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Maldivian creativity: an undervalued art form?

By Neil Merrett | Friday, August 23, 2013 - 16:20

A man lies sound asleep in his home, unaware of a shadowy figure approaching him.

Suddenly awakened by the intruder, the man’s shock and fear quickly turns to confusion as he is asked to assist in stealing his own television set, which the robber explains requires too much effort to take on his own.

This unconventional robbery is one of thirteen sketches included in a web-show produced by a Maldivian group known as ‘Space Parade’, who since 2008, have been producing satirical, and at times surreal, sketches and parodies of local life – mainly as a reaction to a perceived lack of creativity in mainstream media.

The latest video by the group – viewed thousands of times on YouTube -  lampoons egotistical newsreaders, the ubiquitous role of social media among Maldivians, as well as the perils of confusing real life with the overtly romanticised, Bollywood-inspired world of Dhivehi cinema.

Sitting down to discuss their work this week, Space Parade – a group of friends/film-makers including Ahmed Iyash, Ahmed Karam and Mohamed Hursheed – explained that their sketches are most definitely apolitical.

An apolitical reaction

Other emerging Islamic democracies like Egypt have garnered worldwide attention in recent months for the role art and comedy is playing during difficult political transitions, notably through high-profile figures such as doctor turned satirist Bassem Youssef .

Yet to Karam, Space Parade’s comedy is a reaction to a dearth of locally produced entertainment and a wider failure to cultivate and maximise the creativeness of Maldivians.

“There is a fine line with satire. Everyone everywhere is making fun of politics in this country. Politics is a joke already here,” the group’s founder Karam added, albeit one he accepted carries potentially serious consequences for the nation in an election year. “There are already sketch shows here about politics. But so many things here are politicised – people just need a break.”

With Karam first producing sketches as entertainment for family and friends dating back to a circumcision party back in 2008 – the same year of the country’s first multi-party democratic election – Space Parade has taken inspiration in something much more prosaic than political turmoil.

“We’re really bored,” explained Hursheed, who describes himself as working mostly behind the camera on editing and adding visual effects to Space Parade’s video.  ”We have all these ideas to do things, so we do it for the enjoyment.  There was nothing good on TV, so we thought we can try and do better.”

Partly inspired by popular shows broadcast in the Maldives during the 1980′s and 1990′s such as ‘Bahabaru’ and ‘Floak the International’, Space Parade argue that in the intervening 20 years, there has been very little comedy television of any comparable quality.

According to the group, in contrast to the internet, the country’s “restrictive” broadcast regulations have severely limited what can be shown on local TV, which increasingly has to compete with content made available through the internet and cable channels.

Co-founder Ahmed Iyash said that while the Maldives had many people people with good ideas for movies, sketches, and shows, few were presently capable or knew where to go to get funding for their work.  He said that a lack of foundations, grants, or arts institutions was a major factor stifling creativity in local artists.

Stepping on toes

Having targeted certain tropes and idiosyncrasies of local film and culture for their comedy in an attempt to “step on toes” and send a message to the country’s film-makers of the need to try and push boundaries, Space Parade contends that some of their efforts had not been well received by local artists and film makers.

“Often people are expecting crap here and not a lot is happening to change this,” contended Hursheed. “We would look to try and raise the bar, though we have our doubts if we are doing this.”

Hursheed suggested that some local artists appeared reluctant to put in the effort to try and create new forms of art.

“As long as [a film] makes a women cry, you will make money here. Even if the film is horrible,” he said of the local film industry.

Amidst the challenges facing young artists, Space Parade took the example of one director who took such objection to a review published in local newspaper Haveeru that he sought legal action against the publication.

By comparison, the group said there were a limited number of pioneering local directors such as Moomin Fuad, whose work is regarded as trying to cover social issues, rather than tried and tested formats such as ex-girlfriends or mother-in-laws turning into monsters – a popular staple of local film.

However, despite efforts to try and be more socially relevant, the group said Moomin’s films were not thought to have been commercial successes, leading him to attract more of a cult following among Maldives cinema-goers.

Despite the group having taken on some limited commercial production work using their self-taught film production and editing skills, Space Parade maintain that their key aim in making videos – beyond “goofing around” and enjoying themselves – was trying to inspire other Maldivians to produce their own content online.

“The idea is to show that you don’t need professional equipment.  That you can use just an i-pad or camera phone.  We were hoping people would be inspired to show their own talents online,” said Karam.

“This hasn’t really happened,” he added, stressing that Maldivians still predominantly used video sharing sites to upload music videos of professional artists, or to capture political developments or scandals across the country.

The Maldives ‘art scene’

Outside of video sharing and the emerging opportunity for expression online and on social media, Ahmed Naeem, Exhibition and Projects Officer for the National Centre for the Arts, accused successive governments of failing to help nurture artists over the last three decades.

A National Art Gallery Exhibition in December 2011

Naeem said it was notable that the country did not have buyers or collectors to help drive commercial interest in the local art scene, which he contended had in turn limited encouraging more creative forms of expression nationally.

“The top levels of society should be more concerned about this,” he added.

Naeem stressed that although Maldivian artists, whether painters, writers, or film-makers, had to show “more initiative” in pushing their work into the public sphere, he argued that the state, the educational curriculum, and wider society needed to develop a greater awareness and appreciation for its own art.

“In other countries such as Europe and Asia, there are special arts colleges and institutions. There are no universities [here] providing arts-based subjects,” he said.

Naeem added that he had attempted in recent years to contact universities in the country about holding visual arts programs, a suggestion that he claimed was rejected on the basis having no purpose for students and society.

“There need to be degrees in art. This will serve a good purpose for the country,” he added.

Naeem said that while he believed Maldivians were creative as a people, there continued to be an overall a lack of public awareness and appreciation of art, something he contended was reflected in a growing number of people turning away from earning a living through music, writing, or other forms of expression.

A contemporary art exhibition in Male' last October

“People are going away from art here. I think they find it too hard for survival. Certainly compared to when we grew up, people are having to pay much more for less space to live their lives,” he said.

Naeem pointed to limited activity at the National Art Gallery in Male’, where he presently serves as curator, as an example of the challenges facing local artists.

“At present, the gallery is just a name, a space for various activities,” he said. “I want it to be a gallery with permanent exhibitions, a place where tourists can come and purchase artwork, with shops selling crafts and fine art produced by local people.”

Public perception

Ahmed Suveyb, president and founding member of local NGO the United Artists of Maldives (UAM), argued that Maldivian art was visible in all aspects of daily life, yet he questioned whether the public were able to perceive or value such works.

“I take pictures everywhere I go and I see art being used by politicians and businessmen,” he said.

Suveyb suggested that Maldivian artists, and therefore their work, continued to be open to a form of “abuse” by these same powerful figures as a result of almost 30 years of failure to emphasise the importance of the country’s heritage and culture.

With the country’s rapid economic development following the advent of its tourism 40 years ago, Suveyb argued that traditional island life and culture had changed immeasurably, sometimes resulting in time-old cultural practices being neglected and even disappearing.

Where once the country was reliant on learning traditional skills such as producing thatched roofs from palm leaf, or being provided with paints and craft equipment, he argued that an increasing lack of space and the growing availability of technology like smart phones, had limited opportunities for people to engage with each other and be creative.

With such rapid societal changes, Suveyb alleged that art had overtime been neglected not only by society, but by local authorities, which continued to mantain that there was limited funds to concentrate on projects and grants in the face of more traditional development projects.

“The problem really is that we don’t understand what art is,” he concluded.

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