A video of an art exhibition on violence against women, which depicted scantily clothed women with body paint and some posing with a dead octopus, has sparked controversy.
The project was commissioned in March by the vice-president of the Maldivian National Chamber of Commerce and Industries (MNCCI) Ismail Asif as part of his fourth annual exhibition on women and children’s rights.
The first half of the video shows female models, who work for the Austrian company WB Productions, at the National Art Gallery with traditional Maldivian dress painted on to their bodies.
The second half shows some models posing with a dead octopus on the beach while others posed topless with body paint and coir rope.
Projects in the field of bodypainting is what we do. About 2 months ago we were invited to fill the Maldivian National Art Gallery with painted bodies. ///////////////////////More about the exhibition: In the week from 7th of march 2015 "WB Production" is invited with a team to the Maldives to be part of the Installation Art Project by Ismail Asif in the Maldives National Art Gallery. It's his 4th annual exhibition about "Abuse of woman and children" in his country.It's also the first time he incorporated Bodypainting into his art. The design of the Bodypainting was taken from the Dhivehi Libaas, the traditional Maldivian dress, elaborately adorned with a gold and silver neckline called Kasabu Bovalhu.Every day protests out on the streets against the government were almost knocking the plan of an indeed nervous looking Mr. Asif off.The team of WB Production with Alex and Anna Barendregt, Aga Glińska, Anna Tuzańska and Vitaliya Abramova is very thankful to be part of this great experimental trip and very glad that the exhibition in the end did happen. WHAT A trip ;)www.wb-production.com
The video was uploaded on May 20 on Facebook and has been viewed more than 53,000 times.
CEO of WB production Alex Barendregt said: “Our team was able to be part of a very intense art exhibition in the Maldivian art gallery. Why intense? Because for the first time we did incorporate body painting in a very strict conservative Muslim country.”
Many praised Asif for the controversial exhibition, but others said the video contained “pornographic material.” Some censured Asif for what they called double standards, claiming he had criticized former president Mohamed Nasheed’s government for allegedly secular policies.
Asif was unavailable for comment at the time of going to press.
“Great work. Nice to see the artist who was happily branding the jailed president Mohamed Nasheed’s government as un-Islamic taking the daring step to hold a body painting exhibition in Malé’s Art Gallery. Sadly even for watching this video us mere locals would be arrested and charged with having pornographic material,” Munshid Mohamed said on Facebook.
Nasheed is currently serving a 13-year jail term on terrorism charges. His trial was widely criticized for lack of due process and triggered daily anti-government protests for three months.
Another expressed concern over the national gallery allowing Asif to hold an exhibition that “pushed public norms of decency,” despite having rejected art work by Maldivian students depicting Nasheed as a hero for an exhibition on the country’s golden jubilee of independence.
One asked: “What would have happened if this had happened during president Nasheed’s time?” Many of Nasheed’s supporters feel his opponents unfairly targeted them by branding them as un-Islamic.
Others expressed concern over artists using an octopus in the photos, to which WB productions replied: “Don’t worry, it was a dead octopus from the market, and later one of our friends took him home to cook as millions other people do.”
A supporter of the exhibition, Faiyal Ahmed said: “Nice stuff, if this is what locals are calling shooting a porn video I think we should educate them more.”
A group of local artists staged a protest at the national art gallery today over the exclusion of paintings depicting former President Mohamed Nasheed from an exhibition organised by the education ministry.
The exhibition, launched yesterday, featured artwork and handicraft by students from 32 schools as part of events planned by the government to mark the upcoming golden jubilee of the country’s independence.
“Nasheed is said to be the Mandela of the Indian Ocean and I personally have a lot of respect for him. That is why I chose to paint him,” 18-year-old Mohamed Raaif told Minivan News today.
The Maldives National University student explained that his painting was initially put up, but he later discovered that it had been removed.
Raaif said a teacher told him that the organisers claimed his painting was of “a terrorist” and could not be displayed.
The opposition leader was found guilty of terrorism on Friday night (March 13) and sentenced to 13 years in prison over the military’s detention of Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed in January 2012.
Education ministry officials in charge of organising the exhibition could not be reached at the time of publication.
A second painting by a student featuring the former president was also removed.
However, artwork featuring other politicians with blurred faces were displayed at the exhibition.
Raaif said he spent three days working on the painting and had stayed up all night to complete it. He said he was hoping to raise funds for his mother’s backbone surgery as the family was currently facing financial constraints.
He added that he did not have any intention of politicising the painting. However, Raaif said he associated the theme of the exhibition – freedom or independence – with former President Nasheed.
“Not free yet”
Online news outlet CNM reported that the second banned painting of Nasheed was from a grade ten student at the Addu City Feydhoo School.
“That photo is of a terrorist. Photos of terrorists cannot be promoted,” organisers allegedly said, according to an anonymous source.
Meanwhile, a group of about 30 people, including several artists, staged a silent protest inside the art gallery today, mingling with members of the public and holding up prints of the banned Nasheed paintings.
The exhibition was open to the public with free entrance.
The protesters also carried placards calling for freedom of expression and assembly as guaranteed by the constitution and stuck posters on the gallery walls that read, “Not free yet!” and “Minimum 50 years in prison.”
“The function of freedom is to free someone else,” read one of the posters, quoting Chinese dissident and Nobel laureate, Ai Weiwei.
“The work of art was a scream for freedom. Minivan [independent] 50 has not reached us yet!” read one of the placards held up by a protester.
An artist at today’s protest, Kareen Adam, told Minivan News: “The state cannot dictate to us what we can paint, draw, write or think etc. They should have called this exhibition ‘freedom within boundaries’ instead.”
Others artists said the organisers were sending a negative message to youth by banning the paintings of Nasheed, stating that former President Nasheed was an ineradicable part of recent Maldivian history.
Around 4:30pm – half an hour after the exhibition opened for the day – protesters told Minivan News that police asked them to leave as organisers had said the art gallery was closing.
A group led by Youth Ministry Coordinator Ali ‘Steps Ayya’ Shahid meanwhile arrived and began tearing down the material pasted on the walls.
“We will not keep paintings of terrorists,” one of the men allegedly said.
Protesters said the men tore down the paintings and ripped up the posters as police officers watched impassively.
A police officer was also photographed ripping a poster.
Police told the protesters that the men had clearance to enter the gallery as they had passes of government coordinators.
One of the protesters took a photograph of the men and was allegedly pushed away.
The men also pushed out the protesters from the gallery. Protesters who spoke to Minivan News asked not to be named as they feared becoming targeted and said they did not have confidence that police would provide protection.
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?
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.
President Mohamed Nasheed has welcomed a series of events in the Maldives designed to try and forge closer cultural and development partnerships with France, claiming they are indicative of a country that is looking to become “more democratic, more liberal” and ultimately, freer.
Speaking last night during a reception at the National Art Gallery in Male’, Nasheed joined Christine Robichon, French ambassador to the Maldives, in playing up the latest developments in what he claimed was a long relationship that dated back to the 1700’s and was continuing to benefit the nation in a variety of different ways.
This week in particular has seen a number of developments relating to French culture and expertise in the Maldives, including the naval ship FS Mistral docked in the country’s waters as part of a long-term training deployment and the more scaled back establishment of the Alliance Francaise in the recently opened National Library in Male’.
The Alliance Francaise is an organisation that works to promote French cultural language programmes across the world, and is running a Film Festival of productions from French speaking nations. The group was first officially recognised in the Maldives in 2009 and estimates that the number of students now learning French at public schools has increased to 400 people from just four during the last two years.
Historically the Maldives has seen significant interest from French tourists in visiting its waters and resorts. While conceding that the strength of this interest had fallen behind other markets like China, Ambassador Robichon told guests at the gallery that the option for a growing number of students in the country to learn French may not make as much business sense locally, but still offered the “variety” of speaking a major international language for Maldivian students.
President Nasheed said that he hoped a growing number of Maldivian children and the wider population were looking to embrace different history, culture and languages through education.
“We want to welcome everyone to the country, we want to become multicultural and we are moving along these lines and with our new found friendship I am sure we will be able to achieve that,” he said.
Along with the potential cultural pursuits being offered to Maldivians, President Nasheed also announced that work was beginning on French-sponsored development assistance projects to provide sewerage and water systems to islands in the country.
Whilst thanking the French ambassador for her country’s assistance with these developments, Nasheed claimed that with its recent ascension from being designated as a UN ‘least developed country’ (LDC) to a middle income nation, the Maldives was having to learn to try and stand on its own two feet.
“Recently we have been promoted from a least developed country and we want to stand up to that. We want to be able to fend for ourselves and live within our means,” he said. “We do not want aid, we want understanding and friendship and I am sure we will find that in France.”