Pioneering Visual Art with a Heart in Bhutan


On the Druk Air flight into Bhutan, I had read the inflight magazine about VAST (Voluntary Artists’ Studio) Bhutan, started in 1998 by a group of artists to provide opportunities to the Bhutanese youth to develop their potential as well as to share social responsibilities through art.

I chanced upon an art shop next to my hotel. By coincidence, the owner is the brother-in-law of the key founder of VAST, Kama Wangdi, or popularly known as Asha Kama. Asha means “uncle” in Bhutanese. Even His Majesty calls Kama Wangdi “Asha”. When I met Asha, he joked that even his mother calls him Asha.

Alaya Gallery, the painting and exhibition place for VAST

Alaya Gallery, the painting and exhibition place for VAST

I was told he conducts free art classes for children every Saturday at 2pm at the Tayarana Centre, which is near my hotel. So I decided to check VAST out today.

VAST is located in a space of approximately 2,000 sqf in the Alaya Gallery. Inside, there are a number of young artists at work or chatting with one another. Completed works adorn the walls while half completed canvasses are either on the floor leaning against the walls or on art easels.

Art Pieces on a wall of Alaya Gallery

Art Pieces on a wall of Alaya Gallery

A large completed piece depicting the 4 important animals in Buddhism and Buddha. Was told a piece like this would sell for around S$600-S$800.

A large completed piece depicting the 4 important animals in Buddhism and Buddha. Was told a piece like this would sell for around S$600-S$800.

Artist at work painting a Dzhong from a photo.

Artist at work painting a Dzhong from a photo.

Artist Chand working on his third piece of the series using oil pastel

Artist Chand working on his third piece of his current series using oil pastel, mostly in purple

Artist Dorji Wangchuk who was a pioneer student of VAST 15 years ago. He is a successful artist now, having held several art exhibitions, including one in Taiwan last year.

Artist Dorji Wangchuk who was a pioneer student of VAST 15 years ago. Today, he is a successful artist, having held several art exhibitions recently, including one in Taiwan last year. He has sold some 30-40 paintings so far.

Artist Zuki with a semi-completed painting. She has been with VAST for 11 years since she was young. She recently graduated with a degree in Graphics from a Pakistan university under a South Asian scholarship. She obtained her scholarship thanks to recommendation by VAST. She has also learnt computer art and animation as a student at VAST, taught by a volunteer. She now does contract work in graphics using computers since returning to Bhutan.

Artist Zuki with a semi-completed painting. She has been with VAST for 11 years since she was young. She graduated a year ago with a degree in Graphics from a Pakistan university under a South Asian scholarship. She obtained her scholarship thanks to recommendation by VAST. She has also learnt computer art and animation as a student at VAST, taught by a volunteer. She now does contract work in graphics using computers since returning to Bhutan.

Asha and Singaporean Ivan surveying the children painting by the river bank

Asha and Singaporean Ivan surveying the children painting by the river bank

The children were missing from the gallery. The artists directed me to the river bank across the road. There, I found some 20 children busy sketching away. Asha was there too, together with some of his artist disciples working with the children.

Today was outdoor art. Asha has set up a structure for the kids to sketch from, or they could sketch other things around the beautiful river bank. There were even an Australian child and two Indian girls there. They were here because their parents are working in Bhutan. Asha explained that usually, there are many more children but this being close to the final school and national examinations, the older children were busy preparing for their examinations. Lessons are totally free. Parents can donate to VAST if they wish to.

Children concentrating on sketching the structure Asha has created by the river bank.

Children concentrating on sketching the structure Asha had created by the river bank.

Young Australian girl who had accompanied her mother, a volunteer to Bhutan for 2 months.

Young Australian girl who had accompanied her mother, a volunteer to Bhutan for 2 months.

A Bhutanese girl sketching a stone bridge

A Bhutanese girl sketching a stone bridge

Bhutanese boy in full concentration

Bhutanese boy in full concentration

Pema, a volunteer artist giving tips to the boy

Pema, a volunteer artist giving tips to the boy

Pema guiding a group of boys to improve their sketches

Pema guiding a group of boys to improve their sketches

We adjourned for tea with Asha and his artists at the Alaya Gallery. Asha, 55, told his story. He started his career as a graphics staff with the government in 1976. For 10 years, he tried many ways to go abroad to study art. He finally received a scholarship to study art at the University of Kent in UK. Upon his return, he worked for another 2 years in the government until his department was closed down and he became a full time artist. It took him a long while to get his art accepted and to sell his pieces. He held his first solo exhibition only 2 years ago, in 2011.

VAST is a non-profit initiative. Rental for the premises is currently paid for by His Majesty. Artists pay a nominal 1,500 Nultrums (equivalent to S$30) a year for access to Alaya Gallery any time (except Sunday, a rest day). Asha explains that the amount is barely enough to pay for utilities and to keep things going.

Asha and 3 of his pioneer students, Pema, Dorji and Maiyess, all full time artists now

Asha and 3 of his pioneer students, Pema, Dorji and Maiyess, all full time artists now. Another pioneer student and full time artist, Dorji Wangchuk was sitting opposite this group and was hence not in the photo.

Sitting around with Asha and us for tea were 4 of his pioneer students. They all started when they were school students, back in 1998 with the formation of VAST. Today, all 4 are full-time artists and they give back their time to help train the next generation of artists.

It is hard to define Bhutanese visual art. Bhutan has a long history of handicraft, made for their many colourful cultural and traditional events. Visual art in the form of painting is new in Bhutan, with strong influence from western art styles. Glancing at the art pieces, I see each artist trying to evolve his or her style. The themes for most paintings were related to Bhutan – objects, religion, places and sceneries of Bhutan.

Being full time artist is an exception. Most of the other artists have day jobs and come to VAST only on Saturdays. Finding jobs related to their artistic skills is a challenge too. For example, Zuki the scholarship holder with her overseas graphics degree and IT skills, could only do occasional contract jobs after returning to Bhutan for a year. Chand is an animator. He recently started his studio with some partners but have yet to secure their first major contract. On Friday, I met the founder of an IT firm that hires seventeen 3D animators. He proudly showed me his 3D animated film and told me of his plan to make a more ambitious 3D animated film of a famous battle in Bhutan’s history. He has yet to figure how to make money out of this industry, funding his animation passion with profits from his software development and training businesses. His passion is to create animation and he has ploughed on for 3 years in this pursuit already.

Yet I see their passion to follow their artistic pursuits despite economic challenges. And even with their own challenges in making a living out of art, they found time to return back to society by volunteering each week to train the next generation.

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