Pema Tshering dreamed of working as an artist. He wanted it so bad, he quit his nine to five cushy job and plunged into his newfound profession.
The 25-year-old has a computer application degree and was working at the Bhutan Power corporation and had been there barely nine months. There are few risk takers like Pema Tshering in Bhutan and certainly fewer who’d want to make a living as an artist, especially in Bhutan, where contemporary, as opposed to traditional, art is yet to take off.
There are not many Bhutanese, who understood art, and even fewer who want to buy artwork. It’s mainly the tourists, who patronise the arts. Even so, the bounds beyond which aspiring artists can go and experiment are limited. Tourists tend to buy paintings that are mostly replicas of dzongs, chortens and etc. As artists need tourists to sustain themselves, there’s little room for abstract manoeuvering and growth.
“It’s not realistic to consider being an artist in Bhutan,” said Pema Tshering. “But I couldn’t help it. Art is my passion.” At the same time, he added with a hopeful tone, “Contemporary art is slowly gaining ground in the country.”
The so-called contemporary art came to notice of the Bhutanese imagination only after the establishment of voluntary artists’ studio, Thimphu (VAST), an institution of sorts for modern art.
“Many have been exposed to modern art after VAST,” said VAST member and senior artist Sukbir Bishwas.
In fact, it was VAST that kindled Pema’s passion. His interest in art started out like any other child, ‘scribbling on paper’. “At VAST, you’re exposed to all kinds of art, using all kinds of media, so you can identify your area of interest,” said Pema Tshering. “I use all media for painting, be it acrylic or watercolour, and paint anything from designs to abstracts.” He says, however, he is yet to find his style.
Asha Kama, one of the founders of VAST, was Pema Tshering’s teacher. He says it is important for young Bhutanese artists to be given a nurturing atmosphere to grow as an artist. “We have the skill but we need the encouragement,” said Azha Karma, adding that the objective of VAST was to provide such an encouragement and a platform for budding artists.
Asha Kama said that surviving solely on art can be tough for beginners, and many of them give up after venturing into it for a while.
“Their priority takes a different direction and they don’t commit to art,” he said. But he added that the beginning was always tough and there were many downsides , but if one has genuine talent and once one’s work is recognised, one came across many possibilities.
Besides Pema Tshering, there are others, like Barun Gurung, 25, who have regular jobs but also work as part-time artists. Long-haired and goateed, Barun is a designer at Rabsell Media in Thimphu. “I took up art for the love of it. It gives me relief and satisfaction after office hours.”
Presently, there are three art galleries in Thimphu, including the VAST studio, where paintings can be sold. Sukbir Bishwas, for instance, sells a minimum of two paintings a month. The price of his paintings ranges from Nu 500 to Nu 40,000.