“Voice of the Thunder Dragon”: Bhutanese contemporary art in New York City

A pop-up show of Bhutanese contemporary art is on display at 263 Bowery in New York City until 28 February 2017.

Featuring three pioneering artists from Bhutan and curated by American filmmaker, art collector and entrepreneur Maxwell S. Joseph, “Voice of the Thunder Dragon” offers a unique insight into the Himalayan kingdom’s burgeoning contemporary art scene. 

Asha Kama, 'Presence 2', 2017. Image courtesy Ellen Pearlman.

Asha Kama, ‘Presence 2’, 2017. Image courtesy Ellen Pearlman.

“Voice of the Thunder Dragon”, a pop-up show of 25 paintings on display in New York City presents contemporary Bhutanese art by Kama Wangdi (Asha Kama), Pema Tshering (Tintin) and Gyempo Wanchuk, all affiliated with arts non-profit VAST (Volunteer Artists’ Studio Thimphu), based in Bhutan. The exhibition is on display at 263 Bowery in New York 11 to 28 February 2017, and is curated by filmmaker, art collector and entrepreneur Maxwell S. Joseph.

A tiny Himalayan kingdom the size of Switzerland, Bhutan with a population of around 600,000 has a rich cultural tradition over 2,000 years old. In 1972, King Jigme Singye Wangchunk first introduced the phrase “Gross National Happiness”, and until recently Bhutan actually did issue a Gross National Happiness Index instead of the more standard Gross National Product (GNP). However, newer administrations are downplaying Gross National Happiness in favour of dealing with the country’s more pragmatic problems, such as their growing national debt and high unemployment rate.

Gyempo Wangchuk, 'Spirit of Suffering', 2016, detail of wine glass and cup. Image courtesy Ellen Pearlman.

Gyempo Wangchuk, ‘Spirit of Suffering’, 2016, detail of wine glass and cup. Image courtesy Ellen Pearlman.

There is a small but visually sophisticated contingent of artists from Bhutan who use traditional and non-traditional forms to explore painting as an innovative art form within their unique cultural context, and not just as an aid in the pursuit of enlightenment. These paintings focus on the slow deconstruction of traditional iconography, mostly through metaphor, but also invoke strikingly poignant personal themes like sexuality and alcoholism. They tackle tensions endemic to a culture jettisoning itself into modernism, which, in the case of Bhutan, only introduced broadcasting television as late as 1999.

Although foreign forms of modern painting were known within Bhutan, the founding of VAST (Volunteer Artists’ Studio Thimphu) in 1998 came through the efforts of artists Karma Wangdi, Phurba Thinley Sherpa, Jigme Iotey, Pema Dorji and Rajesh Gurung. VAST provided a new type of education outside the classroom for Bhutanese culture and contemporary practices, and has encouraged more than 6000 Bhutanese youth to contribute to community service through summer art camps. VAST also holds weekend workshops in specific genres like oil painting, watercolour, basic drawing and even computer aided design.

Pema Tshering (Tintin), 'Spiritual Beings 1 3', 2015. Image courtesy Ellen Pearlman.

Pema Tshering (Tintin), ‘Spiritual Beings 1 3’, 2015. Image courtesy Ellen Pearlman.

Art, if it is taught at all to young monks, is understood to be part of their religious education. VAST encourages artists outside of traditional and commercial conduits, an important distinction, as there is still a subtle stigma attached to radical experimentation and disruption, notions at the core of contemporary global art trends. In the past ten years, there has also been an increase in the number of commercial art galleries in Bhutan, like Kelly Dorji’s Terton Gallery, Alaya Gallery and Water Dragon Gallery. Some artists also yearn for an actual modern institute of art, or at least special student scholarships to study contemporary art.

Gyempo Wangchuk, 'Lives of the Phalluses', 2016, detail. Image courtesy Ellen Pearlman.

Gyempo Wangchuk, ‘Lives of the Phalluses’, 2016, detail. Image courtesy Ellen Pearlman.

Although art of the Himalayan region, with its question of exploring national identity in a shifting global landscape, has been exhibited in the greater New York area before, Bhutanese artist Phurba Namgay was the first to exhibit his paintings as part of “Anonymous: Contemporary Tibetan Art” in 2013 at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art in New Paltz, New York. Other related genres of Himalayan art include the Gendun Choepal School of Lhasa, Tibet, first birthed from an artist residency at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and the Henry Street Settlement in New York in 2002, sparking the school’s formation in Lhasa in 2003.There are also contemporary art movements out of Ulan Bator, originating from the Blue Sun Group and supported by commercial galleries like Xanadu Gallery, various art galleries and the Mongolian Arts Council that have made their way in one form or another to New York. However, so far there seems to be no concerted effort to bring together a group of contemporary artists from Bhutan.

Kama Wangdi, 'Presence 4, 5, 6', 2017. Image courtesy Ellen Pearlman.

Kama Wangdi, ‘Presence 4, 5, 6’, 2017. Image courtesy Ellen Pearlman.

Kama Wangdi, affectionately known as Asha (maternal uncle) Kama, refers to himself as the “torch-bearer” of contemporary art in Bhutan. He trained at the National Fine Arts Centre of Bhutan in traditional thangka painting, and at the National Handicrafts Design Center in Thimpu, Bhutan in the thirteen crafts of Bhutan referred to as Zorg Chusum. These include painting furniture, wood carving, statue-making, calligraphy, gold and silversmith work, bamboo weaving, blacksmithing, incense stick making and embroidery, among others. In 1991 Kama won a scholarship from Great Britain to study graphic design at the Kent Institute of Art and Design. Returning to Bhutan he worked for the Royal Government, but in 1997 when the design field became more computerised he opted for an early retirement. Through discussions with other local artists, they realised that during the 1980s and 1990s art had been cut from the curriculum of schools, both locally and globally. To address that void they founded VAST, with Kama credited as having introduced contemporary design schemes and ideas into Bhutanese art.

His work presents an amalgam of styles combining the traditional Tibetan thangka painting grid system, or tig-say of the Buddha’s head against a partial impasto abstract background and the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” riding across the canvas. This juxtaposition reveals his fondness for texture, an unused factor in traditional painting, which is usually made from mineral-based gouaches. His paintings, often laced with gold and Tibetan sacred syllables, are a mashup of tempera and acrylic, hovering between the unknown vastness of abstraction and the known rigidity of the grid structure. They deal with the tension of sacredness in opposition to the deconstruction of the sacred image, where the struggle between structure and form disassemble when measured against the onslaught of new semiotic meanings of speed, materialism, consumerism and ecological crisis.

Pema Tshering (Tintin), 'Spiritual Beings II 2', 2015. Image courtesy Ellen Pearlman.

Pema Tshering (Tintin), ‘Spiritual Beings II 2’, 2015. Image courtesy Ellen Pearlman.

Pema Tshering (Tintin) began training at VAST at the age of 13, choosing to work in acrylic, a material at odds with more traditional ground minerals and earth-based pigments. In his series “Spiritual Beings” he examines representations of monks, deities and warriors, and their function within greater Bhutanese society. Gang signs become coded mudras or holy hand gestures. Deities who appear aggressive have hidden meanings as aspects of peacefulness, and monks, assumed to be spiritual, can harbour hidden aggression. He represents masks both traditional and those more in the line of the bandanas of robbers, and shows subjects with tattooed arms.

When asked why he shows what appears to be symbols of resistance and guns to represent the art of an overwhelmingly peaceful country, he explains that resistance, or implied violence, is only referring to the demons one harbours inside oneself. This puts his work on a par with Tibetan painter Norbu Tsering, or Nortse, a Tibetan artist who also uses a plain background, a centralised human male figure, and tight framing or cropping of the body. Tintin, however, focuses more on the ‘visual cues” of gesture, script and deity masks framed by the colour of traditional yellow Bhutanese cloth, or sometimes a more voracious red background.

Pema Tshering (Tintin), 'Protectors of the Dharma 3', 2016. Image courtesy Ellen Pearlman.

Pema Tshering (Tintin), ‘Protectors of the Dharma 3’, 2016. Image courtesy Ellen Pearlman.

It is dubious that guns are a typical object of choice in Bhutanese traditional paintings. Tintin states he wants to “liberate the Bhutanese-Buddhist eye” or what could be called the gaze, as well as the traditional field of perception. Looking at a wrathful deity holding a gun does not mean gazing upon terror or political instability, but only reflecting upon one’s own internal upheavals and instabilities.

Gyempo Wangchuk, 'Spirit of Suffering', 2016, detail of bottle top and rabbit moon. Image courtesy Ellen Pearlman.

Gyempo Wangchuk, ‘Spirit of Suffering’, 2016, detail of bottle top and rabbit moon. Image courtesy Ellen Pearlman.

The most psychologically complex artist is Gyempo Wanchuk. A graduate of the Zorig Chusum Institute, or National Handicrafts Design Center, he pours his personal grief from his father’s untimely death from alcoholism into his work. Alcoholism is a topic not traditionally depicted in such a realistic and autobiographical way within in the canons of Himalayan art.  Using techniques from traditional thangka painting, he depicts himself as a rabbit, his birth sign, locked inside a moon watching tragedy unfold. He also compares the use of alcohol to the three root causes of suffering. Human heads surround the cap of the bottle, depicting the fact that most people cannot be easily cleansed from addiction. A half-filled wine glass and wooden cup, oozing with blood, are also symbolic of alcohol, and there are ongoing prayers in the picture to aid his deceased father reach the heavenly realm.

Gyempo Wangchuk, 'Lives of the Phalluses', 2016, detail. Image courtesy Ellen Pearlman.

Gyempo Wangchuk, ‘Lives of the Phalluses’, 2016, detail. Image courtesy Ellen Pearlman.

Wanchuk unabashedly tackles the pithy subjects of sex and desire. Although his inspiration derives from the teachings of the Divine Madman, the 15th-century monk Drukpa Kunley, he has drawn upon sources as diverse as Indian miniature erotica, and even hints of Japanese shun-ga, or ‘spring’ pictures. He literally chops the picture plane into 36 miniature inserts to concoct a jumble of images pouring out their tightly condensed spaces.

Pema Tshering (Tintin), 'Spiritual Beings 1 3', 2015. Image courtesy Ellen Pearlman. Pema Tshering (Tintin), 'Spiritual Beings 1 3', 2015. Image courtesy Ellen Pearlman.

Gyempo Wangchuk, ‘Lives of the Phalluses’, 2016, detail. Image courtesy Ellen Pearlman.

These three artists show that despite its small size and recent arrival in the global market, they are willing to break with convention to find a voice unique to their predicaments expanding the genre of contemporary art of the Himalayas.

Ellen Pearlman

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Related Topics: Bhutanese, sexuality, spirituality, paintinggallery shows, New York events

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