Tourism industry has an obligation to develop local artists, says painter at launch of Coco Collection

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.

Afu's works feature trails of ancient Dhivehi script

“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.


Olympic rower to cross equator between atolls in world first

British Olympic rower Guin Batten says that while she loves visiting the Maldives, “like most people I get a little bored with just lying around on a beach.”

So during her next trip, on 29 March, the 42 year-old silver medallist intends to row 60 kilometres across the ‘zero degree’ channel that bisects the equator between Foammulah and Huvadhoo Atoll.

In the first ever attempt at the crossing in a rowboat, Batten expects to spend seven hours battling the swells, tides and currents of the Indian Ocean, in coastal rowing vessel just 78 centimetres wide and weighing 35 kilograms.

“The boat has an open stern and is designed so waves can break over it,” Batten explains. “The attempt will involve a lot of technical skill, and I have to make sure I don’t catch the waves with the oars. Ocean waves are long and slow, but there’s very little information available on the currents and conditions – I don’t think it’s going to be straightforward.”

Batten has been preparing by studying surf reports in the area, and expects the Somali current to be a formidable adversary (“that’s what gives the surfers their southwest swell”).

As far as madcap record-setting rowing enterprises go, Batten is well qualified. She holds the current world record – male or female – for rowing solo across the English Channel in an Olympic hull, in a time of three hours and 14 minutes.

But that was only 30 kilometres – half the distance she will face next week.

“As an athlete I’m designed to race two kilometres in seven minutes, not 60 kilometres in seven hours. It will be very different in style,” she predicts.

“Last weekend I rowed for five hours, and it was tough. Your hands get very sore from the blisters, and you go through the highs and lows.”

One of Batten’s major concerns during the equator crossing will be regulating her body temperature: “I’m coming straight from a freezing British winter to the lovely tropical Maldives where it’s 30 degrees,” she says, predicting it was very likely she would develop some level of heat exposure during the attempt.

“The critical thing is to make sure you drink enough and have enough energy on board. I’ll have to drink two litres of water an hour, and I’ll probably sweat more than that.”

Beyond her record-setting attempt, Batten says she hopes to inspire Maldivians to take up rowing again after it lapsed from the culture.

“I thought it was interesting that rowing used to be very popular here in the 80s – there were even competitions but they all died away.

“It’s a great tradition for a country like the Maldives to have – there’s a lack of space for sports [on land], but there’s so much beach and sea. We’re exploring how to bring over four-man rowing boats and start up a rowing club. My ambition is to see it take off again, and come back in 5-6 years and see islands having boat races with each other.”

Batten’s trip to the Maldives next week might be a little less sedentary than that of most visitors, but she says it won’t be entirely beach-free: “I’ll just be getting a bit of exercise first.”

Batten’s world-first attempt at the zero degree crossing is supported by UK-based NGO Friends of Maldives, with assistance from British Airways, Coco Palm Resorts (Maldives) and Crew Room.