In Bhutan a group of artists is carrying out programs to support urban youth who have dropped out of school, are in prison or in drug rehabilitation centers. Organizers hope art can help reconnect young lives in a community undergoing rapid social change.
Connecting traditions through art
At an art center in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, traditional music introduces senior volunteer artist Asha Kama's video installation about a project to connect young artists with the elderly in rural communities. “They could come out and then enjoy a new experience and for young people they are happy because they could provide that kind of opportunity for them [the elderly]. At the same time, they enjoy together,” he explained.
Kama heads the Voluntary Artists Studio Thimphu or VAST. He was himself a “school dropout” before completing studies in art in Britain. Ever since he started the program in 1998, Kama has tried to give troubled youth a fresh direction.
“Sometimes students are at a loss. So when they join our group we tend to make them understand and a little bit counseling through art we try to engage them," he said. "Then our core group will go and help them also. It’s not only designed for Thimphu but we go outside Thimphu in the regional also.”
Providing a place for creative expression
Over 14 years the volunteer group has assisted some 2,000 youth who have been ostracized by their families or addicted to drugs. In recent years, there are many who come for the free art classes.
Kueron (one name), a woman artist, says VAST has become a magnet for youth ever since it first offered a refuge for school dropouts. “VAST has really been the place for the youth to go to especially. VAST has catered to the needs of school dropouts mostly. When we started it was school dropouts for children who did not have a gainful pastime," she stated. "They did not play games; they didn't have any friends to hang around with.”
Kueron says the program especially encourages young Bhutanese women to enter a world of art that traditionally has been focused on religious painting. “Because art has been a man’s world especially in Bhutan where art comes from is very religious - the painter doesn't sign his name and is on religious scrolls that they paint. So definitely there was no room for women there," she noted. "VAST opened that platform for the kids - especially girls to come and explore that innate talent that they might have.”
Adjusting to social and economic change
Volunteer art teacher Pema Tshering says the group has a special role in Bhutan to help people adjust to the Bhutan’s changing social and economic conditions.
“VAST is very important for the country because it’s not just painting and drawing that we are teaching here. Because you have that connection and so because you have that connection with the culture that’s what makes the art stronger,” Tshering said.
Bhutan faces major social changes as rural families move to the cities, challenging the country's traditional social fabric.
While the country is on target to reduce poverty and improve health and education in line with the 2015 Millennium Development Goals, there are new problems as the Kingdom opens more to the outside world.
Reports point to rising alcohol and drug addiction, including marijuana and pharmaceutical drugs, especially sedatives. These concerns have led to calls for more funding for rehabilitation and youth centers.
Artist Pema Tshering says rapid social and economic changes pose difficulties for young Bhutanese. “Like any other developing country, Bhutan has a lot of problems with drugs and especially in the capital. Growing up you can't imagine like a few years back the connection was not there. We don't have all these problems. Suddenly it’s growing so fast, that’s the challenge,” Tshering stated.
As VAST students grow through art therapy, the community is welcoming their efforts. Locals say there is a new park under development that will house sculptures designed at the school.