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Art between Tradition and Modernity

When you stroll through the streets of cities of villages in Bhutan or visit one of the many monasteries, you’ll come across a multitude of art. Many of the houses have paintings of dragons, sea lions, or fictional beings on their walls.

Even the giant penises, not a symbol of fertility but rather intended to protect against demons, cover the walls. The art markets in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, exclusively trade with Bhutanese pieces such as wooden masks, beautiful ‘Thangkas’, and hand-woven silk fabrics, or lathed wooden bowls.

When Bhutanese talk about art, they primarily think of their own art, as they have a long tradition in the country of the Thunder Dragon. The origin of this art in Bhutan lies in the religious and mysterious. The paintings and sculptures often depict scenes of fictional beings in the fight between ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’. This type of art, the traditional art, is promoted in state schools. There, young people learn the crafts for years to later skilfully create pieces for monasteries, fellow citizens, and tourists. In Bhutan art is divided into 13 crafts (Zorig chusum):

  1. Wood work (Shingzo)
  2. Stone work (Dhozo)
  3. Carving (Parzo)
  4. Painting (Lhazo)
  5. Sculpting (Jimzo)
  6. Moulding (Lugzo)
  7. Lathing (Shagzo)
  8. Smithing (Garzo)
  9. Gold and silver work/ornaments (Troezo)
  10. Bamboo work (Tshazo)
  11. Paper work (Dezo)
  12. Embroidering (Tshemzo)
  13. Weaving (Thagso)

Finished pieces of art often need the combining of different crafts. For example, masks are first carved from wood before being painted. Or for a Thangka, a tantric painting on fabric or silk, sometimes paintings will be embroidered onto the fabric.

In addition to these 13 art crafts, there are additional traditional arts. For example, music and dances are loved by Bhutanese, which is why dance and music performances are a common element of most events. The music seems very foreign to westerners and the dances follow fixed choreographies. Most dances are performed in groups; however, men and women commonly dance separately.

Bhutan recently opened its borders more to the outside world and modern things are now finding their way in. This can be seen particularly clearly in the arts. The youth rather listens to pop or rock music and there is a growing number of rock bands forming. Paintings are developing as well. In galleries in Thimphu or even at VAST, an association that promotes modern art, you can enjoy paintings of current artists. Opposed to traditional painting with strict rules of form and colour, current artists can create with freedom. Nonetheless, most depict traditional religious and mystic themes.