traditional and contemporary Bhutanese artist Phurba Namgay

This month Vogue features a photoshoot in Bhutan…

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It showcases models posed alongside traditionally dressed Bhutanese, which made me think about contemporary Bhutan.  I wondered if there might be much of a modern art movement there, in a place so deeply steeped in tradition.  I hadn’t got a clue what I might find, but as soon as I saw the work of Phurba Namgay I fell in love!

Phurba Namgay is classically trained in Bhuddist art and attended the government’s school of traditional arts – The Institute for Zorig Chusum (meaning 13 Arts) – from the age of 13.

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When he left Zorig Chisum at 21 he gained an apprenticeship to become a master painter and spent the next 8 years working on commissions for murals in temples and monasteries. He then returned to Zorig Chisum as an instructor until 2001 and in 2008 gained a fellowship at the Vermont Studio Centre, America. In the US he was taken by the creative license of Western art and now divides his time between Thimphu, Bhutan and Nashville, USA.  He describes his new paintings as his journey from the Himalayas to the West.

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Above: The Great Game

His paintings take the form of thangkas, which means a painting that can be rolled and unrolled like a scroll. They range in size from a few inches to room size…

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Several years ago an American friend gave him a book about NASA and the US space programme and Namgay became intrigued by rockets. He likens them to fire-breathing dragons and is amused that, in the same way that Americans do not believe in dragons, when Americans first landed on the moon many adults in the village where he grew up, did not believe it.

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Above:Sunset Over the Dragon

Below: Missing Sunsets

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Namgay has been working on his Rocket Series.

Below: All Alone in the Universe

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He is especially fond of Apollo 13 as 13 is his lucky number and in Greek mythology Apollo is the god of sun and light. Dragons interact with Apollo 13, yet the landscape setting remains traditional.

Below: Dragon Chasing Rocket

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Above: The Auspicious Bhutanese Trifecta

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Namgay likes to play with the allegorical connotations of dragons, tigers, lotus flowers and mythological creatures. In Bhutan these symbols are everywhere from the outsides of houses and buildings, rocks and flags and artists traditionally painted them as a guide to the Bhutanese people about how they should be living their lives. The tiger is for protection and power, a lotus flower means beauty, knowledge and enlightenment and horses carry prayers to heaven.

Below: Rocket Launching Lotus

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In 2013 Namgay became involved with the Jomalhari Snow Leopard Conservation Programme. The snow leopard lives in the Bhutanese Himalayan mountains, but is now endangered. His painting, Snow Leopard, was sold in aid of the Conservation Programme…

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While moving into the world of contemporary art he also continues to paint the walls of temples and more traditional thangkas…

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He says: “My journey from Bhutan to Tennessee, from ancient to modern is about following a path. I paint what I see along the way. I’m also thinking about power – how images of power change, who has power, and who doesn’t. How much power is there in not seeing and in not being aware? Also, it’s good to not take yourself so seriously. There’s some power in that.”

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I’ll go along with that! It’s been so inspiring to happen upon his fantasical, colourful and often playful work.

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Above: Joey

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Above: Morning Coffee Gets Me Going

Namgay’s work is represented by Linda Leaming…

I would love to know your thoughts!


Photos and info: Artstormer, Linda Leaming, The Culture Trip