Chinese artist Yuan Xikun exhibits in the Maldives

Prominent Chinese artist Yuan Xikun says that during the tumultuous times of the Cultural Revolution, “to escape the meaningless fight between people” he went off and lived in the wilderness like Robinson Crusoe.

Even though he had been selected to stay in the city to paint the portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong, Xikun requested to be sent off to rural Xishungbanna. Life in the wilderness provided fodder for his paintings. In particular an encounter with a tiger at close range had a major impact on him, influencing his art.

His paintings of tigers are many; specially striking is one titled ‘Mountain Gentleman’ of a tiger’s unflinching stare in an Oriental Canvas.

“When I came across it in the forest it became a staring match and then luckily it walked away,” says Xikun, speaking through a translator at a talk he gave Monday night at the National Art Gallery. The new Chinese Ambassador to Maldives Yu Hongyao and Deputy Minister of Tourism, Arts & Culture Mamduh Waheed attended the talk along with Maldivian artists.

The tiger connection

Eleven paintings by Xikun, of tigers in various poses, were on display at the art gallery. One of a small Chinese boy next to a docile tiger lying on its paws is aptly titled ‘Tiger tamed by boy with magic powers.’ The magnificent creature evokes sympathy in the viewer in the painting titled ‘Waiting for home’ a forlorn tiger seen through the bars of its cage.

The tiger is also what has lead Xikun to come to Maldives. Xikun, who is also a world-renowned sculptor, is the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)’s Patron for the Environment and Arts. UNEP uses Xikun’s sculptures for its environmental Champions of the Earth trophies – one of which was received by President Mohamed Nasheed.

A keen environmentalist, Xikun says it was inspiring to see the President doing something about carbon emissions.

A tall striking figure, Xikun took the attendees through his work via a power point presentation while talking animatedly in Chinese.

“You might ask why bring paintings of tigers to an Oceanic country. The thing is sharks share a similar destiny to tigers in the environment.” Xikun regularly uses his art to highlight threats to the environment and remind the viewers that the Earth’s resources are finite.

A miniature of his famous sculpture, ‘Urgency of the polar region’ was also on display. The sculpture of a mother polar bear balancing a top an iceberg with its two young cubs clinging to its side highlights the dangers of the melting icebergs.

“Religion and art are all connected to nature, this earth and its biodiversity is not an inheritance of our forefathers but is borrowed from our offspring,” said Xikun, and reiterated his call “for all human beings to achieve supreme kindness and to live in harmony with nature.”

A project

Xikun says it is in recent years environmental awareness has become such a large part of his philosophy infusing his work. Though his interest in painting ink wash portrait of foreign dignitaries and leaders had also earned him the title of ‘portrait diplomat’. So far he has painted over 152 portraits including that of Nelson Mandela.

His sculptures have often been presented as national gifts by the Chinese government to other countries. Notable among them is a gift to America, the sculpture of former president Abraham Lincoln, titled ‘Before the Decisive Battle-Lincoln.’

He has also produced sculptures of Einstein and Gandhi, along with 158 world leaders in politics and arts. Xikun is also the founder and curator of the first private museum in China, the Jin Tai Art Museum in Beijing.

A firm believer of cultural exchange, Xikun says “we are all live under one common sky and we will all face the environmental crisis, so I hope one day there is a mass movement for environmental protection.”

Xikun is gifting the three miniature sculptures he brought to Maldives. Among them is one titled ‘Sky patch.’ After the talk he explained that the sculpture of a woman carrying a rectangle block in her outstretched arms had originated from a Chinese myth about a goddess that blocks a hole in the earth.

“This is relevant to today’s times because we have a desire to do something about the environmental problems we face.” The other sculpture is that of Napoleon holding on to St Helena.

Plans are on to collect sand from five continents and water from the two Arctic Poles to do a giant sculpture of ‘Sky patch.’

Xikun will meet the President on on Wednesday, to discuss the project and gift the sculptures. Xikun extended an invitation to everyone to “come for the sand collection, to be part of the sculpture project.”


UK High Commission auctioning painting to help Japanese tsunami victims

Bids for a painting by Deputy High Commissioner of the Maldives to the UK, Naushad Waheed, have reached £5000.00 (US$8000).

Waheed auctioned the painting, entitled ‘Kyotsu – Hachi’, in an effort to raise money for victims of the March 11 tsunami in Japan. The painting was unveiled at a lunch in London attended by members of the All Party Maldives Group, including Lord Naseby, Lord Dholakia, Karen Lumley and David Amess.

Waheed explained that the painting depicts “several common elements from the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 that devastated my country, and the recent tsunami that devastated the east coast of Japan.”

The title of the painting, he noted, represented the total sum of the numeric dates of the two tsunamis: “Interestingly both dates equal eight (26-12-2004 and 11-3-2011).” ‘Hachi’ is Japanese for the number eight.

Waheed, who is the brother of Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan, was detained by the former administration in 1999 following the publication of a cartoon in a magazine called Hukuru. Two years later he was arrested for criticism of the then-government and tried for treason, and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment.

He became Deputy High Commissioner to the UK in 2008.


A 32 year stopover in the Maldives

His locks of white hair and casual dressing – shorts, sandals, shirt – make 68 year-old Philippe Laurella, a distinct figure on the streets of Male.

His many years in the Maldives, have earned him a spot in folklore, and most Maldivians know him as the white guy who married a Maldivian and settled here.

“When I first came to Maldives there was a certain charm to Maldives,” says Philippe.

In May 1978, the country was as different as it could be from his native France. There was no electricity, no telephone, no television, but Philippe says “life was nice, contact with Maldivians was good, and back then they didn’t have the same preoccupations as now.”

Arriving in Maldives

Philippe left France in 1978 in a vehicle called the ‘magic bus’ with no plans to visit the Maldives.

“I had vaguely heard of the Maldives back then, but most people used to confuse it with some islands located near Argentina.”

A keen traveler, he spent time in Amsterdam, Greece, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan before ending up in India where he met a French couple. “They said: ‘Why not come with us to Maldives?’”

His plan to stay for 15 days ended as 18 months: “I was struck by the beauty and the simplicity of the place,” he says.

Procuring a boat in Noonu Atoll Velidhoo, the place he would later call home, he built a deck and a cabin and set sail to see Maldives, travelling from Haa Alifu to Laamu.

At the end of his voyage, Philippe continued on and toured India, Sri Lanka, Burma and Singapore before returning to France. Barely a month later was he back in Velidho: “I kept thinking about this country.”

Local identity and painter Philippe Laurella. Photo: Martin Whiteley
Local identity and painter Philippe Laurella. Photo: Martin Whiteley

Philippe designed his first safari boat, ‘Baraabaru,’ which “was the start of tourism in the country. Most safari boats didn’t have cabins back then.”

He takes pride in the fact that Velidhoo is now famous for safari boats, and most islanders own one.

A printer by profession, Philippe learnt the art of building boats and incorporated his own ideas. With a Maldivian crew, he set about organizing safari trips. Sailing for six months a year, he took the rest of the six month off in Velidhoo. He even designed and built his house, complete with thatched roof.

One day a crew member pointed to his wife’s sister, and asked Philippe, “shall we arrange something?”

In true Maldivian style, within a month Philippe married Fathimath Adam.

“She said yes and her family said yes,” he says, smiling. He was so accustomed to the Maldivian way of life he didn’t find it strange. “I did like her, and we fell in love. We spent 25 years together and had three kids.”

Problems occurred the first year as Philippe’s smattering of Dhivehi words was the only way they could communicate. Food also was a problem as he disliked hikimas (dry fish).

“Kirugarudhiya (a type of curry) with hikimas and cold rice is the worst,” he said.

Fathimath proved to be a great cook and with the limited resources available made simple and delicious meals, he says.

Sadly, she passed away in 2005 after falling ill with kidney failure. The entire family moved to Male in 2003 from their peaceful existence in Velidhoo to be with her during her treatment.

Many of Philippe's paintings are bought by tourists
Many of Philippe's paintings are bought by tourists

Painting and living in modern Maldives

Despite coming from a family of artists – Philippe’s mother is a painter as his older brother, while the younger one is a musician and writer and his sister a classical dancer – Philippe was never interested in painting. However boredom on a rainy day in Male in 1999 led him to try, and when a Swiss friend liked and bought his work it became the catalyst for becoming a painter.

His paintings are mostly of fish; a swirl of tiny blue fish, giving a peek into orange fishes that are passing behind. Or one of his most recognisable paintings: the long legs of a stork and its head peering back into the painting amid multi-colored fishes swimming by. The colours are striking; the paintings uplift your spirits, while showcasing the beauty of fishes.

He stays true to his first medium, watercolour. His paintings were exhibited in Esjehi Gallery in 2000 as well as two years ago in an exhibition held by Association Franco-Maldivienne.

“Youngsters often stop me on the street and ask me if I could teach them painting,” he says. His lack of formal training makes him hesitate, though he is not averse to the idea.

“It’s not easy for a painter in Male to be inspired and to come up with ideas,” he muses.

Most painters paint in rooms in their houses; there are no studios which limits the process of imagination. He would love to diversify and paint aspects of island life, “but most of my clients want fish paintings.”

Philippe sells his paintings mostly to tourists, with a few rich Maldivians also part of his clientele. He feels the art scene in Maldives still needs to develop, and says he likes painters like Eagan who have produced some exceptional paintings of Maldivian life.

As for his life here, “I’m not sure I would stay if I arrived to Maldives now.”

Modernity is a double edged sword, he says.

Philippe's preferred medium is watercolour
Philippe's preferred medium is watercolour

“Before you could go fishing and nobody could get in touch with you, now mobile phones are a necessity everywhere.”

Even landing in Velidhoo was subject to nature, as they had to wait for high tide to get the boat close to the island: “Life was complicated, but still there was charm and serenity.”

He laughingly recounts how when initially Maizan Adam Manik spoke to him about Pyrard De Laval, the famous French navigator, he ended up thinking Pyrard was in Male. “I asked him: how can I meet him, and Adam Manik said you can’t, he lived here 300 years ago.”

He has seen three presidents rule the country, and is now fluent in Dhivehi.

“My stay here just happened. This could be a 32 year stopover – I could still continue my voyage.”