Maldives: Ongoing struggle for artistic expression

1 July 2019
30 sea sculptures were demolished for being “anti-Islamic” and a threat to the “Islamic unity and peace within the Maldivian state”.
Image: Jason deCaires Taylor’s sculptures removed by the Maldives Police / Maldives Police Twitter


On 21 September 2018, 30 sea sculptures were demolished by the Maldivian authorities for being “anti-Islamic” and a threat to the “Islamic unity and peace within the Maldivian state”. Additionally, there was significant public sentiment against the sculptures, according to the Maldives president’s office.

Yet, whilst Article 27 of the Constitution of the Republic of Maldives states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, to communicate ‘opinions and expression’, and to benefit from the ‘literary and expression’, the lingering influence of the extremist views during a 30-year dictatorship under Gayoom is evidently still restricting this.

Although authorial powers have shifted, many limitations continue to exist in many ways for artistic expression. Mya (alias created for the purpose of this interview and anonymity of the artist), a Maldivian artist Freemuse spoke with, explains that several cultural and historical artefacts have been destroyed for their human likeness.

“Anything that looks like a person or has a likeness to a living thing is deemed to be ‘idol worshipping’”, Mya told Freemuse. This kind of censorship of human figures extends beyond artistic realms and into education with the depiction of figures censored in art textbooks.

In one incident in 2011, Mya reports that some members on a panel who represented civil service tried to reject a book, under the guise that children simply do not like drawing people. However, she argues that this rejection had more to do with religion than their original rationale. She also expresses that “if you criticise the politics, they [the public and government] see it as criticising religion” and in turn, seen as challenging the cultural and social norms in society. Due to these extremist views on religion, artistic expression becomes limited to preserve traditional religious beliefs.

In addition to the specific limitations on art, Mya tells Freemuse how the public and government generally do not value it. This results in limitations on equipment to utilise in the creation of artworks. According to Mya, art materials are invariably tailored toward children or beginners. This leads Maldivians artists to either rely on each other or travel abroad to buy materials.

Mya reports that the National Art Gallery, which she held a solo exhibition for in 2011, failed to return her artworks when agreed in June 2018. She believes that the gallery, one of the very few that exist in the Maldives, does not want to see her artworks in the wrecked condition they are in now due to their mismanagement.

Mya argues that through the preservation and celebration of art, the Maldivian people can wholly understand and connect to their culture and cultural history, rebuilding the country with historical knowledge, which comes with making the arts as a priority Arts and crafts in the Maldives are viewed as a low priority seen through the lack of art equipment and even venues, such as the National Art Gallery, to hold exhibitions. Restrictions on art are associated with the increasing extremist religious views, forbidding artwork that is considered inappropriate.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur, Karima Bennoune, has visited the Maldives from 9 to 18 June 2019 to report on the present situation of cultural rights in the country. Bennoune plans to release a report on the Maldives in the near future.

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