramics and hot-sculpted glass, 2023. Photo: Soe Yu Nwe. Project supported by Thailand Biennale and BGC Glass Studio. Glasswork created in collaboration with BGC Glass Studio. 

Conclusion

Soe Yu Nwe's sculpture Green Burmese Python was displayed alongside objects that explored 1,500 of Burmese history in the special exhibition Burma to Myanmar, which ran 2 November 2023 until 11 February 2024.  

Supported by Zemen Paulos and Jack Ryan