Sarudhaaru Dhon Maniku: the pioneer of ‘souvenir’ art in the Maldives

Sarudhaaru Dhon Maniku, who often signs his paintings SDM, is considered the pioneer of ‘souvenir art’, or art and craft produced with the primary purpose of selling or gifting it to a tourist.

Also one of the first Maldivians to scuba dive, SDM’s imagination is infused with the colors and rich and varied life forms of the underwater world. The son of a craftsman, SDM was initiated into the trade of craft making and art at an early age. Commissioned by various friends and others, SDM initially produced various gift and craft items. Later on, he was commissioned to produce portraits or copy printed images by the Indian (Bhora) traders who were stationed in Male from the late 1800s until mid 20th century.

SDM was first noticed for his talent and skills during the 10 year period beginning from the end of the reign of Sultan Hassan Noordeen, and the formation of the first republic in 1953 with Mohamed Amin Didi as the first president.

SDM was then a teenager. He recalls President Amin Didi as a great patron of the arts and crafts, and indeed it was he who organised a nationwide arts and crafts fair in the capital for the first time in the history of the country. More generally, the short tenure of Amin Didi’s presidency is also regarded as a period of literary and cultural renaissance.

Even though SDM was noticed for his talents at an early age and in the 1940s and ‘50s, he says it was the advent of tourism in the early1970s that really helped him to carve out a profession in which he could dedicate his skills as an artist and craftsman fully to his profession. The ‘tourist market’, as it became later known, proved to be a lucrative avenue for all aspiring craftsmen, artisans and hopeful artists in the country, and given the rich traditions of craft in the Maldives, this was a welcome development for the country at large.

In the 1980’s more than 20 highly developed craft forms were documented. These ranged from coir rope-making from coconut husk, to weaving mats from a variety of dried grass and then coloring it with natural dies, to intricate and exquisite looking lacquer ware and expensive jewellery made from gold and silver.

By coincidence, the year SDM was born was also the year the French Impressionist painter Monet died. And during the course of SDM’s life, Europe experienced the trends of Modernism, DADA, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop and Post-Modernist art.

While it may be futile to interpret SDM’s works through the prisms of these aesthetic and stylistic trends, it’s interesting to note that SDM’s works exhibit many qualities of these very trends of which he may never have known about first hand.

SDM as a young man

Perhaps more importantly, SDM admits he always strived to make something that maybe of use; admiration of aesthetical beauty being one of these uses. Additionally, he also meticulously documented the shells and fishes commonly found in the Maldivian reefs and lagoons. One of the first series of posters depicting shells and fishes of the Maldives was illustrated by SDM, which is still in print and published by Novelty Printers and Publishers Maldives.

Apart from the sheer output of his work over a period of several decades (SDM is now in his late eighties), what is most apparent in SDM’s long career are the different media he has mastered over time. This includes the pencil, water, acrylic and oil colors as well as sculpting and carving. In addition to this, he has also consistently demonstrated a knack for invention, often experimenting with different materials and techniques, and continuing even today. Senior Maldives artist Ahmed Abbas has commented on SDM; “Dhonbe is a great artist, especially his underwater scenes have something special and great about them. He has applied color to great effect. Even when we were kids, Dhonbe was a renowned artist .”

In recognition of SDM’s contribution to Maldivian culture and to celebrate his achievements in the arts, the National Art Gallery of the Maldives commissioned him in 2005 to produce a series of works for the permanent collection of the gallery. Some of these works are also now exhibited in the Maldivian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Maldivian embassies abroad, and others are displayed at the gallery in temporary exhibitions.

The Gallery also commissioned a book documenting the life of SDM which was published in 2009 in Dhivehi, and an English translation is due to be published in 2012.

SDM lives at his home in Male and continues to produce paintings, handcrafted objects and other items such as hand painted greeting cards and says he is very content with the life he has lived. He continues to be an inspiration to younger generations of artists and is one of the most prized individuals in the country.

Mamduh Waheed is Deputy Minister for Tourism Arts and Culture. He is also a writer on Maldivian art and has written several reviews and essays for catalogs, and was curator of the National Art Gallery from 2004 to 2009.


Local handicraft producers join forces against imported counterfeits

The tourists who buy tokens of remembrances prior to returning home after a brief holiday in Maldives tend to believe that the items they have bought are authentic or “Made in Maldives”.

The souvenir items bought are carried all the way from the Maldives, far across the oceans to their home country and gifted to their loved ones, sometimes displayed in their living rooms, providing significance to the brief holidays the tourists have spent in Maldives. The items displayed often create interest and knowledge about the history and culture of the country and sometimes what the buyers learn about the work of art are fixed in their mind and are passed on with the products. The importance of authentic handicraft items and the handicraft industry goes beyond this.

Maldives is country rich in heritage and a culture worthy of immersion and discovery through token and memory. The authentic souvenir items bought by tourists buy show aspects of culture, history and identity, be it the Gadhdhoo mat, the coconut shell necklace or the lacquer item for Baa Thuladhoo.

These authentic handicraft items helps in defining who we are and the context which we live in both in the past and present.

Today, Maldives is a country where tourism has become the largest economic industry playing an important role in earning foreign exchange revenue and generating employment in the tertiary sector. The sector has its linkage to the handicraft industry as well. The constraints confronting the handicraft industry reflects that the weak linkage between the tourism industry and the authentic handicraft industry.

It is said that in the past Maldivian craftsmanship had a regional reputation of excellence reaching as far as the Arab nations. Over time development has taken place with 1972 marking the introduction of the tourism industry to the Maldives. Although the demand for handicraft items increased with this development, with the limited natural and human resources, the supply was not sufficient enough to cater for the increasing demand, resulting in imported handicraft items flooding the market.

Today imported handicraft items, with counterfeit labels identifying them as “Made in Maldives”, dominate the market. The local producer does not have the necessary marketing skills nor the proper channels to market their products as authentic local products, while the visiting tourists do not have the means of identifying authentic handicraft items.

With the market dominated by the cheap imported counterfeited products, the local producer is unable to compete in terms of price and supply. The significance of the culture and heritage of Maldives, which can be displayed through the handicraft items, are often lost and out of focus when the visiting tourists are unable to distinguish them from the imported counterfeits.

The visitors do not get a fair choice of choosing between the authentic local products and the imported counterfeits. These constraints confronting the local producers require measures and support from different stakeholders including the concerned government authorities, businessmen, producers and society at large.

Sustainable tourism requires these constraints to be minimised, paving way for the local producers to share the opportunities and gain more from the benefits of tourism. Maldives Authentic Crafts Cooperative Society (MACCS) was initiated with this aim – to assist the local producer to market their products. MACCS aims to overcome the current constraints confronting the artisans of the rural areas of Maldives and to become identified throughout the Maldives and the world as a development and marketing cooperative of authentic Maldivian handicrafts.

Registered in Male’, MACCS was inaugurated during the Hubasaana festival in October 2011 in Seenu Atoll Maradhoo. Following the inauguration, MACCS has been tirelessly networking with the producers of the country, finding ways and means of marketing their products for the SAARC Summit to be held in Addu City from November 10-11 2011.

During the SAARC Summit, First Lady Laila Ali graced the stall of MACCS at the Gan International Airport. Members of MACCS welcomed her with a handmade gift item designed and made by one of the MACCS members. The displayed products were shown which ranged from items of heritage value, items of utility, and items of beauty and adornment all of which are made by local producers.

The Gadhdhoo mats renowned for their meticulous artisanship, beauty and quality, produced by Faiza of Gdh Gadhdhoo, are displayed in different forms in the stall. It is framed as show piece and it is also displayed as small table mats ideal for a gift item. Bags are also designed with an “indigenous flair”, using designed pieces of mats providing a functional gift item.

Faiza is a producer who has networked with MACCS, and MACCS in turn is promoting her creations. Designed mats have been produced in Huvadhoo Atoll of Maldives for more than four hundred years. It is well established that fine pattern mats, or kunaa, were presented as royal gifts in ancient times. Mats are made from natural vegetation found in the islands. In making a Maldives mat it is dyed using natural dye to the three basic colors used in the kunaa, which are black, brown and yellow. The strips are then woven manually to produce fine quality mats of unique designs.

MACCS is not only showcasing heritage items like the Gadhdhoo mats or lacquer items produced in Baa Atoll. Contemporary creations like those of self-taught designer Wimla are also displayed. These creations are one of a kind pieces often fused with subtle touches of flaura and fauna of our environment. Her creations are also inspired by traditional themes and are often based on motifs and designs found in traditional mats and lacquer work.

Displayed in the Gan airport stall are her hand painted shawls – unique and excellent gift items. Using shells, small rocks pieces found on the beach and waste items such as plastic bottles, she also designs necklaces and brooches creating unique and distinct pieces of jewelry adding significance to recycling and re-using, one of the major goals of MACCS. There are many local producers and designers among us who are artistic and creative who wants to give significance to recycling and reusing.

Displayed are also the products of Moomina Abdulla of Lh Naifaru, who has skillfully crafted the Samusa Gonu, Thoshali and Mulhoashi, items which are commonly used throughout the Maldives in the past. These products are made from the leaves of the coconut tree and are basketry items use to carry fish and different type of things.

In addition to a source of food, historically parts of the coconut tree have been used to make household products such as food covers, sieves and winnowers while the timber is used for boat building. Her creations illustrate Maldivian island setting and the multifaceted use of our national tree, the coconut palm.

In total there are 28 producers out of which the work of 11 are on display at the Departure Terminal of Seenu Gan International Airport. Anyone who wishes to see these creations are welcome to stop by at the Gan International Airport departure terminal. MACCS hope to replicate this exhibition in the near future in resorts all over the Maldives.

MACCS is working with passion and interest to promoting local arts and crafts and facilitating market access for local products. The cooperative acts as a central buying and selling point and is creating a network of producers and buyers. The cooperative will procure the crafts from all over Maldives directly from the producer. The idea is to improve their income by doing away with the middleman, and also ensuring that the customer receives the item at a reasonable price. MACCS is committed and determined through its cooperative to support communities, in the promotion of handicrafts making it a sustainable livelihood for the producers throughout Maldives.

While we all recognize pieces of heritage need to be preserved for future generations we also believe that much has to be done to reap the benefits of the handicrafts industry, by marketing and promoting local authentic products.

MACCS is the logo that visitor has to look for when they are shopping for souvenir items. The logo involves not only the passion of a like minded house wives who are dedicated to promote the handicraft industry of Maldives but it also proudly represents a number of producers of Maldives who are living in the far flung island of Maldives.

The logo reflects the aim for wider outreach, empowering producers and pursuing sustainable development through promoting the local handicraft industry of Maldives. The next time when you are shopping for a souvenir item, perhaps you will see the small logo proudly displayed on authentic handicraft items representing the authenticity and quality of a product made and marketed by MACCS. The creativity and ingenuity of MACCS products will set them apart from counterfeited imported products. This is the way how MACCS is going to go forward and market the local producers’ creations.

Aminath Latheefa is a member of the Maldives Authentic Crafts Cooperative Society (MACCS):