There are certain paintings that have the power to uplift your spirits. Well-known local artist Afzal (Afu) Shaafiu Hassan’s Coco collection exhibition showcases 24 paintings belonging to that category.
Commissioned by Cocopalm Boduhithi, the acrylic paintings are destined to be hung in the water bungalows of the high-end resort.
The paintings’ blend of contemporary and heritage gives a modern twist to usual depictions of palm trees, corals, shells and islands. At the same time Afu’s paint brush has also dipped into the 2000 year old Maldivian culture, giving the paintings depth, familiarity and a unique ‘Maldivianness’.
The 48×44 inch paintings are hung in a row, inches apart occupying one side of the spacious art gallery. Interestingly enough a 60 year old Maldivian story ‘Raiveribeyaa Rukaa’ (toddy tapper and palm tree) written by Annabeel Malin Mohamed Didi runs through all the paintings in the form of a monologue written in ancient Dhivehi script.
“It was a coincidence; I was reading that story when Cocopalm commissioned my work,” says Afu.
The connection of the name Cocopalm and the story which revolves around a toddy tapper and a palm tree was not lost on Afu. “It’s a fascinating story, in one part the palm tree berates the toddy tapper asking him why he doesn’t behave like a man, and go fishing like others, instead of spending his time on top of the tree.”
The story goes on to highlight the importance of the palm tree to every aspect of Maldivian life and talks about how it is better to protect the palm trees than damage them.
Depicting classics in a new way
The quintessential palm tree and sunset has a new role to play in Afu’s paintings. In one painting two palm trees stand straight on the right side as all around them, blues, oranges, purples intercept and whirl around. While on the left side one can almost make out the faint whisperings of a form that looks like a butterfly or a flower, the ends of it curling and beckoning the palm trees.
“It’s the flower motif you find on lacquerware,” says Afu, and suddenly you realize why the form looks so familiar. Throughout all the paintings ancient motifs plays peek-a-boo with the viewer, teasing in its familiarity.
Afu’s depiction of murex shell is almost fiery, the edges spiked with blues, oranges, and yellows, reds, pinks – it is simply a riot of colours. The shell’s middle is mysterious and dark reminding you that you never really know what lurks inside a shell when you pick it up first. In contrast to the fieriness of the shell is the barely visible flower motif at the bottom. In other paintings you can make out a hexagonal seal, akin to the ones used in the past by Maldivian Kings.
“The motifs and seals are not depicted exactly as they are,” he says.
In Afu’s world flower motifs are stretched, a king’s seal gives way to your own and motifs from the ancient Friday mosque can be turned upside down, or lengthened and modified in innovative way to break up two juxtaposed island views.
Calligraphy recounting ancient stories run horizontally, vertically, in one lines, or in couples to visually entice the audience.
For Afu this is his way of paying homage to the Dhivehi script, Thaana. “We take our script for granted now, but it’s only civilizations that have its own proper script. I am very proud to show it off in my paintings.”
A helping hand
One reason Afu is exhibiting the Coco Collection is to make the tourism industry sit up and take notice to Maldivian art: “It’s a pity that it is mostly foreigners’ work that is displayed in resorts.”
Afu laments the fact that despite the Maldivian tourism industry being well established and flourishing, with over 600,000 visitors a year, the local art scene was lagging far behind. However he acknowledged that “there has been the problem of lack of reliability of Maldivian artists in the past.”
“The regional art scenes are more developed and the art industry and tourism industry of those countries complement each other.”
But he says times have changed: “There are very good Maldivian artists who can deliver now, they should be given a chance.”
A view echoed by Hussain Hilmy, director of Sunland Travels that owns Cocopalm Boduhithi.
“We decided to source local painters because there are many talented artists in the Maldives. It was tough choosing an artist, after seeing the works of so many,” he said.
Speaking at the opening ceremony of the exhibition last night, Hilmy emphasised the fact that the paintings would be hung in the most expensive rooms of the resort and wished more progress for the local artists.
This is the second resort commission for Afu, a 12 year break after the first one.
“The tourism industry has an obligation to help develop the local artists, as it would be mutually beneficial for both industries,” says Afu.
Coco Collection will be on display until July 14 every weekday from 10:00am to 4:00pm at National Art Gallery.