Apr 11 2012

Breathing Atolls – Contemporary Japanese art in Maldives

by Olivier Krischer

Installation view of “Breathing Atolls: Japan-Maldives Contemporary Art Exhibition.” All images courtesy Sachiko Namba.

For the first time, an exhibition of contemporary art from Japan is being held in Maldives. The exhibition, titled “Breathing Atolls,” is an initiative of the Japan Foundation and Maldives’ National Center for the Arts, celebrating 45 years of Japan-Maldives relations. It has been organized by curator Sachiko Namba, who worked in collaboration with the host venue, the National Art Gallery, in Male’. 

While the ties linking the two nations may not be obvious, this show, with many works responding to the local natural environment, builds on the shared circumstances of the two island-based nations—which includes the experience of tsunami’s. As Namba pragmatically explains in her exhibition essay: Male’ escaped damage from a tsunami caused by the 2004 Sumatra earthquake because of seawalls constructed with “official development assistance” funds from Japan. After the Tohoku earthquake in March last year, Maldives sent some 690,000 cans of locally produced tuna to the stricken areas as an expression of appreciation.

Alongside two local artists, the exhibition includes six artists from Japan, who traveled to Male’ to create works on site. These included Fujiko Nakaya, known for her “fog sculptures” since the 1970s, who has created a misty “sculpture” in the lush Sultan Park, beside the National Art Gallery. This is particularly impressive as the climatic conditions needed for fog do not generally occur in Maldives, due to the heat. Also in Sultan Park, architect Terunobu Fujimori constructed a one-person “human nest,” with the help of local people, using the Japanese technique of yakisugi (“charred cedar”) for the exterior, and Maldivian palm leaves for the roof. This simple structure thus recalls manual architectural methods in both Japanese and Maldivian cultures, often forgotten by modern society.

Inside the Gallery, Haruka Kojin installed a kind of wall of hanging convex lenses, reflecting on the ocean as an uncertain or permeable “borderline.” Tetsuro Kano created a colorful environment for the locally abundant myna birds, constructed from unlikely everyday materials; while Yukihiro Taguchi made an animation of photographs of painted fabrics, in fact “rubbings” taken from local urban features—road sign, manholes, tree roots—made using paint applied to colorful local fabrics. Osaka-based artist group Yodogawa-Technique created a large striped bonito fish, comprising hundreds of smaller fish, all made from reclaimed local materials such as PET bottles.

Meanwhile, Maldivian artist Afu (Afzal Shafiu Hassan) works in a range of genres, from painting to performances. For “Breathing Atolls” Afu created a sand animation, borrowing folk motifs from the lives of local fishermen. Local photographer Ali Nishan, known as “Millzero,” also exhibited a selection of photographs reflecting on the beauty of the Maldives’ natural environment. Despite the recent change of government, the exhibition went ahead as planned, and runs through April 19, at the National Art Gallery, Male’. Parts of the exhibition will then travel to Spiral, in Tokyo’s Minami-Aoyama district, from May 24 to June 3. 

FUJIKO NAKAYAFog Sculpture #43555 “Cloud Tree of Maldives,” 2012. Cooperation: Male’ Water & Sewerage Company Pvt. Ltd. (MWSC). Photograph by Kenji Morita.

TERUNOBU FUJIMORIHuman Nest, Maldives, 2012. Architectural Design by Terunobu Fujimori. General Contractor: Tateishi Construction Ltd. Photographby Kenji Morita. Courtesy Sachiko Namba. 

TETSURO KANO Naturplan, 2012. Mixed media installation, dimensions variable. Photography by Kenji Morita. Courtesy Sachiko Namba.

Afu (Afzal Shaafiu Hasan)A Maldivian Tale, 2012. Still from sand animation. Courtesy the Japan Foundation.

Ali Nishan (Millzero), The Flow, 2009. Photograph. Courtesy the Japan Foundation. 

“Breathing Atolls” opening night performance. Photograph by Kenji Morita. Courtesy the Japan Foundation.