Maldivian independent film producers Hulhevi Media have launched a documentary researching the realities behind the traditional romantic epic ‘Buruni Ballad’ from which the classic folk tale ‘Dhon Hiyala aai Alifulhu’ originated.
Shaarif ‘Shaari’ Ali – editor of the documentary – explained that the film is only one component of a larger project – the full extent of which includes the production of the first digital recording of the original ballad and a transcription released in the form of a book.
“Ballads itself are becoming rare and perhaps even extinct today. The ballad involves culture, literature, and perhaps even history. True preservation would be if we preserve it in its original form, and then allow room for further exploration. This is what we have aimed to accomplish through this project,” he said.
The project is funded by the US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation and is estimated to be worth US$25,000.
The ‘Buruni Ballad’ is a six hour oral history which has never before been transcribed. The story is generally considered to be the Maldivian version of Romeo and Juliet, revolving around tales of romance, black magic, jealousy, and revenge.
In the ballad, the heroine Dhon Hiyala and her lower class lover Alifulhu are driven to commit suicide by jumping onto a giant, poisonous jellyfish after she rejects the advances from the king.
Visiting the past?
The Hulhevi media documentary features the cast travelling to the islands in which the story is based, exploring current day traces of the tale, and gaining the locals’ perspective on the reality of the ballad.
The team of five – Director Ahmed Shafeeu ‘Narcu’, Cinematographer Ibrahim Yasir, Editor Shaari, and cast members Abulho and Mona – travelled to six islands in a bid to explore the roots of the story.
The film begins with a trip to Maroshi in Shaviyani atoll – where the story itself starts, before moving onto Lhaimagu, where the character ‘Fageerukoe’ is said to have originated. The cast then goes to Funadhoo, home to one of the few people in the country who still knows the verses to the ballad.
The team then goes to the home islands of the lead characters Alifulhu and Dhon Hiyala – Hulhudheli and Buruni, respectively.
The film concludes with a trip to Kandoodhoo – where locals show a grave site said to hold the remains of Dhon Hiyala which washed up on its shores.
Noting the interwoven ideas of reality and fiction in the film, Shaari opined that the matter is best left as it is.
“I think we must cherish the mystery in it. It has remained popular for so long precisely because of the mystery surrounding it,” he suggested.
“While some are deeply convinced that the ballad stems from real incidents, others feel it is pure brilliant fiction. People are presently able to make what they will of the story. Let’s not narrow down the room for debate, or take away the magic,” he said.
His colleague Yasir feels that the documentary has piqued people’s curiosity, which may lead to more interest in culture and folklore.
“With this film, we have definitely created curiosity. There may be people who want to explore the truth behind this ballad more in depth. But, as we learned when speaking to the people from the relevant islands, the locals want to protect those places. I believe it would be best if they are preserved as cultural or historical sites by the state.”
The team stated that in future, the documentary may be available for viewing on their YouTube channel, while the book and audio CD will be made available for purchase.
Hulhevi Media became interested in the project as, despite the story ‘Dhon Hiyala ai Alifulhu’ being widely known, few people realise it originated from the epic Buruni Ballad.
Shaari further expressed interest in exploring other historical tales in the Maldives, beginning with the story of Bodu Thakurufaanu – a celebrated local independence hero.
Yasir, meanwhile, spoke of the space for documentaries in the Maldives, expressing concern about the lack of public interest in such film productions.
They expressed disappointment that documentaries remain in the background of Maldivian cinematography, to the extent that there currently does not even exist a category for such productions in the local film awards.
“We aim to cover untold stories and to celebrate unsung heroes. We try to have a human interest element in every one of our productions. Our target is for every production of ours to result in producing a benefit for someone,” Shaari stated.
In addition to documentaries, Hulhevi media also produces videos to assist fund raising events by non profit organisations, public service videos, corporate profiles and commercials.
A man lies sound asleep in his home, unaware of a shadowy figure approaching him.
Suddenly awakened by the intruder, the man’s shock and fear quickly turns to confusion as he is asked to assist in stealing his own television set, which the robber explains requires too much effort to take on his own.
This unconventional robbery is one of thirteen sketches included in a web-show produced by a Maldivian group known as ‘Space Parade’, which since 2008, has been producing satirical, and at times surreal, sketches and parodies of local life – mainly as a reaction to a perceived lack of creativity in mainstream media.
The latest video by the group – viewed thousands of times on YouTube – lampoons egotistical newsreaders, the ubiquitous role of social media among Maldivians, as well as the perils of confusing real life with the overtly romanticised, Bollywood-inspired world of Dhivehi cinema.
Sitting down to discuss their work this week, Space Parade – a group of friends/film-makers including Ahmed Iyash, Ahmed Karam and Mohamed Hursheed – explained that their sketches are most definitely apolitical.
An apolitical reaction
Other emerging Islamic democracies like Egypt have garnered worldwide attention in recent months for the role art and comedy is playing during difficult political transitions, notably through high-profile figures such as doctor turned satirist Bassem Youssef.
Yet to Karam, Space Parade’s comedy is a reaction to a dearth of locally produced entertainment and a wider failure to cultivate and maximise the creativeness of Maldivians.
“There is a fine line with satire. Everyone everywhere is making fun of politics in this country. Politics is a joke already here,” the group’s founder Karam added, albeit one he accepted carries potentially serious consequences for the nation in an election year. “There are already sketch shows here about politics. But so many things here are politicised – people just need a break.”
With Karam first producing sketches as entertainment for family and friends dating back to a circumcision party back in 2008 – the same year of the country’s first multi-party democratic election – Space Parade has taken inspiration in something much more prosaic than political turmoil.
“We’re really bored,” explained Hursheed, who describes himself as working mostly behind the camera on editing and adding visual effects to Space Parade’s video. “We have all these ideas to do things, so we do it for the enjoyment. There was nothing good on TV, so we thought we can try and do better.”
Partly inspired by popular shows broadcast in the Maldives during the 1980’s and 1990’s such as ‘Bahabaru’ and ‘Floak the International’, Space Parade argue that in the intervening 20 years, there has been very little comedy television of any comparable quality.
According to the group, in contrast to the internet, the country’s “restrictive” broadcast regulations have severely limited what can be shown on local TV, which increasingly has to compete with content made available through the internet and cable channels.
Co-founder Ahmed Iyash said that while the Maldives had many people people with good ideas for movies, sketches, and shows, few were presently capable or knew where to go to get funding for their work. He said that a lack of foundations, grants, or arts institutions was a major factor stifling creativity in local artists.
Stepping on toes
Having targeted certain tropes and idiosyncrasies of local film and culture for their comedy in an attempt to “step on toes” and send a message to the country’s film-makers of the need to try and push boundaries, Space Parade contends that some of their efforts had not been well received by local artists and film makers.
“Often people are expecting crap here and not a lot is happening to change this,” contended Hursheed. “We would look to try and raise the bar, though we have our doubts if we are doing this.”
Hursheed suggested that some local artists appeared reluctant to put in the effort to try and create new forms of art.
“As long as [a film] makes a women cry, you will make money here. Even if the film is horrible,” he said of the local film industry.
Amidst the challenges facing young artists, Space Parade took the example of one director who took such objection to a review published in local newspaper Haveeru that he sought legal action against the publication.
By comparison, the group said there were a limited number of pioneering local directors such as Moomin Fuad, whose work is regarded as trying to cover social issues, rather than tried and tested formats such as ex-girlfriends or mother-in-laws turning into monsters – a popular staple of local film.
However, despite efforts to try and be more socially relevant, the group said Moomin’s films were not thought to have been commercial successes, leading him to attract more of a cult following among Maldives cinema-goers.
Despite the group having taken on some limited commercial production work using their self-taught film production and editing skills, Space Parade maintain that their key aim in making videos – beyond “goofing around” and enjoying themselves – was trying to inspire other Maldivians to produce their own content online.
“The idea is to show that you don’t need professional equipment. That you can use just an i-pad or camera phone. We were hoping people would be inspired to show their own talents online,” said Karam.
“This hasn’t really happened,” he added, stressing that Maldivians still predominantly used video sharing sites to upload music videos of professional artists, or to capture political developments or scandals across the country.
The Maldives ‘art scene’
Outside of video sharing and the emerging opportunity for expression online and on social media, Ahmed Naeem, Exhibition and Projects Officer for the National Centre for the Arts, accused successive governments of failing to help nurture artists over the last three decades.
Naeem said it was notable that the country did not have buyers or collectors to help drive commercial interest in the local art scene, which he contended had in turn limited encouraging more creative forms of expression nationally.
“The top levels of society should be more concerned about this,” he added.
Naeem stressed that although Maldivian artists, whether painters, writers, or film-makers, had to show “more initiative” in pushing their work into the public sphere, he argued that the state, the educational curriculum, and wider society needed to develop a greater awareness and appreciation for its own art.
“In other countries such as Europe and Asia, there are special arts colleges and institutions. There are no universities [here] providing arts-based subjects,” he said.
Naeem added that he had attempted in recent years to contact universities in the country about holding visual arts programs, a suggestion that he claimed was rejected on the basis having no purpose for students and society.
“There need to be degrees in art. This will serve a good purpose for the country,” he added.
Naeem said that while he believed Maldivians were creative as a people, there continued to be an overall a lack of public awareness and appreciation of art, something he contended was reflected in a growing number of people turning away from earning a living through music, writing, or other forms of expression.
“People are going away from art here. I think they find it too hard for survival. Certainly compared to when we grew up, people are having to pay much more for less space to live their lives,” he said.
Naeem pointed to limited activity at the National Art Gallery in Male’, where he presently serves as curator, as an example of the challenges facing local artists.
“At present, the gallery is just a name, a space for various activities,” he said. “I want it to be a gallery with permanent exhibitions, a place where tourists can come and purchase artwork, with shops selling crafts and fine art produced by local people.”
Ahmed Suveyb, president and founding member of local NGO the United Artists of Maldives (UAM), argued that Maldivian art was visible in all aspects of daily life, yet he questioned whether the public were able to perceive or value such works.
“I take pictures everywhere I go and I see art being used by politicians and businessmen,” he said.
Suveyb suggested that Maldivian artists, and therefore their work, continued to be open to a form of “abuse” by these same powerful figures as a result of almost 30 years of failure to emphasise the importance of the country’s heritage and culture.
With the country’s rapid economic development following the advent of its tourism 40 years ago, Suveyb argued that traditional island life and culture had changed immeasurably, sometimes resulting in time-old cultural practices being neglected and even disappearing.
Where once the country was reliant on learning traditional skills such as producing thatched roofs from palm leaf, or being provided with paints and craft equipment, he argued that an increasing lack of space and the growing availability of technology like smart phones, had limited opportunities for people to engage with each other and be creative.
With such rapid societal changes, Suveyb alleged that art had overtime been neglected not only by society, but by local authorities, which continued to mantain that there was limited funds to concentrate on projects and grants in the face of more traditional development projects.
“The problem really is that we don’t understand what art is,” he concluded.
National Museum staff and Male’-based arts NGO Revive have expressed concern over plans to move delicate exhibits for upcoming Independence Day celebrations to be held in the museum.
“We at the national museum believe the museum’s objects are very valuable and cannot be replaced if anything happens to any of the items,” National Museum Director Ali Waheed told Minivan News.
“I am concerned, we are not happy about this,” Waheed said.
He said that the President’s Office had sent a letter about holding the Independence Day event to the Tourism Ministry, which had in turn notified their Department of National Heritage.
“The department only informed us about the event three days ago,” Waheed claimed.
He said there were concerns that National Heritage Department Director General Zakariyya Hussain had not consulted museum staff about whether holding the event in the museum would be sensible.
“Zakariyya gave the approval but he didn’t say anything to us. He didn’t want to talk about it. At least he has to ask if this is good or not,” he claimed.
The President’s Office meanwhile said it had not been informed of the museum staff’s grievances, while rejecting claims that there would be any issues with holding such an event in the museum.
The President’s Office held an Independence Day event at the National Museum last year, which posed the same challenges to staff as it took place during Ramazan. The permanent exhibition items had to be shifted internally and placed against the walls to clear the middle of the hall, according to Assistant Curator Ismail Ashraf.
“[However,] it was quite different last year because there were many political issues and they were not able to get another venue,” noted Ashraf.
“During last year’s ceremony government agency heads and parliament members attended and there was no damage to the objects,” he continued. “However, there is the risk and probability of something happening [this year] when 400 plus people will be attending.”
Staff accepted that a similar event to celebrate the 2012 Independence Day had been held at the museum without incident – although the guest list is anticipated to be larger this year.
President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad told Minivan News yesterday (July 22) that the government did care about preserving Maldivian culture and heritage, but dismissed concerns that there were any politics involved in the event.
“There is enough time [for museum staff to prepare], we have not been informed [holding the event is problematic],” said Masood. “Nobody feels it is an issue. Minivan News is not the party that should be spreading these concerns, this is not a claim the museum staff are making, Minivan News is actually,” Masood said.
NGO Revive has meanwhile said it plans to submit a petition, signed by National Museum staff, to the President’s Office tomorrow (July 24) requesting the government reconsider its decision to hold the July 27 Independence Day celebrations inside the National Museum.
National Museum concerns
“We are caring about these things very much. The objects are very, very old and delicate. If they are moved several times, it may cause damage. I am responsible for their safety and security,” Waheed told Minivan News.
“I submitted a letter to Director General Zakariyya Hussain at 1:10pm on Monday (July 22) that we [the museum staff] are not responsible [for the damage that may be caused] when the objects are side by side in the hall,” he claimed.
Ashraf the assistant curator echoed Waheed’s sentiments that moving the artifacts to accommodate the event risked damaging them.
“It’s a permanent exhibition and we will have to move everything [on the ground floor] away to make a walkway for people for the ceremony,” Ashraf told Minivan News. “There are many artifacts to have to move, and having to do so quickly poses a risk of damaging the objects.”
“The other risk is that lots of people come in and not all will think the same way we do, [so] it is a risk that people may touch or take,” he continued.
Ashraf explained said that since the museum only has six permanent staff, the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) is supposed to help with moving the artifacts.
“They can help move the very heavy things, but we have to be there to supervise. We are in charge and if there is any damage [caused to the items] we are responsible,” he said.
Since it is currently the holy month of Ramazan, the amount of work National Museum staff can accomplish in preparation for the Independence Day event is also limited due to restricted working hours, Ashraf explained.
“In the month of Ramazan, museum hours are 9:00am to 1:30pm. This Independence Day event will take place Saturday night and Sunday morning we have to open the museum [to visitors],” he noted.
Ashraf urged the President’s Office to hold the event in another location.
“This year there are other options, so why still choose the National Museum?” he asked.
“The National Art Gallery has a full hall empty for temporary exhibitions, with enough space for the ceremony”.
“A mob of people took advantage of the lack of security,” he explained. “These things happened and the risk [of it happening again] is still there. It shows the government doesn’t have much interest in this work,” he alleged.
Civil society support
Revive, a local NGO which works in collaboration with the National Archives and National Museum, has advocated in support of the museum staff’s concerns surrounding the event.
“I’m very surprised the government [is holding this event] but are not able to arrest those who vandalized the museum last year,” Revive President Ahmed Naufal told Minivan News.
“Moving permanent exhibitions is not done anywhere in the world, only temporary exhibitions,” Naufal explained.
“National Museum staff have a low budget and are unable to preserve [everything],” he continued. “There is a high risk items will be destroyed by moving the exhibition.”
National museum staff have signed the ‘Revive Petition’, which calls on the government to reconsider its decision to hold the Independence Day celebrations inside the National Museum, as it would require moving the permanent collection of artifacts which could cause damage that cannot be restored.
“Fifteen staff have signed the petition. That’s everyone who came to the [National] Museum and Heritage Department,” noted Naufal.
“This includes the only Maldivian archaeologist from the Heritage Department, Shiura Jaufar and the National Museum Director.”
Handfuls of sand are sprinkled are carefully onto glass, and a single finger pokes the grains to magically morph them into a moving painting as an animation unfolds telling important narratives about the survival of a nation, against the soundtrack of haunting music.
The form of an old man takes shape, holding a cane in his hand. All around him a street scene of buildingsis developed under the sleight of a single hand sprinkling sand, asthe other creates perfectly drawn images. Behind the old man is a wall of people, and one of them is brandishing a Maldivian flag. Suddenly the music tempo changes. On the other side of the road a brace of helmeted police officers appear all brandishing riot shields and shaking their batons at the old man and the people. Suddenly, these images of the people are “wiped out” and in their place, a single menacing bulbous face appears.
All these scenes capture the moment that the Maldives was changed forever.
They were created by an enigmatic artist called Afzal Shaafiu Hasan, also known as Afu. He has decided to use his unique talent of drawing with sand to describe what he calls Baton Day, the day after the coup which destabilised the country and toppled the first democratically elected president the Maldives had seen in 30 years.
Afu learned his craft by watching you tube videos. In a short space of time, he had perfected it enough to perform a moving sand art play to a delegation of eight nations at the SAARC Summit in Addu. Later it was performed at an audience of thousands at Raalhugandu area earlier this year as part of an artists’ drive for democracy. Later his recorded performance went viral on Maldivian social media,
“Being noticed is a blessing, but it can bring pressures as well,” he said.
But how did he learn this incredible talent?
“About three years back I saw some videos of sand art by Ksenia Simonova and it was simply amazing. I wanted to try it,” said Afu. “So I taught myself how to do it through hours of experimentation and practice.
“Then just when I got the hang of it, I was given the opportunity to perform for the Heads of States of eight Asian countries, who all met for the SAARC Summit.
“The first performance I did after that was watched live by almost 8,000 people. That’s incredible for Male’.”
Of course practice makes perfect and it takes a lot of pre-planning to get right, just as any animation does. “It is important to get the story right and fit it into the least number of key frames and transitions, while keeping the emotion at all times,” he said.
“Since it is live I don’t have a second chance to get it right.”
To draw the images he uses his hand, and he has grown a long fingernail especially for the purpose of fine tuning details. He refers to this as his “paintbrush”.
Afu’s Sand Art has the air of the theatrical to it. Perhaps that is not so surprising as he counts the great performance artist and choreographer Mohamed Munthasir, known as Munco, among his friends from school.
In fact it was Munco who drew his attention to the very opportunity to perform at the SAARC Summit.
“Sand Art combines drawing, creative story-telling, skill and performance” said Afu.
“As soon as I started doing it, I fell in love with the medium, it expresses emotion on so many levels.”
He is also a classmate of the famous Dinba music creator Ishaantay Ishan. Music is a vital ingredient to Afu’s sand art performances. He often uses Hamy on the keyboard or piano and Shambe on the guitar to build up the drama and tension as Afu’s incredible artistic fingers work their unique magic.
Afu also sometimes performs sand art exhibitions to entertain tourists in resorts.
“Sand art is extremely versatile, it can be a pure art form as well as a commercial opportunity for tourism in resorts, but we still have a lot of work to do to develop this art in the Maldives,” he added.
“So far I am the only sand artist in the country. If people are interested in learning it, I would be more than willing guide them.
There is also a connection between Afu’s sand art and Maldivian tradition. Sand is used as a medium to teach children the alphabet and shapes. It is put in a large shallow container and the teacher uses their fingers or a little twig to write on it.
He currently has an exhibition in the National Art Gallery entitled ‘Breathing Atolls,” which features a video of “a sand animation based upon a traditional Maldivian fisherman’s life, called A Maldivian Tale.”
Afu believes that the Maldives is undergoing an artistic renaissance which is helping to enrich the culture of this island nation.
So what motivates Afu?
“The chaos of course, I feel it necessary to say something about it as an artist. That alone pushes me to do something – not just in my sand art, but in my paintings as well.”
And so, Afu’s artwork is constantly pushing boundaries. He is an enigma who seems to be constantly innovating and experimenting with any art form which takes his fancy. He has mastered everything from stamp design, to oil painting and now as his self -taught sand art proves, his talents to innovate know no bounds.
As well as politics, Afu’s oil paintings and sand art also showcase the simple lifestyle of Maldivians in the past.
He is also interested in the environment. One of his sand art animations called “Forever”, which was performed live at Thudufushi Resort in January 2012 shows how human interference and rubbish is causing the coral reefs to die.
He has a talent for showing the fragility and beauty of a moment, something which defines him as a truly great artist.
“Chaos. I feel it necessary to say something about it as an artist. That alone pushes me to do something -not just in my sand art, but in my paintings as well.”
Afu has painted since childhood, but surprisingly has had no classical training.
Asked how he learned of his talent, he said. “I was born with it, I guess. I was good at art at school so when I finished formal education, I joined the Post Office and drew stamps. This is the point I started taking art as a serious profession.”
During the 13-years he worked at the Post Office, he was responsible for creating almost a hundred stamp designs.
Later he was accepted to study a three-year diploma course in graphic design and multimedia in Malaysia.
“I did this, and then I developed my fine art side as a hobby with paintings, performing arts and sculptures. It is mainly all self-taught.”
He says he was encouraged from a young age by his father to be creative, although none of his siblings went into art.
“Dad was a man of many talents – carpentry, calligraphy, poetry and so on, and he inspired me to develop my artistic talent,” he said.
Afu says his inspiration includes local artists Maizan Hassan Maniku and Hassan of Pink Coral as well as more traditional muses such as Van Gough and Picasso.
Painting has always been one of his great loves. Over the years he has created many works of art, and many have been exhibited in the National Gallery.
However during some periods, some of his paintings have also been banned for being too evocative, especially during the Maumoon administration.
A series of paintings Afu did during this time was called the Man-Wall series, which saw man as the people, and wall as the Government. It deals with feelings such as hope, fear and freedom – themes which have returned since the events of 07/02/12.
“One particular painting was removed from the exhibition ‘Maldives Contemporary’ because the Government felt it was not appropriate. At that time there were a series of people going missing, in jails or just randomly disappearing. The wrapping says police line do not cross. The tree was our future and the zebra crossing was the point where our people will have to cross to reach that future,” he said.
“Religion is killing art”
Afu counts himself among part of a “new wave” of artists and craftsmen in Male’, who inspired by the political changes have been promoting innovative artforms and paintings.
All are facing challenges from the establishment, political and religious figures who believe creative arts are sinful.
“They have destroyed the ancient artefacts and they preach art as hara’am,” said Afu. “They have even preached against drawing human beings with eyes as this is supposedly directly ‘challenging God’.”
“In a country where the idea of art is limited to drawing it’s dangerous going beyond that limitation. Art has been off mainstream for a very long time, from the point we converted to Islam back in 1153 AD. That’s my opinion and there’s evidence to back it up too,” said Afu.
Art only very recently entered the mainstream – around 15 years ago due to religious restrictions. Psychedelic art in particular is growing fast, especially digital and doodle art, which is flooding social media right now.
Another artist, who goes by the name of K.D, acts as Afu’s agent. He was also the project coordinator for the SAARC Summit where the sand art was first displayed.
“The situation is as simple as this – religion is killing art,” said KD who is also a painter. “That’s my open view on it.”
He revealed how recently religious scholars in the Maldives had banned drawing human figures with eyes and noses, which they believe go against god. The exhibition was created by an artist known as Siru Arts who held an exhibition of political art without these features.
Afu said: “This exhibition was an asset to the current regime because it has a twisted narrative to the events of the coup.
“Some follow blindly because it’s about religion. It’s sad, but it’s happening all over the world, why not here?
“Here everything that happens reaches to every individual. It matters here more than countries with millions of people where only a little portion of it the population is directly affected.
“This can be dangerous because we’re a nation of just 350,000 people. Here everything is magnified.”
In the modern Maldives the art world is growing, but at the same time, due to religious restrictions, artists have gone in hiding and dare not express their opinions.
“The government needs to keep artists like Afu and others safe and secured away from all these dangerous people,” said KD, who classes Afu as his mentor.
“In my own personal opinion I believe that artists should be more open in their views because the more we stay hidden, the more damage will be done,” he added.
Education, KD believes, is the key to challenging these ideologies.
“This place is filled with talent but no proper guidance or guidelines are implemented. In the current situation we can see how art is growing.”
Former President Mohamed Nasheed’s government actively supported the arts, introducing venues and practice rooms, intellectual rights for the artist and open forums, the artists say.
Many people in the country have talent, but they have not learned the fundamentals.
Each artist is self taught and as yet no National Art School exists and for the moment art is off the mainstream curriculum. There was an art school called Salaam school, which collapsed following the tragic death of its founder in 2011, Aminath Arif ‘Anthu’.
As an event manager KD has worked with many painters, musicians and performance artists. His main concern is to encourage the government to invest in art in the mainstream education system.
“I believe if art is involved more in the current education system, Maldivian art will grow,” said KD.
Overall, Afu has taken Maldivian art in a new direction.
“My utopian view as a Maldivian is that I live in one of the most beautiful places. My community is small and loving and live a simple life. We are happy.
“But my view on the political chaos is different. I believe what we are going through is healthy and necessary for our country’s future.
“Change shall come, but at a cost. We will be the generation who has to deal with it.”
His beautiful images are crafted out of the very sand which makes up the dazzling beaches that so many tourists frequent.
This in itself is quite symbolic.
The medium makes a statement as much as the art. An image or scene can be wiped out in an instant to make way for a new image.
As the Maldives approaches crucial elections, this also says something about the state of the nation and the events of the last 18 months.
Sand is also strong and fragile at the same time. Can the sand beneath their feet holds the country together or will the single grains just blow away in the wind?
The Sea House restaurant in Male’ is set to host a free jazz concert tomorrow ( July 8 ) in collaboration with Alliance Française Maldives (AFM).
The concert, which begins at 9:00pm, will feature classic jazz saxophonist Jean-Pierre Baraglioli and tabla player Peshala Manoj.
AFM, an NGO providing French language courses and other cultural events in the Maldives since 2009, last month hosted an evening of free musical performances by Maldivian and French artists at Male’ City Hall as part of its annual Fête de la Musique celebrations.
A visual art event that would have seen graffiti and street artists gathering to host a live demonstration to encourage young people to vote for change in the upcoming elections, has been postponed.
Organised by the artist known as Feshun, the visual art event was to take place from 4:00pm on Saturday at Raalhugandhu, and continue up until 11:00pm in the evening.
The event was to feature live graffiti painting by numerous artists across various locations around the capital city island along to live music performed by a DJ, intended to inspire the disaffected younger generation to vote.
In recent years, artists have enjoyed greater autonomy and freedom of expression – particularly when covering political subjects.
Following the controversial toppling of former President Mohamed Nasheed on February 7 2012, many artists have turned their talents to highlighting the ‘coup’, and all of the other issues affecting social and political landscape of the island nation.
Many artists who plan to take part in this live event can remember the oppression under the previous dictatorship, and say that five years of creative freedom has helped to inspire artistic creativity. Since the February 7, there has been an upsurge of political statements through art in what one artist calls an “artistic renaissance”.
The Maldives’ answer to Banksy, who goes by the nickname of “Sob Sob”, told Minivan News: “The aim is to involve more people in the movement that Feshun has started. It will continue non-stop until the voting. I am sure it will make a difference.”
Tagging is a way of life for Sob Sob. Now aged 30, he has been painting over the drab walls of Male’s concrete jungle with his 3D graffiti art for more than 12 years.
As the government has cracked down on these graffiti artists and painted over their “works of art” with grey paint, Sob Sob, who once painted a 3D trompe l’oeil of a toilet door to highlight the need for outdoor lavatories being installed near the surf point area, says he will just spray paint another statement.
Asked why he and his peers are using the streets as his art canvas, rather than exhibiting in a museum, he said: “It’s the only way to express to the public. If I exhibited my art work in a museum, only a few would actually see it.”
“The streets are our neighbourhoods and the only place here where we get out to. We live on islands and we have nowhere to go. We are limited by our boundaries. All the islands have been sold as resorts and locals cannot afford to live in luxury. That’s our dream too, the Robinson Crusoe feeling, but the reality for us is working hard and living in a concrete jungle.”
As an artist he is known for making political statements, he says that the main aim of his graffiti is to express what he feels and to tell things like they really are. “Thoughts are meant to be spoken, not just thought,” he said.
“The biggest hand played here was the protest back in 2012 on February 8. Look around Male’ and you will see many of my works they include: ‘Looting the youth and Shooting the Truth’.
“When I felt rage back in Gayoom’s regime, then there was ‘bridge my ass…vote for change’ [in reference to a promised Hulhumale-Male bridge] and ‘Enough is Enough’, which led to our movement in 2008 under the studio called “Freedom Factory”.
Other artists have been campaigning for political change. These include the talented sand artist Afu Shaafiu Hasn who first started making a political statement about the coup in his sand art debut during the SAARC Summit.
His works have been demonstrated in front of live audiences of thousands. He said: “Right now some artists are gearing up for campaigns to encourage the new batch to vote in these upcoming elections.
“We’re setting up events the age group can engage in, like graffiti events, music, 3D street art and other stuff.
Most of the mainstream artists are pro-democratic, and particularly antagonistic towards former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
“We just want people to go and vote, for whoever they wish. It is up to them. GO VOTE,” Hasn says.
“The politics going on here are of no interest to the young people who live here, because most have already lost hope of things getting better,” he adds.
Afu has made some bold statements about the coup in his sand art. ‘Baton Day’ is about the events of February 7 and 8 and the police brutality that ensued, and ‘Feelings’ which deals with the psychological trauma of those events.
“The journey after the coup is very bad. I don’t want to hear the news nowadays. I even gave away my TV when the coup happened and I haven’t a TV since that day,” says Afu.
But is all this art just preaching to the choir? Asked whether the country will see a fair election, he said: “I don’t know, seriously. I can’t think of a way the people in power will simply give it up and go to jail. But yes I have hope. Where there is art, there is hope.”
The Tourism Ministry outsourced the Maldives’ first national pavilion at the Venice Biennale art show to an Arab-European collective of curators, some of whom have alleged the Maldives government does not care about climate change or the arts.
The pavilion is meant to raise awareness and be a call to action against climate change as well as explore questions of environmental impact, climate change and migration in the Maldives, as part of the art show taking place in Venice, Italy.
The art exhibitions also highlights Maldivians’ current efforts to archive and collect as much of their cultural heritage as possible, prior to the entire nation’s disappearance, due to rising sea levels, and the subsequent forced displacement of 350,000 people.
The Maldives pavilion was “almost abandoned” following the controversial transfer of power February 7, 2012, given that it was originally an initiative of former President Mohamed Nasheed and envisioned as a way to draw attention to climate change and the plight faced by the Maldives, according to an article published by the Inter Press Service (IPS).
Although Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Ahmed Adeeb commissioned the pavilion, President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik’s government “lost interest” in the initiative and allowed a joint Arab-European collective of artists, called the Chamber of Public Secrets (CPS), to curate the exhibitions, alleges the IPS.
Some of the Maldives pavilion curators have accused Waheed’s government of having no interest in the arts, the pavilion exhibitions, or climate change.
“They did not care. They did not mind. They don’t believe in the power of art to affect anything anyway,” associate curator Maren Richter told the IPS.
“The new government even denies the [climate change] problem and says that Nasheed was a liar. They say, ‘He built an airport and resorts, why would he do that if sea levels are rising?’,” added Richter.
CPS curator and Lebanese artist Khaled Ramadan echoed these sentiments in his documentary “Maldives To Be or Not”, which “explores Western preconceived notions about the Maldives and its ecology.”
The film focuses on the current socio-political challenges faced by Maldivians, which include climate change as well as “the corrupt tourism industry” and the struggle “to balance their life between modernity and traditions,” he explained to the publication BLOUIN ARTINFO.
Ramadan visited the Maldives in March 2013 as a “citizen of the Arab world who wanted to learn about what’s left of the shared history and how this amphibious nation is treating its contemporary culture in relation to its ecological strengths and weaknesses.”
“The environmental hazard about the Maldivian nature is an over politicised notion, and the nature has proven to be much more sustainable than the Maldivian culture,” wrote the Maldives Pavilion blog.
“Would our request to represent Maldives as outsiders have been accepted by Venice Biennale officials without official letter from the current Maldives government?” asked Ehsan Fardjadniya, an artist and activist based in Amsterdam participating in Maldives Pavilion.
The initial ideas for the Maldives pavilion were to unite a network of activists to discuss and act on climate change issues and the ongoing political turmoil in the country via a mobile pavilion representing the forced migration of these future climate refugees, Fardjadniya explained in an interview for the Maldives Pavilion blog.
“Right now, the project has found a venue and doesn’t seem to relate itself much or at all with the pressing issues in the Maldives,” said Fardjadniya. “On the contrary, we seem to be commissioned by the current government to represent the Maldives at 55th Venice Biennale.”
“I would rather be an outsider to this present situation and act against this cultural coup,” Fardjadniya declared.
The Maldives pavilion includes a variety of exhibitions created by international multi-media artists, individual contributors and group collaborations.
While the exhibitions were primarily created by artists of various nationalities, two Maldivians, Moomin Fouad and Mohamed Ali, contributed their film “Happy Birthday”. The film, about a kidnapping and disappearance, previously won 12 MFA Awards at the 2011 Maldives Film Festival.
The 55th Venice Biennale was launched on 29 May and will be open to visitors until 24 November.
The Biennale claims to be “one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the world…promoting new artistic trends and organising international events in contemporary arts” since its formation in 1895.
Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Ahmed Adeeb was not responding to calls at time of press.
Addendum: Following publication of this article Minivan News received the following statement from Abed Anouti, Producer at the Chamber of Public Secrets, in response to an enquiry made by Minivan News the previous day.
In compliance with CPS’s copyright request Minivan News has also taken down an image of the pavilion’s promotional poster, distributed by CPS and used to illustrate the story.
The article by Ferry Biedermann published at IPS is full of miss information. Mr. Ferry NEVER interviewed anyone from the Maldives Pavilion, his claims stand for his own account. He has no sound recording, email correspondence, footage or even photos from the curators of the pavilion to support his claims.
As we do with all journalists, we only presented to Mr. Ferry our PR which is published on our website. CPS always asks journalists to look at our PR statement at our website to learn more about the project. He didn’t use time to study the artworks at the pavilion, he is not an art writer or even cultural writer, he is another journalist who is looking for sensations.
Mr. Ferry Biedermann is not the only journalist who took advantage of our positive pavilion to score political or journalistic points to himself or his agency.
Minivan is another agency that is spreading rumors and misquotations. Neither the curators of the Maldives Pavilion nor the participating artists have given any interviews to Ferry Biedermann or Minivan.
CPS team and the invited artists worked hard for over a year on the issue of climate change to present a research based art exhibition in Venice, our focus is not only Maldives but environment in a global context.
So far professional art writers have been given the Maldives Pavilion the best reviews and we are among the most popular destinations of the Venice Biennale. Furthermore, the Maldives Pavilion was the only one to be interviewed by the Italian national TV on the day of the opening.
As a professional artists group, we approach the Maldives with positive thinking, we are not journalists who seek negative stories. We don’t wish to politicize art and refuse to be part of any political sensational publishing agencies like Minivan.
Just for the record all conversations and emails with non-professional art writers or art critics are published on our web to avoid misuse or misquotation of any of us like in the case with Mr. Ferry.
Finally, Minivan unethically used our graphic poster without our knowledge or permission. Therefore we urge you to remove it from your website due to copyright.
Societal challenges in addressing the prevalence of child abuse within the Maldives was the central theme of a one-day contemporary art exhibition held at the National Art Gallery in Male’ on Saturday.
Ismail Asif, who coordinated the exhibition along with a number of fellow local artists, said each installation aimed to focus on fears of how “common” child abuse had become within the Maldives, partly as a result of an unwillingness to discuss and tackle the matter within society.
“[The exhibition] is about trying to break taboos, it really is a challenge to discuss these matters. The system has so many flaws we wanted to depict; these are flaws within the education system, the judicial system and wider society,” he said.
Despite the difficult subject matter, organisers claimed that after three weeks of work, the exhibition, which ran from 4:00pm to 6:00pm, aimed to encourage participation from members of the public to try and encourage discussion about child abuse.
Asif talked about the exhibition’s wider themes, without trying to play down the provocative nature of the installations.
“We very much wanted to focus on participation, normally when it comes to trying to address child abuse as an issue, people will just have a poster or banners they can look at concerning the problem. We wanted to try and give more a sense of looking through the eyes of the victims,” he said.
The exhibition itself combined installations involving a sculpture of a female figure holding up a toilet, depicting what Asif claimed was the discrepancy between national perceptions of the traditional status of local women and their treatment within real life.
Among perhaps the more outré installations on display at the yesterday’s exhibition was a specially-constructed walkway that required members of the public upon entry to pass through a small passageway with artificial hands attached to either side of the exhibit.
Asif said that the exhibit was used to open the event to try and reflect themes concerning harassment of vulnerable young people.
Scale of the problem
In recent years, local authorities and NGOs have released a number of findings trying to detail the extent of child abuse and wider sexual assaults within society.
The state-run Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital’s (IGMH’s) Family Protection Unit reported in 2010 that the centre was notified of 42 cases of rape between 2005-2010. Most of these cases were found to involve minors.
According to the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, 13 rape cases were reported last year alone, the majority of which most were gang rapes or assaults involving minors.
Almost one in seven children of secondary school age in the Maldives have been sexually abused at some time in their lives, according to an unpublished 2009 study on violence against minors.
Rates of sexual abuse for girls are almost twice as high than for boys at 20 percent – one in five girls have been sexually abused – while the figure for boys was 11 percent. Girls are particularly at risk in the capital Male’, the report found.
Sounds of Identity is a series of articles that look at Maldivian musicians and performing artists. The first in the series is a profile of the pioneering music movement in the Maldives Dinba Family.
Much like the era of Hendrix, the Beatles and Bob Dylan, the Maldives is undergoing its own musical revolution and developing an underground sound of its own.
The emerging new democracy is encouraging the development of the music industry. While a malady of music critics bemoan the lack of support for local music and a lack of original productions, music enthusiasts such as ‘Dinba family’ are creating fresh sounds. Because of their efforts, talented Maldivian artists are finally emerging.
Dinba is all about hitting back at the mainstream pop covers of the Simon Cowell era.
“Forget your manufactured pop covers – you can leave them to the resorts,” says Ahmed ‘Ishaantey’ Ishaan, the creator of Dinba music group, which consists of musicians and artists working at making original music and free expression in the Maldives.
Ishaantey prides himself on nurturing a new wave of underground music, sung by independent, edgy and talented Maldivian artists. As such, the Dinba Family is a fluid collection of more than 50 music artists, composers and songwriters (Ibbe, Faya, Rappay, and others). Inspiring creative music is the core goal, says Ishaantey, the grandson of the legendary singer Jeymu Dhonkamana.
Dinba music draws on an eclectic fusion of Maldivian and different styles of music influences, while blending elements of mainstream bass, rhythm and guitar into the mix. On the first Dinba Family album, Ishaantey played all the instruments himself and having even mastered the album A Different Taste.
“We create music of all genres, Dinba Family’s philosophy is to each his music. People listen to songs they like, no one can dictate taste.” The result is an amalgam of diverse sounds, varying from album to album and even from track to track.
Dinba Family has seven albums to its name. Their album with renowned local singer Shiuz named ‘Kula Yellow’ consisted of seven tracks of different styles, ranging from a piano ballad, world music and even a reggae song. ‘Fanditha’ album, is an eclectic mix, decorated with exquisite works of art drawn by local artists, complete with an interesting track listing of English-Dhivehi. The latest ‘Rakis Bondu’ features famous local singers like Unoosha, Affan, Haifa, Shiuz and Zara.
What Ishaantey has successfully created in Dinba music is a not-for-profit movement, which provides music to as wide an audience as possible. Already they are starting to permeate the Maldivian cultural conscience. Dinba songs are comprised of a very different poetry.
“This is a 100 percent Muslim country and one of the only ways people can be relaxed is through music,” says Ishaantey.
Since childhood Ishantay has been playing music, going on to create the Seachild band in early 1990 with his childhood friend, singer-songwriter Esa.
Both of them wrote music together as they grew up, but faced difficult times during the previous government’s era.
“For 30 years it has been difficult to express anything in music, back then, in the Gayoom era, they censored lyrics, or musicians would constantly self-censor themselves which stifles creativity,” says Ishaantey.
Singers would insist on knowing lyrics beforehand and be terrified of singing anything that touched upon the government or the people.
“Musicians were scared to write songs in our mother tongue, but all that has changed. Kenereege Mohamed Nasheed [then an activist now the President of the Maldives] freed the Dhivehi language for us; this government gives us freedom to write what we want. We feel that with democracy there is a big change in the country and we want to make music in our own language while we still can, but this is not easy to do,” said Ishaantey.
Like their music, Dinba Family lyrics touch upon diverse aspects of Maldivian life, at times indulging in whimsical play on words. Some of the songs from Dinba Family have been hailed for preserving the age-old Maldivian style of songs/poetry, ‘An’ba’; offering cultural and societal insight.
Their latest album is Rakis Bondu and it is a study in diversity. It features an ode to a beloved child Dharifulhaa by Faya and great vocal effects by Shiuz while Unoosha belts out a declaration of love tinged with self doubt in Mashah. Muad’s Tis dhathi kamana hovers between spooky and intriguing: a woman steals a second glance and follows the man around, but it is unclear if she will be a prospective lover or stalker. The title track of Rakis Bondu sung by Muad, Shiuz, Haisham and Zara talks about a certain guy saying that only hypocrites can rule this country.
“When we make music we try to move away from sounds of music we had heard, to try and create something with a Maldivian feel,” says Ishaantey.
“At times we do succeed in this endeavor and end up creating a piece that cannot be pigeonholed, as being reggae, rock or anything.” Ishaantey says songs like Rah fushu vaahaka from Kula Yellow album, Koya from Zara’s album and title track of Fanditha album along with Soadhubeyge bodu saobu, Geydhoshu Kujja from Naacharangee fall into this category.
“When this happens often a person will turn around and say it sounds like a Zero Degree Atoll song.” Ishaantey says this in itself is a big credit. “We are happy when this happens, because Zero Degree Atoll is one group that had managed to come up with unique Maldivian sounding music that sets it apart from other world music.”
Dinba Family’s unconventional approach even extends to the music’s marketing. Dinba music is compiled on CDs that are given away freely.
Rather than signing artists, the Dinba Family prefers artists to move freely without barriers. However it is the individual artist that holds the rights to sell songs that they perform in the Dinba Family.
“Singers come to us because we give them the space to be creative. We are lucky that a singer like Unoosha who is on the cusp of an international career [she is poised to sing for a famous film production house in India] sang for us. We push her to break boundaries in her singing. We do experimental songs with our vocalists,” says Ishaantey.
Some of the artists in the ‘Family’ include Zara, the first independent female artist to release a solo album in the Maldives history. Her second album with Dinba music Naacharangee featuring songs celebrating life, with those that raise social issues and concerns in was heavily supported and promoted by Wataniya. Ishaantey says “its companies like Wataniya that enables us to produce music.”
Despite the fact that a lot of youth seems to listen to and appreciate original Dhivehi music, Ishaantey says musicians who brought out albums in the past have said it does not sell well in the Maldives. “By giving away albums like this, we hope that in time we will be able to create a demand for original music in the market.”
Ishaantey feels that despite a thriving tourism industry, which caters mostly to high-end markets, the music industry is lagging far behind.
“Clientele from five star resorts want to hear jazz and diverse music, but the pay is so little that it’s not possible to develop the local music scene and buy proper equipment to play high quality music for those gigs.”
Dinba Family is working on their eighth album now, which will be out in March this year 2012. Some of the Dinba tunes are available on You Tube and via Wataniya’s Reethi Tunes engine, and Dhiraagu mytones, an online library of music by Maldivian and other artists.
Dinba music family had recently toured in the South in Maldives for the SAARC Festival and done a show with Shaaz in India ( Delhi ). Ishaantey says the love Indians have for music is amazing: “they love, respect and value musicians regardless of nationality.”
Dinba Family wants to try and establish a link with an international recording studio and Maldivian composers. “The Internet has opened up the world, and this will be a reality in the near future. Our heavy metal bands have already achieved this. It is sad to say that original music by Maldivians is not getting enough support from the media.”
Dinba Music has recently launched a website, where people can download music and budding musicians can contact them. The Dinba family does jam sessions at various locations and establishments across Male’. Talks are underway with hotels to have live bands playing regularly, and to help new music flow in the vibrant new democracy.
As Ishaantey says: “people go to resorts to perform, and sell-out to perform covers to earn money, but they come to Dinba Family because they want to play and they want to express their talents.”