2005 - Maldives Contemporary 2005

The prospect of an art gallery is a heartening development for all Maldivian artists, and especially for students and those contemplating further study and professional involvement in the visual arts. Maldivians are the privileged inheritors of skill and imagination, manifest in several indigenous crafts of which some have been practiced for more than 2000 years. Stone and wood carving, lacquer work and various kinds of weaving, using locally found, organic materials – unique according to different regions throughout the country - were part of the way island life once was. And while the lively craft culture of ‘traditional’ or historic Maldives was more or less oriented towards the production of functional or decorative objects and artifacts used as various kinds of embellishments, evidence of creative expression is also found in the material history of the Maldivian people – in both times gone by as well as in more recent times. The various idols of worship and objects of religious significance, and similarly the sometimes highly improvised calligraphic arts found in some of the older mosques; all attest to a strong, collective visual sense that related to symbolisms of various kinds and assigned significance to them. The concept of art in the Maldives has not had formalized recognition due to lack of formal art education, art galleries and other institutions dedicated to developing a fine art culture, leaving artists to adopt more traditional means of visual expression. And while in the past these were primarily craft based productions, in more recent times, and especially since the onset of the tourism industry in the early 1970s, some of these craft-making traditions have burgeoned into a flourishing tourist souvenir trade. It is hoped that with the permanent presence of a National Art Gallery, artisans engaged in the production of various crafts will begin a process of exploring the potential of their crafts to make the transition into art forms which address issues of concern to the society as well to individual artists. Visual artists in the Maldives have been viewed as important craftsmen, whose services were enlisted by private individuals, companies as well as the government. They were often instrumental in large scale public art projects such as the construction of pavilions in welcoming state dignitaries, production of gift items for the same, and in the decoration and enhancement of various public buildings. With the onset of the tourism industry, a new route was found by visual artisans engaged in craft production, and employed various new techniques and technologies in the development and production of their work. A good example of this new phase in the development of Maldivian artists is the various new advances made by the t-shirt printing industry. Initially, souvenir t-shirts were produced in the Maldives using a stencil printing method. However, now silk-screens are widely used, including a complex process which involves a manual color separation technique using a home-made apparatus. As a result, the designs are more expressive and lending to the use of various layers in making up the image on the t-shirt. Together with the establishment of the tourism industry, the Maldivian economy also experienced a healthy growth throughout the 1980’s and ‘90s which facilitated further education in visual art and related disciplines, which in turn facilitated the practice of various professions that draw from visual art – architecture, graphic and interior design, film and video production, and more recently, website development and computer graphics. While these developments were taking place, the government organized arts and crafts exhibitions as well as various events put together by private establishments and individuals benefited many since they offered an opportunity to get works by artists critically reviewed from an audience as well as by collectors. The establishment of a private gallery added further incentive for artists to pursue a period of visual creativity which must have been unlike any other in the history of the community. Esjehi Gallery provided artists with an opportunity to display their work, often sponsoring to take curatorial jobs, including the publication of catalogues which would have been the first of this genre of writing in the country. All these new developments in technology also provided the opportunity for visual artists to work professionally in sectors previously unforeseen, such as architectural and advertising design and provided much for artists to look forward to in terms of institutional support in the area of visual arts, making the establishment of a National Art Gallery of Maldives well-timed. The objectives of the National Art Gallery are manifold, including the sourcing of Maldivian art of both past and present towards forming a permanent collection, organize regular exhibits of contemporary Maldivian and international artists as well as to facilitate opportunities for Maldivian artists to develop and excel in their professions through realizing educational opportunities and networking with international artists and institutions. May this be the first step in a long and rewarding journey for Maldivian art!

Mamduh Waheed

From: 19 October 2005 To: 20 December 2005

At: National Art Gallery

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