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 buildings is developed under the sleight of a single hand sprinkling sand, as the 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?
Baton Day, by Afu:
Feelings, by Afu:
Forever: by Afu