Buddhas, dragons and horses, oh my! Contemporary art in Bhutan – Terton Gallery interview

Bhutan’s contemporary artists are exploring spiritual expression as development creeps towards Shangri-La. 

Art Radar spoke with Kelly Dorji (b. Thimphu), star of Indian films and founder of Bhutan’s Terton Gallery, to find out about contemporary art in the remote kingdom and whether the gallery’s artists measure success in terms of Gross National Happiness (GNH). 

Terton Gallery, Thimphu, Bhutan.

Terton Gallery, Thimphu, Bhutan. Image courtesy Terton Gallery.

Wedged between India and China, the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan is one of Asia’s most remote countries. In 1972, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck coined the phrase “Gross National Happiness”, an initiative whereby Buddhist values would take precedence over many of the ‘vices’ found in modern western countries. By 2006, Bhutan gained worldwide attention  when it was crowned the ‘happiest country in Asia’ and the ‘eighth happiest country in the world’ based on a global survey in Business Week magazine.

“Gross National Happiness” measures the country’s well-being based on economic, environmental, physical, mental, workplace, social and political wellness, instead of the standard yardstick of GDP, or Gross Domestic Product. This alternative, more avowedly spiritual worldview is apparent throughout Bhutan’s culture, including its contemporary art.

Born in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, gallerist Kelly Dorji opened Terton Gallery, one of country’s first contemporary art spaces, in 2011. Two years on, the gallery represents some of the kingdom’s most well-known artists including Dorji Wangchuk and Kama Wangdi. Art Radar spoke to Kelly Dorji about Bhutan’s contemporary art scene and the challenges of aligning Gross National Happiness with the demands of the commercial art market.

Contemporary Art Comes to Thimphu

Tell us about your involvement with the Terton Gallery. When was the gallery established?

When I returned to Bhutan from India in 2010, I took up art and rekindled my association with local artist friends. As I got more involved in the art scene here, I decided that we needed a boost for promoting local contemporary art and thus presumptuously set about expanding [my adventure travel] company ‘Terton’ to start dealing in art as well in early 2011.  

What is the mission of the gallery?

The gallery endeavours to promote local artists in contemporary art and to let them find a platform by which they can earn enough money as artists, thereby creating art as a profession in Bhutan. I am a board member of a local concern called VAST (Voluntary Artist’s Studio of Thimphu), which has been trying to become a Civil Society in order to enjoy more funding and propagate art for children all over Bhutan.

What themes or images are typically found in contemporary Bhutanese art?

Of all themes in local art, Lord Buddha, the dragon and wind horse (prayer horse) are probably the most popular expressions. Yet scenes from everyday life, traditional artifacts, nature and textile reproduction are gaining favour.

Tashio, 'Maidens', 2013, mixed media, 36 x 36". Image courtesy Terton Gallery.

Tashio, ‘Maidens’, 2013, mixed media, 36 x 36″. Image courtesy Terton Gallery.

Development versus tradition

Are Bhutanese artists facing any challenges or problems due to the rapidly changing and developing situation in Bhutan? 

Not at all. Our art does not follow or get influenced by politics. In fact, we really are looking at perfect conditions for the flourishing of art. We enjoy a certain amount of support from international well wishers and our royal patronage has boosted contemporary art greatly here in Bhutan.

Do Bhutanese artists ever have difficulties with freedom of expression? If so, how are they able to negotiate creativity with limitations?

The greatest stigma facing expression here in Bhutan is the lack of experimentation. The artists of Bhutan are left to their own growth with just logistical support from patrons.

The gallery will be introducing more bold forms of expression by March 2014, with the introduction of a first set of nudes ever done in Bhutan. This is a project in development and is being carefully done so as not to harm any laws or sentiments of our people or religious organisations.

What do Bhutanese art and artists need to encourage growth?

We need more interaction with artists from outside Bhutan who will teach us the use of a wide spectrum of possibilities in the use of material for art. Personally, I would love to see the development of the manufacture of natural paints using our country’s resources. We also really need more art supplies. At the moment, I bring back what I can from my travels, yet a healthier supply would encourage more works to be developed.

Gelay, 'Zhana Cham' (Festival Dance), 2012, print, 36 x 54.5". Image courtesy Terton Gallery.

Gelay, ‘Zhana Cham’ (Festival Dance), 2012, print, 36 x 54.5″. Image courtesy Terton Gallery.

Art is Gross National Happiness

Many people in the world know Bhutan as the country where “Gross National Happiness” is measured. How is GNH depicted in contemporary Bhutanese art?

GNH as a monicker for Bhutan has been creating waves among the rest of the world. At a recent exhibition in Thimphu, I observed that eighty percent of the contributing artists had no obvious or direct link with presenting Gross National Happiness in art. I asked a few of them about this and was promptly told that the artists are happy and that the art [itself] was GNH!

Please introduce our readers to some of the emerging Bhutanese artists who have been getting attention from art collectors both inside and outside of Bhutan.

Kama Wangdi, or Asha Kama as he is called by everyone, is probably our best export at the moment. He gained great popularity with his contemporary renditions of dragons, wind horses and prayer scripts in his paintings. His latest focus has been creating monasteries from his mind as he chants his daily prayers.

Another locally trained and proficient artist is Pema, Asha’s protege. Pema likes to paint in watercolours and acrylic and is probably the most forward in his experimentation with materials.

Artist Sonam Chophel, who trained with Kama Wangdi since he was ten years old, does not pursue art as a profession, but in my personal opinion he is the most talented of all our artists. His works [depict] traditional houses and masked dances.

Azha Kama Wangdi, 'Temple Scape (I, II, III)' Triptych, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20". Image courtesy Terton Gallery.

Azha Kama Wangdi, ‘Temple Scape (I, II, III)’, triptych, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20″. Image courtesy Terton Gallery.

How are people in Bhutan introduced to contemporary art? Is it part of their culture or something from outside of the country?

Contemporary art emerged in Bhutan in the late eighties, when the first contemporary works of Aum Tsoki (the wife of then Home Minister Lynpo Dago Tshering) were seen publicly. Thereafter, a soldier called Ugen Wangchuk took up art as an option in his training and developed quite a few works locally, but it was not until the late nineties that traditionally trained artist Kama Wangdi started VAST and established contemporary art along with Phurba Thinley Sherpa.

Beyond Bhutan

Do Bhutanese artists have opportunities to show their work outside of Bhutan? Do you think this is important? Why?

Recently artist Dorji Wangchuk displyed his works in Taiwan. He had personal sponsors and did quite well. His Majesty The King also provides opportunities for our artists to go abroad and show their works. In the past we have had an association and participated with the [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] ASEAN group, the [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation] SAARC art conferences and the Indo-Bhutan Art group.

In addition to painters, what other types of artists show their work at the gallery? Photographers? Who are these artists?

Terton Gallery is promoting one photographer from Bhutan called Kesang. He has contributed to the Wall Street Journal as well as numerous publications in Asia. We are keen to see him do well. His works on architecture and portraits of locals are endearing and [show] a distinct touch that only an insider could have.

Phurba Namgay, 'Stirrups (Bhutan)', 2012, pigment on special cloth designed for thangka, 24 x 20". Image courtesy Terton Gallery.

Phurba Namgay, ‘Stirrups (Bhutan)’, 2012, pigment on special cloth designed for thangka, 24 x 20″. Image courtesy Terton Gallery.

Who purchases most of your artwork? Foreigners or Bhutanese citizens?

We have enjoyed commercial success with both locals and foreigners, though tourists make up a two-thirds majority of buyers. It is encouraging that our locals enjoy contemporary art, as well.

What kind of opportunities exist outside Bhutan for Bhutanese artists?

At the moment, none. Perhaps, private support may make up for that. If our artists relocate and find that they want to continue with art in new locations, this may spread, but it is not a priority to popularise Bhutanese artists globally. We are still in our infancy as far as art goes.

Are there opportunities for artists outside Bhutan to show their work at your gallery? Do you think this is important? Why?

Yes! The only solo exhibition to be done at the gallery till now has been by a Japanese artist studying art in Bhutan. Yoko Ishigami came to learn Bhutanese art and did a series on marrying traditional art in Bhutan with modern Japanese technique.

Terton Gallery also represents limited works of three artists from India whose works are largely [based on Buddhist themes].

Yoko Ishigami, 'Breath', silk screen print, 15 x 21". Image courtesy Terton Gallery.

Yoko Ishigami, ‘Breath’, silk screen print, 15 x 21″. Image courtesy Terton Gallery.

How is Bhutanese art important to the contemporary Asian art scene?

Buddhist art is growing in popularity the world over, yet just a handful of Himalayan artists seem to be making an impact in presenting contemporary art from the region. Bhutan exudes a certain uniqueness in interpretation of art, like it does in many facets of its culture. I believe promoting new ideas in modern contemporary art from Bhutan would greatly complement the general Asian art scene.

Lisa Pollman


Related Topics: Art as Meditation, emerging Artists, interviews, religious Art, Tibetan

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