PHURBA NAMGAY, Dragon and Rocket, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 91.4 × 60.9 cm. Courtesy Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection. 


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In July, the Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan witnessed a major development in its newly democratic government when the opposition leader, Tshering Tobgay, was chosen as prime minister in the country’s second national elections.

The new administration has announced that it will abandon Bhutan’s signature “gross national happiness” measure, promising instead to tackle the country’s growing national debt and high unemployment through more pragmatic solutions.

While cultural preservation was a key focus of the previous government, its successor has proposed changes that are geared toward greater urbanization. The development of Bhutan’s small contemporary art scene still relies heavily on private funding, but there is hope for change with the dawn of new leadership.

The leading venue for contemporary artists is the nonprofit Voluntary Artists’ Studio Thimphu (VAST), formed in 1998 by a group of artists in the nation’s capital Thimphu. In January, the organization opened VAST Yangtse in the Trashiyangtse district of northeast Bhutan. The new art center is slated to host programs similar to those provided at the Thimphu location. Coinciding with its inauguration, VAST organized an eight-day art camp in Trashiyangtse (1/25–2/2) for 120 schoolchildren, art students and teachers.

The three-year-old Alaya Gallery is operated by the nonprofit Tarayana Foundation, which specializes in rural development. Alaya hosted the annual VAST summer exhibition (8/7–19), which showcased paintings by the organization’s members. In May, in collaboration with VAST, Tarayana announced plans to open a new public art space in Thimphu, the Chuba-Chu Art Park, which will offer recreational facilities and exhibition venues. As part of their 15th-anniversary celebrations, VAST planted a series of trees in the pending park space.

Also in Thimphu is Terton Gallery, founded by Mumbai-based Bhutanese actor Kelly Dorji in 2011. The 100-square-meter gallery represents the works of several local artists and photographers, including VAST founder Kama Wangdi, who depicts abstract renditions of traditional Bhutanese imagery in his paintings.

Opened in 2012, Water Dragon Gallery is an artist-run space founded by painter Pema Tshering (aka Tintin Dorjee), located above a coffeehouse in Thimphu. The compact gallery displays paintings and drawings by young artists, including works by Tshering.

Also in Thimphu, the Nehru-Wangchuck Cultural Centre held the exhibition “Kalpana – Masterpieces of Figurative Indian Contemporary Paintings” (8/7–15), which featured digital reprints of paintings by 14 modern masters of India, with MF Husain and FN Souza among their number. The show was held as part of Mountain Echoes (8/9–11), a literature, art and culture festival organized by the government-run India Bhutan Foundation.

Beskop Tshechu (9/5–10), the country’s first documentary, animation and short film festival, funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation in Bhutan, held its second edition this year. The program screened over 30 local and international films, including Ugyen Wangdi’s Price of Letter (2004), a documentary about a postal worker in the Greater Himalayas.

Internationally, six VAST artists took part in the third SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) Artists’ Camp and Exhibition (3/25–28), held in the Maldives. The painting workshop, organized by the SAARC Cultural Centre in Sri Lanka, also included participants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

In the United States, the work of the modern thangka artist Phurba Namgay was included in “Anonymous: Contemporary Tibetan Art” (7/20–12/15) at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, New Paltz, New York, where he showed traditional Tibetan-style paintings of American iconography fused with Buddhist imagery.