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Artist at play

Asha Kama models his custom handmade painting roll carrying case
Karma Dorji, Travel Programs Coordinator

“Everyone’s worried about me,” says my old friend, Asha Kama. He’s Bhutan’s leading contemporary artist at a time in his life when no one should be worried about him. 

Asha and I’ve known each other for nearly 40 years. In all those years, he’s only grown more successful in his career, respected for his positive attitude, good-humor, competence, grand artistic vision, and complete and utter lack of self-preoccupation. He’s always kept his hair close-cropped and monkish because then it needs the least maintenance. He’s almost always wearing comfortable paint-spattered sweatpants or simple traditional ghos without the slightest bit of adornment. His favorite choice of footwear? A comfortable, unassuming pair of crocs. And yet here he is, telling me about other people’s concerns for him.

Two old friends share a snack, Asha Kama and Karma Dorji, circa 2017

Back at his playground of Potolo, a name that means “On the Hill,“ Asha has gathered rubbles and a mishmash of discards from the capital, which worries those who love him. Friends in construction, business, and private industry have “donated“ broken tiles, freestanding unused toilet bowls, damaged corrugated metal sheets, pieces of rusting and twisted iron gates (his favorite), bricks, and even a 28-seater former tourist bus, which now serves as his shelter from the elements.

The former tourist bus that's now home for Bhutan's chief 'Artist at Play'

And what a life it’s been! This tall, quietly gentle, ever-smiling Bodhisattva of a man has mentored over 15,000 young Bhutanese artists at last count, many of them from troubled backgrounds, and single-handedly established the vibrant contemporary art scene in a country where art has traditionally always been of the religious kind. As the force behind the Voluntary Artists Studio of Thimphu (VAST), the now nationally recognized afterschool art program he established with other founding artists Jamphel Chheda, a master sketcher, and Phurba Thinley Sherpa, a private artist and entrepreneur, Asha has mentored and created a vibrant community of creatives that now spearheads the Bhutanese art scene. He would never say this himself, but even the current king, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, took a strong interest in the work of VAST and today continues to maintain a personal affection for Asha and the nonprofit organization he began. Today, with royal support, VAST pushes and promotes the cause of Bhutanese art and artists domestically and internationally, with curated exhibitions and installations featured in Europe, Taiwan, and the US. With recent forays into digital NFTs, it continues to test the boundaries and create further opportunities for local artists.

Asha Kama and the author (standing), with VAST artists, administrators and well-wishers outside the co-op's studio in Thimphu

But personally, for Asha, this is clearly a major transition as a celebrated Bhutanese artist. Instead of establishing roots in the vibrant capital society where he’s a universally known and beloved figure, Asha has surprised everyone but his closest friends and students by moving to his father’s rural ancestral village in Punakha. He planned it diligently and delightedly over the years, often disappearing for days from the capital without telling anyone. It was revealed to me occasionally in mischievous toothy whispers and grinning asides like an excited little boy sharing a special secret he could barely keep.

Inside Asha's refurbished bus, an intimate peek into an artist's life

From the corrugated sheets, discarded wood siding, and other rough building materials, my resourceful friend has raised a phoenix-like, quirky, spontaneous living space that is at once ramshackle, picturesque, impermanent, and yet comfortable, welcoming, and surprisingly cozy, a place where anyone can come and rest or create art and return rejuvenated.

The pink "gravel" in the area around Asha's open air studio is actually made up of broken tiles, discards from construction sites in the rapidly urbanizing capital, Thimphu

Understandably, Asha’s elder sister, Ama Bidha, who lives a short way up the hill with her husband in a lovely, two-storied traditional Bhutanese farmhouse bordered by rice terraces, is among those worried about him.

Asha's older sister, affectionately called Ama or "Mother," Bidha, a fitting name since she dotes on him like one

As he delightedly offers us home-brewed coffee from the long, open makeshift kitchen and gleefully points out the beautiful rice terraces, the shaking, colorful prayer flags dotting the hills, and the ancient muffin-topped stupas or chortens on the mountain slopes, his older sister shakes her head. Then, smiling with a mix of affection and concern, she says to me, “Tell me, truthfully, shouldn’t he be living securely in a permanent building with proper heating instead of this cold, windblown place?” (It’s now December, and the nip of winter is in the air even in this normally warm valley.) “Can you blame me if I’m worried? But he always says, ‘Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing.’ But looking at this, I’m not sure he does!“ The words are stern, but there’s no sting in how she says them, especially when she smiles her broad and beautiful red doma-stained smile, the smile of an older sister who has clearly taken on the role of a worried, doting mother.

Work in progress; the dragon in all its energetic and powerful forms recurs as a motif in many of Asha's most popular works
Asha makes coffee in the kitchen at Potolo

Asha's response to Ama Bidha's worried words is a quick explosion of good-natured laughter. “See?” he says, eyes twinkling, "What'd I tell you? Tell Ama Bidha I’m enjoying myself, that I’m having fun, that I’m lucky that I still get to play every day even at my age.” It's not the words so much as the deep, unshakable faith with which he says them that tells me that my old friend will be all right despite Ama Bidha’s sisterly anxieties, that his decision to not sell a portion of his precious paternal birthright to build a permanent structure on this green strip of land is the right one. That, and the fact that in all the years I’ve known him, he's only ever always been an "artist at play."


An outdoor herbal plunge at Asha's Potola outdoor space is a memorable experience!



The founding father of modern contemporary art in Bhutan, “Asha“ Kama Wangdi is a national treasure and winner of a royal order of merit. His many projects in Bhutan, most of them carried out under the umbrella of VAST, have illustrated wildlife conservation centers, graced star-studded luxury resorts, and the Arrival and Departure halls of the kingdom’s Paro International Airport, as well as city beautification projects in the capital for the celebration of the king’s coronation and the royal wedding of His Majesty the King to Her Majesty the Queen. Asha’s works have been exhibited in Europe, the US, and Taiwan. His work will be featured in an upcoming exhibition at New York’s storied Rubin Museum of (Himalayan) Art from March 15 through October 6, 2024. More at

An outdoor herbal plunge at Asha's Potola outdoor space is a memorable experience!
A work in progress; the dragon in all its energetic and powerful forms recurs as a motif in many of Asha's most popular works



The "Asha" in Asha Kama is a term of endearment that means "uncle," for the large population of young people who love him and whose lives he has changed for the better. 

Rice terraces and mountains beyond mountains in Bhutan's ancient capital, Punakha

“They think I should own an apartment building,” he says. “That at least I should have my own permanent home. But I tell them, don’t worry about me. I’m playing, and this is my playground, an artist’s playground,“ he says, arms sweeping wide to present the wide-open views from the flat green saddle of land where we stand, halfway up the green mountains above Bhutan’s ancient capital, Punakha. It’s a region with lush, broccoli-topped forests and mountains beyond mountains covered with tall, stately pines a few hours’ drive east of the nation’s modern capital, Thimphu, where Asha has studied, lived, and worked most of his adult life.

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