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An art exhibition renaissance for the Maldives

Malé has seen a wave of art shows and exhibitions in recent months.



There used to be few ways for Maldivian artists to showcase their work: through an exhibition at the National Art Gallery, at resorts or as souvenir items in boutiques. The privately run Esjehi Art Gallery, although no longer open, also promoted it. But artists in the island nation generally lacked the venues, means or support to display their talent.

But there has been a wave of shows and exhibitions in recent months, with the Maldivian Art Community and Avahteri Gallery leading the way.

“In this country there was no place for artists unless you went out there and did it yourself, and this is what MAC is doing,” says Insha Hassan.

She is new to the art scene and her passion is underwater landscapes. Turtles in motion just beneath the surface. Hammerhead sharks almost bursting out of the canvas. A multitude of sea creatures captured in all their colourful glory.

Insha, a MAC member, credits the NGO for propelling her work into the public’s imagination.

She took part in its ‘Unveiling Visions’ exhibition last year which is held annually to highlight new talent. Since then Insha has had a solo exhibition ‘Tranquil’ in Le Cute, participated in the ‘Kula festival’ in Kandima Resort and held a painting workshop at LUX Resort.

One of MAC’s co-founders says that he, along with six others, created the NGO to give Maldivian artists a platform.

“Before we came on the scene, there were hardly any exhibitions, but through our collaborative work with places like Le Cute, Hotel Jen and some resorts we have an ongoing roster lined up,” says Hussain Ihfal Ahmed.

MAC curates and showcases three exhibitions on a monthly basis under an agreement it has with Le Cute and Hotel Jen.

But MAC says it tries to avoid exhibitions in the capital’s only gallery.

“There are lots of obstacles to holding an exhibition in the NAG. We have to pay MVR3,000 (US$195) daily for the space and bring our own lighting. The expenses add up, making it a costly affair.”

MAC has held meetings with NAG management and the country’s youth minister. “They  still haven’t been able to decide to give that space for free for Maldivian artists,” says Ihfal.

– ‘Cement and coffee’ –

This lack of space is what drove Mohamed Zein Hassan, Aishath Lulua Hassan and Ismail Nihad to create Avahteri Gallery. They were also inspired by their work in Esjehi.

Avahteri has curated six exhibitions since its  creation last year and the team wants to introduce Maldivian artists to a wider audience.

“Even we have been pleasantly surprised by the number of Maldivian artists out there  and by the diversity of their work,” says Aishath. The favoured mediums are changing. “Oil and acrylic paintings used to dominate the Maldivian art scene,” she says. “Now we see a trend towards digital, mixed media artwork. Watercolour, charcoal and even cement and coffee are becoming popular.”

Social media has transformed the scene, helping local artists overcome the barrier of the country’s geographical dispersion.

Around 85 percent of MAC’s discoveries have been through social media. Avahteri says it has revolutionised the way art is promoted and connected them to new local and foreign audiences.

But customers can also commission work directly from  artists. “People reach out and commission work, though sometimes it’s for portraits, ” says Insha.

Avahteri says Maldivians are moving away from the traditional, souvenir- types of work and commissioning self –expressed pieces, art that conveys a deeper meaning.

The paraphernalia associated with art – like clothing, fashion accessories, murals and décor – also attract good sales.

Avahteri has also tapped into the rise of independent cafés in the Maldives and collaborated with them.

Some cafés have turned their walls into canvases, like Blood Orange which displays a painting by popular artist ShaffOceans, on its wall.

A more regular diet of exhibitions has made people value art more. “The public is very supportive and now people know there is a price to these things,” says Ihfal.

While locals buy paintings most buyers are foreign residents, according to MAC.

It has long been felt that Maldivian artists have yet to penetrate the country’s lucrative tourism market. But even this hurdle is slowly being removed, with MAC selling paintings to tourists through resort-based exhibitions.

– The daily grind –

The latest art exhibition in Malé was that of Avahteri discovery Nashida Sattar. “I wanted to exhibit in a place where most people would visit, where this conversation could be held,” says Sattar.

The place was Jazz Café, a venue that holds impromptu musical performances. The conversation was Malé, the central theme that ran through her paintings that were on display in a packed room.

The buildings in her paintings are not defined in the conventional way, splashes of colour and detailed strokes done by toothpicks take their place. It is not a romanticised version of Malé.

“The Maldives is usually shown with palm trees, but in Malé you can hardly see a palm tree, this is the daily reality for us, not the Maldives celebrities comes to see,” says Sattar.

The discrepancy between the dream destination and the daily grind is in her paintings, even in the one where a tree appears because it is outnumbered  by motorcycles.

There is a rawness to the vision. In the waterfront painting, the  waters are blue and choppy, the buildings almost engulfed by the ocean, a nod to climate change and the sinking that awaits.

Her work is also a lament in a city that entraps its people, especially those with disabilities.

“To survive in this city you need to be able bodied, there is no place here for those who are not,” says Sattar.

The paintings are about the loss of how the capital used to be and also about a bigger loss, that of a Malé-born friend.

“She was brilliant, she gave so much to this country, and when she got sick, the country gave little back, the city was almost cruel.” Her friend was almost confined to her room. “Going out was an event, the pavement was narrow, the way out of the house was so small, the traffic was so bad.”

Sattar plans to use proceedings from the sale of her paintings to fund a scholarship.

And, in this cramped city that is home to about a fourth of the population, local artists are finally finding a place.

Main photo and middle photo: Insha Hassan. Bottom photo: Nashida Sattar