Unlike traditional Bhutanese art, contemporary art started rather late in Bhutan.

The Voluntary Artists’ Studio Thimphu (VAST) Bhutan is at the forefront of this contemporary art movement. VAST Bhutan started in 1998.

With kidu in the form of studio rent from His Majesty The King, a group of artists who shared a similar goal to promote arts and crafts among Bhutanese youth formed VAST. It is aimed at providing a platform for Bhutanese art enthusiasts to nurture and develop their artistic potential.

Founder of VAST, Kama Wangdi (Azha Kama), said that the objective of starting VAST was to start an art movement and grow in paving the way for a creative society, nurtured for and by art. “My personal mandates are to share and grow along the young creative minds  in art and life. I also see this as an opportunity to give back all the kindness and support I have received growing up as an artist,” he added.

Azha Kama said that the need for such initiative is vital for the growth of a creative society in general. “Particularly when we talk about wholesome education in this day and age. If art education is missing, then where is wholesomeness?”

Executive director of VAST Bhutan, Chimi Zangmo said that Bhutan as a developing country is challenged with addressing poverty and infrastructure development. For this reason, the focus on art and creativity is secondary.

However, she said that VAST’s concern is that by the time Bhutan becomes self-sufficient and matures in understanding the importance of art and creativity, the society might lack the core values of a GNH society that Bhutan advocates. “Because the concept of GNH advocates achieving a harmonious balance between the material and non-material dimensions of development, the power of art and artistic expressions can help youth foster the value of contemplation, compassion and creativity.”

In 2014, VAST was formally registered as a Civil Society Organisation (CSO).

Chimi Zangmo, said that when VAST gained its status as a CSO, the need for a formal establishment of a fulltime office bearers and the need for a strong fund base became essential.

Until it became a CSO, VAST functioned on the basis of volunteerism.

Engaging youth for a positive youth development and community service is an essential objective of VAST. Based on its objectives, the studio organises activities such as art education and philanthropic art.

The philanthropic art programme highlights community project – Make a Wish and Rice Bank.

Chimi Zangmo said the programmes are aimed at promoting values related to social services, volunteerism and community services in the society.

She added that an artist’s responsibility is not only to draw and produce fine work. “The art is only a tool that an artist uses to express something. Only if the artists are able to believe in right values will the art work be of some benefit to the society.”

VAST’s fourth Rice Bank project in Punakha was signed in 2015. The project is an initiative to help farmers relieve themselves from borrowing rice and establish a foundation for self-reliance. During these five years, VAST will help enhance the livelihood of the members of the Rice Bank.

Although numerous camps such as Make-a-Wish and Rice Bank is initiated, lack of funding for the projects has limited its reach to the beneficiaries.

Weekend art classes are provided to students in the art education programme. More than 60 students attend these classes annually. Short term programmes such as photography, videography and instillation art are also provided when instructors are available.

The art classes today is divided into brave heart- classes for young adults and, young hearts- for children.

Chimi Zangmo said that VAST plans to develop and offer diploma level programmes under long-term programmes, expand basic art education to all parts of the country and offer advanced programmes in VAST based in Thimphu.

She added that VAST will continue to organise art exhibitions, workshops and seminars at both national and international level. “We hope to extend basic art classes to all parts of the country by setting branch offices (art centres) in each of dzongkhag.”

Among the various activities to promote contemporary art in the country, VAST also holds art workshops, art exhibitions and art fair.

This year, an art competition exhibition called ‘Patterns of Happiness’ was held where more than 70 paintings by various Bhutanese artists were displayed.

VAST also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Royal Textile Academy for five years to ensure that the National Level Contemporary Art Competition has committed fund.

VAST also holds an annual art exhibition for female artists. The exhibition, ‘Her Expression’ is in its fourth year since its start in 2014.

In an earlier interview with Kuensel, Azha Kama, said that few female artists in the studio had come forward with the idea to hold an exhibition solely for women artists in the country. This year ‘Her Expression IV’ also featured clay sculptors crafted by three women sculptors.

Azha Karma said that the exhibition was open and provided opportunity to all who were interested. “We had crafts this time and it was kind of diverse. For future we can also portray acting, food, singing, making flowers, which is also art. We will give them an opportunity.”

VAST operates on the support of its individual members, patrons, and well-wishers.

The opening of VAST Art Gallery this year at the Le Meridian is expected to increase exposure of the art works and the artists. VAST plans to hold an event every month at the gallery.

VAST is also a recipient of the National Order of Merit (Gold) among the 23 public benefit organisations in recognition of their services to the nation in volunteering and making an effort towards humanitarian values. His Majesty The King awarded the order last year.

To the growing audience and popularity of VAST, Azha Kama said that the growth means a lot to contemporary art in the country. “Personally I feel good that I am not alone and the VAST will continue the journey.”

VAST Bhutan will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year with a publication.

Phurpa Lhamo


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