Completing the first decade of the 21st century, Maldivians find themselves in the midst of an increasingly visual culture. Advertising, graphic design, moving images, photography and even painting and sculptural constructions are now ubiquitous in the urban centers of the country. Beginning from the late 80s, image production through both manual and digital means has increased manifold. And more recently, visual artists and creative expressive artists have most benefited from the Internet and the World Wide Web. In fact, some argue that an entire social (and even politicall revolution is being led by the power of the Internet - with its power to disclose, penetrate and access areas of our social (and private) lives which were hitherto hidden from us. This new and sometimes strange dimension has opened up areas in our lives that relate to the world and the environment and society in newer, fresher ways.
The arts - including the visual arts - are a way of gauging some of the thoughts and feelings a society is going through at a given time. But they are also individual, singular creations, i.e. either created by an individual or a group of individuals, but the result is nearly always an individual entity - an oblect, a constructed environment, a simulated experience or an event - unless of course in the situation where a group of artistic creations that have any meaning only in relation to the others in the group. An example of such a creation could be a diptych or triptych. Or a series of films, stories, etc. But the issue at stake is the multi-dimensionality of our existential experience - at once felt by all our senses including that of touch - versus the texture of our experiences captured in artistic productions. Can they be the same? Of course they cannot. The artistic creation will be bound to time and circumstances as well as the intentions of the creator of an artwork. We do have time-specific art, such as installations or public art that consider time an essential component of the experience of the work; the work is to take different meanings’ with the passage and movement of time.
It is then reasonable to soy that a work of art - apart from being a creation invested with skill and time - is also a record of an existential moment. While this can be a specific emotion an artist wanted to prolect or express, it is also informed by the circumstances in which the artist found himself in the first place. In the Maldivian context, the word ‘art in the ‘western’ sense does not have any consequence in that it does not signify anything. Said differently, there is no word in the Maldivian language Dhivehi connoting ‘art. Instead there is craft. As for art forms, there are plenty; poetry (the traditional raivoru as well as the contemporary verse ‘lhen’l. There is also music and song. And many other craft forms that on occasion overlap with art. The Maldivian writer Ahmed Shafeegu has documented 25 distinct crafts including wood and stone carving, the production of jewellery, functional and non-functional artefacts made from locally sourced materials such as animal bone, shells, palm leaves and so on. Additionally there are various perfomative practices that accompany locally produced indigenous music such as Thaara, Ian girl, bandiya and bociuberu - some of which are deeply rooted in South Asian customs, cultural traditions and practices.
Western art practices such as drawing to represent or reproduce a reality or express an idea or emotion, and the use of paint to do the some would have come to the Maldives early on in the 20th century if not before. One of the senior-most living artisans in the country, Sarudhaaru Dhonmaniku once told me1 that he was ‘commissioned’ by Indian Bhora traders who had their retail outlets in Male, to manually reproduce printed pictures. This must have been mid-2Oth century (circa 1950 or earlier(. We also know that IbrahimFareed - the younger brother of the last King of Maldives, Mohamed Fareed - had produced several oil paintings - also around the some period. One of his works can still be seen at the National Museum in Male’.
With hindsight, the 20th century and especially the 1950s could be seen as a period in which several developments took place that later made way for the production of visual art and design practices. Poster and advertising billboards were produced in the country when cine films were first screened at Olympus Theatre in Male, which opened in 1959. Printing technologies were imported during mid-2Oth century and we also see many illustrations in the early publications of the country which include magazines and dailies.
The introduction of tourism in the early l970s marked the beginning of a new phase in the history of art and craft in the Maldives. A whole new avenue was opened up for Maldivian visual artists to cater for, giving them many commercial incentives to be engaged in the production of various craft oblects including painting, stencil printing and carving. While the traditional crafts were positively affected by this new development, the most interesting advances came via the discovery of new techniques to produce visual art! craft. A good case in point is the invention of hand printing using plastic stencils, acrylic colours and a piece of sponge. Some times several layers were over-printed, producing an image - often on t-shirts, but also on pieces of cloth, wall hangers, sarongs, etc. - rich in texture and perspective depth. Some have assigned the invention of this technique to Maldivian artisans although one of the pioneers of institutionalising art in the country, and a founder of the now defunct Eslehi Gallery, the late Maizan Hassan Maniku2 was of the opinion that a similar technique was also used in Hawaii, and the technique might have developed in the two countries simultaneously.
From: 17 May 2007 To: 7 June 2007
At: Male\', Delhi and Colombo