The rise of the contemporary art scene in Bhutan can largely be attributed to the efforts of VAST Bhutan. VAST or the Voluntary Artists Studio Thimphu was created by a group of professional artists with the goal of giving Bhutanese youth the opportunity to develop their artistic potential and contribute to society through community service.
They organize various art classes, workshops, exhibitions , conversations, art shows and camps. Although you may not realize it, many visitors to Bhutan already know their work. VAST is responsible for the paintings and art installations at the revamped Paro International airport.
The VAST art galleries are the perfect place to see the fusion of Bhutanese traditional and contemporary arts. If you are lucky, you may also be able to meet the artists behind some of the pieces that catch your eye.
VAST has two art galleries in Thimphu. The Alaya Gallery is located at the Tarayana center, approximately a 10 minutes walk from the Centenary Farmers Market. The Bhutan art gallery is located in the heart of Thimphu town at the ground floor of Le Meridien, Thimphu.
Other art galleries in Thimphu include Artyanttra and TWINZ artists.
Royal Textile Academy
Bhutan's tradition and culture are deeply rooted in weaving. The Royal Textile Academy of Bhutan was established as a non-governmental, non-profit organization with the goal of preserving and promoting this living art.
The country’s only textile museum, this is a must visit for those who want to learn about the fabrics that become the traditional clothes of Bhutanese. The academy functions as a training space for aspiring weavers and a conservation center for precious artifacts from all over the country.
The museum showcases different techniques and types of textiles in changing exhibitions. It consists of two floors- the upper floor houses permanent displays of textiles and the lower floor showcases temporary displays for a few months.
Students are taught ancient weaving methods, yarn dyeing, design and color theory, as well as the fundamentals of business and bookkeeping. Trainees are taught a variety of weaves such as plain cotton and silk, yathra, weaves with simple and elaborate patterns.
The Textile Museum
The RTA includes a state-of-the-art museum comprising two galleries: the upper gallery, which shows the numerous textile weaves used in the nation on a permanent basis, and the lower gallery, which hosts transient exhibitions on specialized subjects. Past exhibitions have included ones on different weaves, showcasing the royal collection and ones on Zhabdrung. Short term exhibitions are on display in the Weaving and Conservation Building. Past themes have included a tribute to the kings, a Czech Castle Exhibition and Paintings by Olaf Van Cleef.
Bhutanese textiles are known for their rich color, sophisticated patterns and intricate dyeing methods. The variety and splendor of local fabrics are especially apparent during festivals when locals don their best ghos and kiras.
According to legend, weaving was first introduced in Bhutan by the wife of Songsten Gampo. Weavers in Bhutan continue to hone this craft and it is often passed down to them from their mothers and grandmothers.
Districts in eastern Bhutan are especially well known for their weaves, especially the prized kishuthara.
Meander through local clothes shops and handicraft stores if you want to get your hands on textile products that are available in different forms.
Of the 13 celebrated arts and crafts in Bhutan, Thagzo refers to weaving. This is one of the oldest vocations, embedded in Bhutanese history and way of life. Textiles from Bhutan come in a variety of patterns, colors and can feature complex motifs.
Traditionally, women would weave in the winters when there was not much work in the fields. Textiles could once even be used as a form of payment. Nowadays there are still many women in rural Bhutan who weave to supplement their income.
Though there are many textile patterns like martha, pangtse, mentha, sertha and buray, many Bhutanese women dream of owning a kishuthara or silk kira.
The textiles of Bhutan differ from region to region. The most common patterns are available in most handicraft and souvenir shops. Visit the Royal Textile Academy to understand more about this art form and see which design suits your fancy.
In Bhutan, art continues to be an integral aspect of its culture and history. Preserving the traditional arts are a way of celebrating the craftsmanship of a bygone era. The 13 arts or ‘Zorig Chusum’ are the cornerstone of Bhutanese arts and crafts. These were categorized in the 14th century, during the time of the Desi (temporal ruler) Tenzin Rabgye.
For the Bhutanese craftspeople, each piece they create has profound meaning. It can represent a moment of spirituality, connection with their forefathers or a time when they were enlightened creatively. Visit the National Institute of Zorig Chosum to see the next generation of craftspeople determined to keep the traditional arts alive.
The National Institute of Zorig Chusum, founded in 1971 and situated north of the Thimphu city, is the place where young people are trained in the ancient Bhutanese arts. The institute is open to the public, who are welcome to roam the hallways, join classes, observe and speak to the students. You can also pick up original works of art made on site by the trainee craftsmen.
The thirteen arts and crafts are:
1/ Lha zo (painting)
Their work depicts deities, humans, animals and their interactions with the environment. This can be seen on paintings, murals and frescoes throughout the country.
2/ Jim-zo (sculpting)
Includes crafting statues, religious objects, pottery and materials for constructions. They usually use clay and traditional de zo paper.
3/ De zo (paper making)
Bark of the Daphne tree is used to make thin and beautiful sheets of paper. These were once used for scriptures but are now made into envelopes, wrapping paper, calendars and books.
4/ Lug zo (bronze casting)
Craftsmen bronze cast statues, domes found on stupas and other religious objects using sand or wax.
5/ Shing zo (carpentry)
Helps give Bhutan its distinct architecture.
6/ Do zo (masonry)
The stone work that often accompanies carpentry on Bhutanese houses and religious structures.
7/ Par zo (carving)
Carvers work on stone, wood, slate, religious texts and furniture. They also work on the intricate masks you see during festivals.
8/Shag zo (wood turning)
They produce wooden bowls, cups and alcohol containers.
9/ Gar zo (blacksmithing)
It is said that blacksmithing was introduced to Bhutan in the 14th century by a Tibetan saint. His work can be seen in the chain linked suspension bridges all over the country.
10/ Troe ko (ornament making)
This is the art of using gold, silver and precious stones to make ornaments like necklaces, earrings, rings and brooches.
11/ Tsha zo (bamboo work)
Craftsmen in the east are especially adept at weaving bamboo into household objects, utensils, quivers and containers of various shapes and sizes.
12/ Tshem zo (embroidery and applique)
Includes tailoring, embroidery and applique. Those who practice this craft stitch clothes, religious thangka paintings and the giant thongdrelthat are unfurled during religious festivals.
13/ Thag zo (weaving)
An ancient and highly valued craft, girls learn how to use a loom from an early age. Certain textiles in the country differ depending on the region.