Bhutanese contemporary art is growing to be a creative force to reckon with
COVER STORY As a student of traditional art, while painting a thankga, Karma Wangdi would often find himself experimenting with colours and the background. But then he would realise he was dabbling with an object of worship, and there were rules that he couldn’t and shouldn’t bend.
That’s when Karma Wangdi, long before he was endearingly called Asha Kama, one of the leading contemporary artist, gave up painting, a passion he had pursued since childhood.
Since academics was not his strength he sought for scholarship to study fine arts in India. “But I was asked to study traditional arts first.”
After about four years, he was employed by the civil service in the information department, where he started block and screen printing, and was later sent to study graphic design in India. Ten years later, he was doing the same. When he went for his degree in communications in London, that’s when his passion for painting revived.
“I was learning graphic designs, but was also exposed to European art, western art, Japanese and Oriental art and there were museums that I could visit,” he said. “I stopped painting because of my own weakness in understanding the spiritual part of traditional painting, and also because of the nature of my job.”
“The thangka was more than a painting, it was a form of meditation,” he said. “You paint and you cleanse yourself. I wasn’t ready to do that.”
After coming back from London, Asha’s office closed down and he retired, got together with other like-minded artists and started the voluntary artists studio of Thimphu (VAST) in 1987. Asha started painting again, experimenting with the skills of traditional painting and his knowledge of the vast art cultures of the world. “Applying the values of traditional painting to contemporary artwork was nice,” he said, adding that, however, although religious icons were depicted in his paintings, they were never out of proportion.
Except for aum Tshokey, wife of lyonpo Dago Tshering and artist Ugyen Wangchuk’s dabbling in the public display of their art talents, according to Terton gallery’s Kelly Dorji, prior to the establishment of VAST, there seems to be no known fact of when contemporary art started emerging.
From what is known contemporary art would be just about two decades old, and therefore still a fledgling, trying to find a foothold, and may escape notice, if one did not stumble across it in a gallery or visit a high-end hotel or an art lover’s home.
While it is elusive, the presence of contemporary art is said to be growing, although mostly dominated by paintings. In the capital alone, within the last 15 years, the number of art galleries has increased from one to four; there is one in Phuentsholing and one in Paro.
There are paintings of lung ta (wind horses), prayer flags, Buddhist inscriptions, religious icons, the idea of death, of after-life and of impermanence, all of which are intertwined with the ideas of the artists, their perception and technique. There are also landscapes and portraits, something which does not invoke the same feeling of worship, although it can be as aesthetically pleasing.
Murals at a local temple immediately invoke a worshipful feeling. This is the purpose, the intention, with which traditional painters would have painted it. That process flourishes and continues.
What’s fairly new is the combination of objects of worship with the artist’s expression, ideas and techniques that challenge the sensibilities, or inspire the viewers or, at times, can be at odds with traditional values.
Centuries worth of art movements across the world can be seen or traced in the strokes, the mode, the light and colour, making contemporary artists experiment, consciously or unconsciously, with ideas of impressionism, romanticism, cubism and more, including influences from Japanese and Chinese art, but not one piece in a gallery will hint at existentialism.
The Buddhist tradition, which dominates the culture in the country, also grows beyond traditional to contemporary art.
The market in the country is also growing but having to cater, especially to tourists, artists often work within a boundary, that of having to connect their artworks with the selling point ‘Bhutan’. “To be honest, this is true,” Asha Kama said. “None of us have gone to that level where we don’t care and paint what we like. At the end of the day, we have to ask: who’ll buy my paintings?”
But this, Asha Kama said, is not to say that traditional art cannot be used in an original way. “There’s so much depth and what we’ve explored isn’t even the surface.”
Rajesh Gurung, also one of the founding members of VAST, Asha Kama said, was one artist, who was doing something different. “His mindscapes and dreamscapes are abstract figures and colours, which are not at all related to cultures or traditions,” he said. “And there are people interested in this (kind of) artwork.”
In galleries, one can see an overdose of landscapes, traditional structures, like dzongs and temples, and Buddhist icons, especially Buddha. But within this limit, one can also see the hunger for expression, for aesthetics, for communication, for ideas to bloom, and a thirst to comprehend, to know more, and to identify with one’s roots.
Wangchuk, an artist whose cartoons are published in Kuensel’s Focuspoint, said like classical music is a basis and influence to all forms of music, traditional art is big influence consciously or unconsciously. This, he said, can also be seen in the works of cartoonists, from whichever country they come from.
“I have tried most forms of art I could lay my hands on, from illustrations, paintings, portraitures, sculpting to graphic art,” he said. “I have had a little hand in traditional painting in school and still would like to try my hand on all traditional crafts.”
Traditional art, he said, had many elements that could enrich many forms of ‘modern art’. “Most graphic designers are now using traditional motifs and designs in many beautiful ways,” he said. “It is important to remember our roots.”
New influences, like graffiti, especially in the capital, he said was not all bad, if used for a purpose with sane objectives. “But not all graffiti is art,” he said. “Some, which we see here are amusing and delightful works but hopefully it will not be pushed to mar other beautiful forms and facades.”
“Contemporary art is linked closely to traditional art and has an important impact on the evolution and adaptation of the latter, just as it’s a great source of inspiration for the former,” Kelly Dorji said. “It’s unique and identifiable as Bhutanese.”
Asha Kama, Phurba Tshering and their protégés, Pema Tshering and Sonam Chophel, are some of names Kelly Dorji dropped as signature artists. “Sonam Chophel, in particular, is technically one of the best artists, for his renditions of Bhutanese architecture and free flowing styles are greatly sought after by art collectors and discerning visitors.”
While the market is expanding, this art community is not free of challenges. Kelly Dorji said, artists lack the funding to experiment in creating quality work that can demand a high price. “A handful of our artists are capable of reaching a good international level in their lifetime, and we need to support them,” he said, adding that he started Terton gallery to support the sale of art of leading contemporary artists. “Traditional artists will have to show finesse, for there is a drop in aesthetics sense since the early ‘90s.”
“To establish ourselves is a challenge,” Asha Kama said. “VAST is a club that has put in some effort to at least get a foothold, but getting into the mainstream is difficult.”
In other countries, Asha Kama said, there are art centres, commissions and academies. “Nepal, for example, has art representatives in the cabinet, and a budget allocated to art is worth one ministry’s budget.”
Some countries, he said, also supported exceptional artists, so they could focus on art and not have to worry about rent. This, Asha said, was in the context of getting the country on the world’s art map.
While these are the immediate challenges, one element that is lacking is the presence of women in art. “Even in traditional art there were none before, there are few now, but they’re struggling as motherhood takes over,” Asha Kama said. The works of only two women, apart from the exhibition of a Japanese artist Yoko Ishigami at VAST, were on display at the galleries in Thimphu..
By Kinley Wangmo