MAIN STORY: As a country develops, its art changes and evolves.
Bhutanese contemporary art today reflects the change the country has undergone.
Many more artists are expressing themselves today. In the capital alone, within the last 10 years, the number of art galleries has increased from one to five.
Voluntary Artists’ Studio in Thimphu (VAST) is one of the oldest art galleries in Bhutan. Its founder Asha Kama is one of the torchbearers of contemporary art in the country today.
Getting together with other like-minded artists, Asha started VAST in 1987. He started experimenting with the skills of traditional painting using his knowledge of the other art cultures.
People make assumptions that contemporary art is modern art but it is not, Asha Karma said. “A traditional art can also be a contemporary art,” he said.
“Anything that we make according to the growth of an artist’s intellect, of course, with some influence from outside is considered contemporary art,” Asha Kama said. “Contemporary art is a new form of expression of what is happening around us at the moment. In a traditional art society, we have a different form of expression but in a modern society art (painting, poetry or movie) is all about expression because of the influence of what is happening in the present time.”
Painting or creating art in a western style began occuring in the country around the 1960s, Asha Kama said.
“In the early 60s, when roads and electricity arrived in the country, it brought a lot of changes,” he said. “A significant change took place in the infrastructure where maintaining its cultural aspect became a priority. During that time, there was a huge requirement of traditional artists. That time, it was a contemporary change in the country,” Asha said.
New avenues such as the National Institute of Zorig Chusum (NIZC) and the Royal Academy of Performing Arts were opened with requirements in constructing new dzongs and lhakhangs, and for entertainment, which provided new opportunities, responsibilities and ideas to the people.
“Although there were no modern art that time, the traditional art movement evolved and that brought a contemporary change. That’s how the concept of art, painting, sculpting and others, which were a part of religion initially, became a part of the laymen,” Asha Karma said.
When NIZC was opened, many villagers received an opportunity to paint. They went on to become the first generation of art teachers. “That part, we can say, is contemporary because it was different at that time. Although the style of the art was traditional at that time, the moment was very contemporary.”
The painting of thangkas, which was initially taught only to monks, was found not practical to be taught to students at school, so a new form expression evolved although some techniques of traditional art remained, Asha Kama said.
“That time, the whole progress of art was steady and slow because the art requirement was slow. Only in the last 10 to 15 years, the progress was fast because suddenly there was a requirement,” Asha said. “Today, there are people who were brought up with a wider sense of communication, expressing in a different way and those who feel that they could spend their whole life as an artist despite limited choices.”
Yeetop Pelden Dorji, 25, is one such artist who left his college studies to pursue art. After realising his passion to create and being inspired by various mediums of contemporary art, Yeetop finally decided to pursue art while in his first year of college.
Today, he is studying a two-year animation course at the iBEST institute in Thimphu.
Last week, Yeetop finally had an opportunity to showcase his first artworks at an exhibition held by the institute. He drew three paintings, which depicted a warrior in each painting.
“I want to inspire people through the warriors in my paintings,” Yeetop said. “Today, there are many avenues and platforms where we can study contemporary art and create something which we can call our own.”
Yeetop, after finally pursuing his passion, hopes to continue painting and exhibit his work in a gallery one day.
When art lovers visit art exhibitions and galleries in the capital, one will occasionally find a common theme or image in the artworks. They are usually depiction of famous landmarks and symbols across the country.
There are paintings of dzongs, masks, prayer flags, religious icons, Buddhist inscriptions, the idea of death, of after-life and of impermanence, all intertwined with the perception, idea and technique of the artists. There are also paintings of landscapes and portraits.
Contemporary art has given birth to several themes and images used by artists but hasn’t progressed in a huge way, Asha Kama explained.
“There is a lack of niche market, recognition and opportunities for an artist. There are no set rules or regulations or set of scholarships or a separate endowment fund allocated for the growth of an artist today,” he said. “These issues need to be addressed so that contemporary art progresses in the country.”
Other than these challenges, artists today also face limited freedom of expression, Dorji Phuntsho, an animator, said.
“The themes are mostly conventional and people demand a photo-finish art even if it’s not authentic or expressive. Painting a dzong or a beautiful scenery is what people demand and consider good art,” he said. “The growth of contemporary art should come from people so that artists can express differently.”
There are a lot of surface sort-of art trend today regionally and internationally, Asha Kama said. “But it can also be taken in a positive manner where there’s an opportunity for artists to challenge themselves and create an authentic and honest art without having a judgmental mind or fear. The society hasn’t really given us that freedom or as an artist we haven’t really reached to a quality or a standard to appreciate that freedom.”
We are just starting the journey and how we want to move on depends on the artists and the society at large, Asha Kama said.
“All in all, contemporary art has taken its first step, like a baby but when the baby is taking its first step the parents needs to help and guide the baby. Just like that, contemporary art needs the right guidance and support for its positive growth and make sure it progresses and make the country proud,” Asha said.
Art elsewhere is becoming quite self-centred, selfish and arrogant, in response to the need from a society but art is something, which needs to be looked at from a higher level in society. It should be a part of life and inspire us to do great things, share, love and feel, Asha Karma said. “It shouldn’t promote selfishness and arrogance. We are a Buddhist nation and art is very much a part of our religion and spiritually we have a deep connection to it.”