While in Bhutan, back in May of this year, I also had the wonderful chance to visit Voluntary Artists' Studio, Thimphu, known as VAST. In operation since 1998, it has been run by professional artists as a space for artists to share and create, as well as to provide opportunities for Bhutanese youth to develop their artistic talents. In promoting the importance and value of contemporary art production, VAST provides vocational and mentoring opportunities for artists and artisans to share their knowledge, talent and skills to a younger generation.
When I visited the space, artwork from younger students who were taking classes at VAST was being exhibited. Works from students of all ages--some as young as junior to middle school students, all the way to those with training outside of VAST--skill sets and mediums were exhibited in one democratic, supportive space.
VAST's artistic and spiritual figurehead, Kama Wangdi, is respectfully and lovingly referred to as Asha Kama. He kindly showed us around the space, explaining to us about his studies in art and his path to becoming a professional artist, and describing the artists behind the work that was being exhibited. His paintings--powerful and extremely well-executed work that layered on textures and symbols--were also exhibited alongside others' works. Asha Kama's works often feature Buddhist iconography using a combination of modern and traditional techniques; his thickly layered three-dimensional painting of a dragon in swirling clouds was captivating. While the experimental pastiche of modern and traditional sometimes produces mixed results, Asha Kama's work manages to achieve a fine balance, in a way that directly emulates the warm strength that Asha Kama himself exudes.
In addition to serving as an incubator for creativity, VAST is also strongly committed to evidencing the power of art to effect social change. For example, Asha Kama and his colleagues are currently working on developing a park by the river bank across from VAST's spaces. Their hope is to eventually create site-specific sculptures all along the river bank.
At VAST, artists are permitted studio space for their own artistic practice. We met Maiyesh Kr Tamang, a master potter who had built his own kiln at VAST. His beautifully executed bowls appeared to look strikingly similar in texture and style to the pots created by the potter who we had visited in Langthel Gewog. Serendipitous as it may be, it turns out that Maiyesh had taught the potter in Langthel Gewog his skills.
Keep up with VAST's activities here.
Thank you to Asha Kama and to Kesang Chuki Dorjee for so warmly inviting us to visit VAST.
Images courtesy of Ibba Rasul Bernardo, Tania Hyde, Dhruv Kazi, Helen Zhai, and Tania Hyde.
I visited Tribal Textiles, a privately owned artisanal production facility in the South Luangwa National Park in eastern Zambia. Operating since 1991, Tribal Textiles designs, paints and finishes textile goods using local manpower, and distributes its goods throughout the world, including in the US and in Japan. At the facility, I was able to speak with Moses, one of the foremen of the factory, to learn more about the production process for these handicrafts.
Set in open air, the facility currently employs about 90 people of both genders. Moses explained that production takes place during the dry season in Zambia, from around May until November. Locals—who might otherwise be day laborers in agricultural production during the wet season—work on contract.
Similar to the atelier system (or the assembly line production for cars), the facility has artisans specializing in specific aspects of the streamlined production process. First, artisans draw the outline of designs—by freehand!—onto the cotton, using a mixture of flour and water. Here is an artisan drawing safari animals (did I mention without any underdrawing??!!).
Next, the fabric is passed onto the painters who use water-based paints. Almost all colors are mixed by hand from the three primary colors of red, blue and yellow.
After the fabric is set out to dry in the sun for about 30 minutes, the fabric is baked in an electricity-powered oven for about 5 minutes to set the color. Then, the flour starch is scraped away, leaving the outlines of the beautiful designs in negative.
Finally, the fabric is finished into products that include cushion covers, pouches, table runners, and napkins. Pouches cost approximately ZMW 70-110 (or approximately USD 13-20) and a set of six napkins cost approximately ZMW 200 (or approximately USD 40). These prices appear to be expensive relative to the cost of living in Zambia; while it is unclear whether the artisans are paid in proportion to these retail prices, it appears that many of them return year after year during the dry season to work at the facility.
Each step within the production process appears to have a daily ‘goal’ (or quota for units). The foreman explained to us that lunch is provided for the artisans, and pursuant to a USAID contract, HIV/AIDS prevention training classes also provided on-site.
I got to experience the painting process ourselves through a pre-organized Art Safari (approximately ZMW 250, or USD 48, per person). Given pre-starched cushion covers to paint (right alongside the professional artisans!), the facility baked, scraped and finished them. It made me realize how truly time-intensive the process is.
Thanks to Kerstie, Rosie and Marie at Tribal Textiles for arranging and facilitating this wonderful experience!
Tomokazu "Matzu" Matsuyama's exhibition at the Reischauer Institute at Harvard University is titled "Palimpsest." Referring to a piece of papyrus on which the original writing has been erased to create space for new writing, the word references the visible traces of the past. Newer elements trace older elements, shifting ever so slightly in reaction to current conditions.
On the occasion of the publication of Matzu's monograph, A Thousand Regards, I had the opportunity to write about Matzu's artistic practice, deconstructing his goals to act as a cultural filter to his intended audiences. The essay can be read here.
Matzu's works were exhibited in various parts of the building, and while the space is clearly not a museum, its white walls and spacious interior, together with the light streaming in from the enclosed courtyard, made for a serene and appropriate environment for Matzu's art. Now familiar Matzu motifs, including kirin, abstract all-over birds, and samurai on horseback, shared wall space with slightly older work from 2008 and 2009, as well as a highly graphic and stylized interpretation of the Japanese pre-modern theme of a dragon in the clouds (Permanent Traveler, seen in the above installation view on the far wall), reminiscent of Soga Shohaku's Dragon and Clouds.
A small work of acrylic and mixed media on canvas, entitled Sex Buddies (2013), caught my eye. Matzu informed me that he took shunga (erotic prints) as his inspiration; particularly X-rated portions of shunga pieces were often covered over, only to draw more attention to those very areas. In Matzu's work, orange squares floated atop the white spectral outlines of figures playfully engaging with each other.
One of the absolute main highlights of my Detroit trip was meeting and visiting with artists who have transplanted to the city. Taking advantage of declining property values, some artists from other cosmopolitan areas (including Brooklyn and Oakland) have moved to Detroit, purchased property (without mortgages), and transformed their homes into live/work spaces and site-specific installations. In doing so, these artists have managed to turn rows of homes that had been used as informal brothels and crack houses into a neighborhood, complete with an ingrained community watch system.Indeed
The architects and urban revitalization specialists behind Design 99 have managed to orchestrate one such community. Their non-profit, Powerhouse Productions, teamed up with Juxtapoz magazine in 2009 to purchase several houses in the neighborhood which were then given over to artists, Swoon, Retna, Monica Canilao, Richard Colman, Saelee Oh, and Ben Wolf, to renovate and recreate. Each house has been given a descriptive name, and now either provides living space for artists and visitors or exists as a site-specific installation.
The documentary film, Detropia (2012), explores the decline of the city’s automobile industry and its consequent effects on the city’s residents. Featuring striking shots of abandoned buildings in the center of Detroit, the film includes a beautiful scene of tenor, Noah Stewart, singing Puccini in the abandoned Michigan Central Station, his sonorous voice reverberating through its hallowed halls. The documentary’s strength lies in its ability to highlight the consequences of the rise and fall of the automobile industry, by focusing on the compelling narrative of the community members who were integral to the industry’s workforce and whose livelihood and standards of well-being are directly affected.
Another narrative, however, is the nascent story of Detroit’s attempt at renewing its downtown area. Walking through the downtown area on a summer afternoon, I came across this: