A group of artists hijacked a joint National Art Gallery and Japan Foundation exhibition on Tuesday, to call attention to alleged abuse of fundamental rights and freedoms since the controversial transfer of power on February 7
The exhibition, titled “Breathing Atolls: Japan-Maldives Contemporary Art Exhibition 2012,” celebrates 45 years of friendship between Japan and the Maldives and highlights the impact of climate change in small island nations.
The campaigners, who call themselves the ‘Suntzu Platoon’, silently tailed the Tourism and Foreign ministers holding placards depicting scenes of police brutality.
“We hoped to gain empathy from Japan for Maldivian artists,” a spokesperson from Suntzu said. “Japan is still recovering from a national scale disaster [2011 earthquake]. We are in the midst of one. We live in a police state. They are beating up people. We wanted Japan to extend us that cultural sensitivity.”
Tourism Minister Ahmed Adeeb told Minivan News he did not agree with the campaigners’ calls. “They were saying we do not have freedom of expression. I do not agree. Their claims have no basis,” he said.
“No Freedom! No Expression!”
Suntzu’s spokesperson, who wished to remain anonymous, told Minivan News that the group wanted to reveal the interconnection between politics and art. “No Freedom! No Expression!” read the group’s flyer distributed at the exhibition.
“We were just four people,” she said. “We went there with 12 placards and 50 flyers. Many visitors to the gallery agreed with our message and took up the placards. It was very spontaneous.”
The Suntzu platoon alleges the February 7 transfer of power was a coup d’état. “Maldivian Artists suppressed under illegitimate government protests for the freedom to express,” Suntzu’s flyer read.
Under former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom local artists had not been able to utilize the gallery to exhibit local work, Suntzu claimed. Under recently ousted President Mohamed Nasheed, very slight improvements had been made, with a few selected local artists’ work exhibited and an elementary system that allowed artists to request the space set in place.
“We wanted to tell Maldivian visitors that art is not just an oil painting hanging on a gallery wall or a commodity for tourists. Politics and art are not separate segments. Politics allows you to tweet or watch TV series at home in comfort,” Suntzu spokesperson added.
Photos and videos show campaigners tailing ministers, at times cornering them with brutality placards. The placards also called for early general elections to restore order. Police initially expelled one campaigner tailing Adeeb only to let him into the gallery a few minutes later.
“We did not organize this exhibition. It was organized by the Japan Foundation,” Adeeb said. “These types of actions taint Maldives’ name. Artists have freedom. They have the freedom to protest as well.”
Urban Art Intervention
Despite Adeeb’s assurances of freedom of expression, Suntzu pointed to the security forces’ dismantling of opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)’s protest camp at Raalhugandu (Surf Point) in Malé on Monday.
The site, known to MDP supporters as Insaafuge Maidhaan, was an “urban artistic intervention,” a Suntzu spokesperson said. “We saw types of art never seen before in the Maldives.”
Police dismantled the camp after violent confrontations between security forces and protestors on Monday. Protestors sought to obstruct President Mohamed Waheed Hassan from delivering a constitutionally-mandated address at the Majlis’ opening session for the second time, claiming his presidency was illegitimate.
Police said violence and unlawful acts were planned at the camp. Alcohol and condoms were also found at the site, police said.
Suntzu said the police also took down an exhibition against police brutality and wiped out political graffiti drawn on the sea wall. Insaafuge Maidhan was also home to unconventional art, such as performance artists, Suntzu said.
A man, who had come to Malé after February 7, had waved the MDP flag every night from 9:00 pm to 1:00 am in protest. “He may not see himself as an artist. But to us, he is one,” Suntzu spokesperson said.
“After they destroyed art at Insaaf, the next day they hold a gallery opening. Such acts are a smokescreen masking reality,” she said.
The police “want to wipe out the entire yellow spectrum [MDP]. But they are fighting against an ideology. They may destroy Haruge [MDP camp], but they cannot wipe out an idea.”
Suntzu Platoon’s flyer also said: “Freedom of expression is a fundamental right, yet, a space for creative and artistic flourishing has been denied to us violently and brutally by this police state.”
Breathing Atolls exhibits the work of eight artists, of which two are Maldivian and six are Japanese. Artists took inspiration from the geographically and culturally distinct atolls of the Maldives to highlight the risk of submersion due to rising sea levels.
The exhibition will be showing from March 20 through April 19 at the National Art Gallery.