Exploring Bhutan's contemporary art scene

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Mountains of the Mind Ahead of a new showcase of Bhutanese culture, Ric Stockfis explores the contemporary art scene in the capital, Thimpu.

“Mani Wall” by Asha Kama

Cherngzhi at work

“My Land” by Rinchen Wangdi


Tiger’s Nest

i Cred

f Bhutan is little known to the outside world—its snowupward of $1,000. There are no less than 13 official Bhutanese capped Himalayan peaks having shrouded it in mystery arts and crafts. But the focus is squarely on the traditional and, for centuries—its nascent contemporary art scene is all but as Tashi Payden, a friend of the artist and founder of Bhutan’s invisible. Most visitors (and there are only around 100,000 RSPCA, points out, “we don’t want to be seen just as a a year) go to trek amongst those mountains and living museum.” marvel at the ancient dzongs, the imposing fortresses With that in mind, artists like Rinchen are that dot the countryside. They’re drawn there too exploring contemporary Bhutanese issues by the quirks of modern Bhutan: a monarchy (particularly environmental degradation) that voluntarily ceded power in 2008 to usher in through their experimental mixed-media work. democracy; the much-vaunted notion of Gross “Art is not about creating beautiful things,” National Happiness, which sets quality of life ahead he says. “It’s about the message.” He readily w. m ve of economic output; and—in no small way—by just admits the scene is still in its infancy. “We have co . y lan tinephotograph how damn special the experience of being there feels a long way to go. Most of our buyers come from (the US$200-250/day tourist tariff may not be universally developed nations; we can’t expect local people to buy Asha Kama and popular but it’s certainly kept the worst excesses of the Rinchen Wangdi this kind of work yet. So to sustain ourselves, we have modern travel industry at bay). to do commercial, educational work. We’ve had some It’s not that these visitors won’t come across any government support, but to really keep art alive we art. Thimpu-based artist Rinchen Wangdi says, “Art is deeply need institutions. We need galleries, educators, magazines, art integrated into Bhutanese life. It’s just that most artistic practice collectors. All of this is lacking at the moment.” is associated with religion.” Bhutan has a long and rich history A key figure in what progress there has been to date is Asha of Tibetan or tantric Buddhism, and wherever you travel in the Wangdi, a.k.a Asha Kama, another artist combining traditional country you’ll see astounding works of sculpture and painting, techniques with modern influences. Together with two friends he as well as multi-hued, intricately handwoven fabrics selling for set up VAST (Voluntary Artists’ Studio, Thimphu; www.vastbhutan.org), an NGO providing arts schooling and exhibition space. “There’s no market to speak of for our kind of art,” he says. “Traditional craftsmen are in good demand. But as a country Until May 14, all The Soup Spoon (www. we lack the love for and understanding thesoupspoon.com) outlets are offering a taste of of modern art. Abstract and selfBhutan in the form of three chef’s specials: beef and expressive art just isn’t appreciated.” So, radish stew, spicy chicken stew and vegetable chilli in the absence of formal art institutions, cheese; featuring ingredients like Bhutanese red rice and ezay (chopped dried chilli salad)—prices start VAST was set up to offer would-be from $7.30. Director Anna Lim, who was inspired by artists (including Rinchen, who was one her visit to the Centenary Farmers’ Market in of their first students) encouragement Thimpu, tells us, “they’re comfort soups!” and direction. “Now, 16 years later, we have a lot of young artists working t: w


Chilli Days

Bhutanese beef & radish stew


I‑S MAGAZINE FRIDAY, April 11, 2014

Uma Paro

Seconds Out Bhutan is unusual in that its only international airport serves the town of Paro, not the capital, which is an hour’s drive away. Fortunately, Paro is much more than just a waypoint and you’d be remiss not to spend at least a few days there. Among the highlights is Paro Taktsang, or Tiger’s Nest, a 17th-century monastery perched high on a cliff-face some 900 meters above ground—a solid four-hour return hike. Stay at Uma Paro (www.comohotels.com/umaparo), a gorgeous estate set amidst 38 acres of lush blue pine forest on a hill overlooking the town. It’s a popular spot for executive retreats—and with an in-house COMO Shambhala spa, traditional wood-fire Bukhari stoves warming up the bar and restaurant and trails leading off in every direction up and down the mountainside, it’s easy to see why. Rooms start from US$450 ($570)/night.

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independently. Struggling but surviving,” he says. Of his own work he explains that, having toyed with both modern disciplines (“everyone’s a graphic designer now!”) and traditional religiously-inspired techniques (“I found I wasn’t sufficiently committed spiritually”), he’s working across the two. “I’m painting Buddha, but Buddha in my own way”—a fair summation of how this small group of like-minded artists are tackling the transition from old to new. So while the Bhutanese modern art scene is by no means big enough to base an entire trip around, as a counterpoint to your wanderings through the more traditional landscapes and tapestries of Thimpu (including the stunning Thimpu Dzong, which faces the Royal Palace across the river), some time spent exploring the handful of contemporary galleries makes a worthy add-on to any visit. The artists are refreshingly free of pretension and happy to sit and talk shop, and in both their conversation and their works you get a fascinating insight—and an often controversial one at that—into how this long closed-off country is wrestling with modernization. Singaporean visual artist Erwin Lian, a.k.a. Cherngzhi, a lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, found it so inspiring he’s been back several times. “Actually, I had my fair share of doubt and cynicism when I first landed,” he says. “The Bhutanese tourism board markets it as the happiest place on earth. I thought: Perhaps they are trying to hide the ‘real’ Bhutan from an outsider. But I went exploring by myself—even sketching on the street at night—and it was so idyllic and peaceful. And while not everyone there is happy, they’re fulfilled. I’ve tried to capture the essence of just being there ever since.” n Works by all of the above artists will be on show at the Impressions of Happiness exhibition, which runs from April 12-17, 11am-7:30pm at Sculpture Square (155 Middle Rd.). Part of the proceeds from artworks sold will go to helping underprivileged young artists in Bhutan. There will also be a book launch (see right) and screenings of two Bhutanese films (April 12, 2-7pm). Find out more at www.drukasia.com/impressions.


Q&A Dr. Karma Phuntsho The academic and author launches his ground-breaking book, The History of Bhutan, at the Impressions of Happiness exhibition (April 12, 2-4.30pm). He is also the founder of the Loden Foundation (www. loden.org), a charity promoting education and entrepreneurship. What prompted you to write this book? The Bhutanese have a very great sense of belonging—and therefore a strong attachment to history and their origins. But most of the educated people in Bhutan are affiliated with the system and the government; they have more or less signed an agreement that only allows them to say certain things. So we get a very watered-down version of our history. I’m an independent academic so I have no obligations to abide by any particular version of history. Are there concrete examples of how that history can inform the present? A lot of people come with this naïve view of Bhutan: that it’s an isolated Shangri La that’s suddenly been exposed to democracy. In fact, democracy is deeply engrained here. The whole Buddhist system is very democratic, very egalitarian, almost republican. Buddhism doesn’t accept any virtue by birth; there’s no absolute power; you are an independent individual, free to choose your own course. It’s only the election system—of appointing a government—that’s new, and there are big powers at play. The Bhutanese are very shrewd and smart; but things beyond their control, like counting of the votes, mean there’s a risk of manipulation. What about Gross National Happiness (GNH)—is it a helpful model for development? To some extent it’s largely rhetoric. It’s a good vision to have; a high ideal. If it happens, then we ought to be optimistic. But I often find GNH comparable to communism. It sounds like a utopian idea: a fantastic ideal, but no one really practices or implements it. Where do you think Bhutan’s future lies? We can’t just be isolated like we were 100 years ago. But we’ve become excessively and unnecessarily dependent on India; partly fuelled by the illusion that we cannot exist without Indian support, though that history only goes back 100 years. I’d rather choose to keep India as a very good friend, but pursue multilateral relationships. Ric Stockfis

Fly from Singapore to Paro with Drukair (www.drukair.com.sg) for around $1,250 return.

VISA AND GETTING AROUND A visa is required for all visitors to Bhutan (except Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian nationals), and can only be obtained through authorized travel agencies like Druk Asia (www.drukasia.com). They can also coordinate your trip, including the opportunity to explore the arts scene first-hand.

Grand opening

Dhensa Punakha

STAY Thimpu suffers from some of the urban sprawl and construction blight you’d find in any rapidly expanding town: it’s certainly not as scenic as some of the more rural parts of the country, though the valley setting is still pretty special. The central location of the 66-room Taj Tashi (www.tajhotels.com) is hard to beat and the food at on-site Bhutanese restaurant Chig-Ja-Gye among the best we had on our trip. They also organize traditional cultural shows in the evenings in their courtyard—and Asha Kama’s works hang in the lobby and suites. It’s fancy without being particularly slick, and is a great base if you’re keen to explore Thimpu after dark. Rooms start at USD400 ($505)/night. A few miles out of town, with wonderful morning views down the valley and a breakfast deck right by the river is Terma Linca Resort and Spa (www. termalinca.com). It’s a lot more modern than Taj, with huge rooms, a spa specializing in traditional Bhutanese hot stone baths (a godsend when you’ve been trekking), and its own vegetable garden. Downside: you’re too far from town for a casual stroll. Rooms start at USD300 ($380)/night.

Taj Tashi

Terma Linca Resort and Spa

Dhensa Punakha

Overview: Just emerging from its soft launch phase is this 24-suite resort in Bhutan’s lush Punakha Valley, surrounded by pine forest and overlooking the Punakha river and the valley’s terraced paddy fields (the relatively low-lying Punakha is known as the country’s “market garden”). It’s the first property from new Singaporean brand Dhensa Boutique Resorts, and they’re championing a “return to innocence” theme.

rooms, as well as the specialist spa treatments, and lie back in an outdoor wood-fired bath.

Design: Contemporary style fused with Bhutanese tradition (what sounds like a standard formula these days is, in fact, seamlessly executed here). It incorporates six cottages with private balconies, a reading lounge, Dhensa Spa cottage and a dining room serving up Bhutanese, Asian and Western cuisine that uses seasonal, local and organic produce. At Dhensa Spa guests can make the most of the yoga, sauna and steam

Rant: It’s a four-hour drive from Paro to Punakha; assuming there are no landslides blocking the road. Then again, it’s not like you’ll just be swinging by Bhutan for a long weekend, so there’s no rush.

Rave: Aside from the jaw-dropping setting? The idea of rediscovering your childhood wonder might sound cheesy, but when it translates into one-of-a-kind experiences like crafting your own souvenir with a local artisan, hiking into the forest to learn more about the flora and fauna and watching rice threshing up close, it’s hard not to be impressed.

Price: From USD$350 ($440)/night +975 2 584434; www.dhensa.com

FRIDAY, April 11, 2014 I‑S MAGAZINE