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“Creating a God”: Anthropologist describes artistic developments in Bhutan
Graphic by Spencer Light | The Broadside (Contact: [email protected])

By Adam Case | The Broadside (Contact: [email protected])

‘How can contemporary art education influence the way we develop a sense of morality and ethics?’ asked Jason Hopper, anthropology guest speaker.

Hoppers presentation titled ‘Art as a Way of Life: The Dilemmas of being an artist in Thimphu Bhutan’ is based on three years of ethnographic fieldwork through the University of Wisconsin. Hopper’s goal in the presentation is to, “get people to take art seriously” as a medium of political and social influence. The presentation was under development to be presented as Hopper’s doctorate dissertation.  

The Kingdom of Bhutan is a country of 800,000 people tucked in between China and India. Hopper originally traveled to Bhutan to research the reinterpretations of Buddhism and its relationship with the nations political philosophy of Gross National Happiness.

74 percent of the population practices Tibetan Buddhism, but the nation is undergoing rapid modernization, so the nation’s government enforces cultural preservation through strict regulation. GNH imposes cultural customs regarding traditional etiquette, clothing, architecture, art and much more.

Diverging from his original plan, Hopper instead found himself living among the young artist population of Bhutan and observing the impact of their works in relation to the cultural norms. Part of Hopper’s research was attending an informal art class by several painters who were self-taught in western classic art forms. According to Hopper, art in Bhutan is, “not viewed as creative but sacred.”

When an artist creates a painting, the “imagery and proportions of paintings are not open for interpretation but follow a strict set of guidelines.” Paintings which follow the regulations of the state typically depict Buddha or common Buddhist symbolism.

A common artistic cultural practice in Bhutan has to do with murals. Throughout the country, it is common to find wall paintings featuring phalluses. The phallic imagery can be found on the exteriors of peoples homes, hung on banners, or even as decorative wooden carvings. This practice traces back to an ancient, promiscuous, Buddhist monk called the “Madman from Kyishodruk.”

A painting is not just a painting but is inhabited by the deity, “becoming a sacred presence in and of itself,” said Hopper. In 2007, several Bhutanese “state artifacts” including paintings were sent for display in a museum in New York. Several monks traveled with the artifacts to pray with them, rekindling their spiritual energy.

Censorship of all art forms in Bhutan is strict and any works deviating from the guidelines of the state are banned. Many of the nation’s filmmakers are forced to only release their works outside of the country. In 2017, a film called “Hema Hema: Sing me a Song while I Wait”, was censored by the government for its non-traditional use of Buddhist masks.

The Kingdom of Bhutan will go to great lengths to enforce it’s cultural preservation regulations according to Hopper. Throughout the 1990s, over 100,000 of Bhutan’s southern Lhotshampa population for various cultural violations particularly regarding traditional dress robes (referred to as Gho for men and Kira for women).

The artists Hopper observed were attempting to expand Bhutan’s artistic cultural boundaries by using traditional imagery while still allowing for creative expression in their works. In summation of his observations, Hopper showed and described several specific paintings.

One of the artists Pema Tshering created a painting which expressed her ideas regarding alcoholism in the country. The painting depicted a sake bottle with a series of smaller images reflected in the glass, which visually retold a traditional Buddhist myth regarding drinking. The myth tells of a Buddhist monk who was confronted by a temptress and asked to either slaughter a pig, make love to her, or drink sake in order to pass. The monk chose to drink the sake as that is the only option free of sin. However in his drunken state he then slaughtered the pig and had sex with the woman. Tshering painted image using the customary proportions and techniques, so despite it’s potent, unusual content, it was approved by the state.

Another local artist Gyempoluang Chuck went to the United States to earn a fine arts degree from the University of Massachusetts, and then returned home to learn the traditional methods of painting. The piece is composed of two paper lamps which reflect her experience. Each lamp was painted with similar images of a woman against a night sky with a crane flying in the distance. One was painted in the classic western styles she mastered in the United States and the other was painted using the traditional techniques of Bhutan. The piece is a commentary on the nation’s expectations of art and is meant to ask if “tradition hides truth.”

The event was put together by Central Oregon Community College anthropology professor Christina Cappy. Cappy and Hopper attended graduate school together and recently re-met at a conference in Portland. She requested that he present for her classes, as it would both cover important topics not discussed in her own cultural anthropology classes and give a realistic first-hand account of ethnographic fieldwork. One of Cappy’s classes made up the majority of the audience.

Cappy has recently been recognized for her own ethnographic fieldwork. Her research took place in the low-income high schools of South Africa and sought to determine the impact of History and English classes on the students’ moral development.

One of the students in attendance was Maria Kramer. Kramer is attending COCC as part of a dual enrollment program with Redmond Proficiency Academy. She has a vested interest in the subjects of religion, art, and anthropology, so she attended the talk as part of sitting in on Cappy’s anthropology class. The presentation was as such of particular interest to her and she enjoyed the “immersive experience in professional academia and the atmosphere of general learning.” 

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