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Political turmoil in the Maldives reverberates all the way to the Venice Biennale 2013

  • @AndrewBuncombe

The political turmoil rocking the Maldives has reverberated all the way to Venice’s celebrated art show where the archipelago nation is represented by two exhibitions – an official one focussing on the danger of climate change and unofficial show highlighting political repression.

The official exhibition at the Venice Biennale, commissioned by the ministry of tourism, is entitled Portable Nation: Disappearance as a Work in Progress – Approaches to Ecological Romanticism. The various works focus on the challenge faced by the low-lying islands from rising sea levels.

A short way from the official exhibition is the unofficial event, entitled The Maldives Exodus Caravan Show. While it also contains some pieces related to climate change, the organisers say they also want to draw attention to what they term the “dictatorship” running the country.

“The biggest challenge for the Maldives right now is the political situation,” said artist and curator Soren Dahlgaard, speaking from Venice. “It’s the struggle for democracy.”

Mr Dahlgaard, whose wife is Maldivian and who lived on the islands for several years, said he was commissioned to produce an exhibition for the festival in 2010 by the government of former president Mohamed Nasheed.

But when Mr Nasheed was forced from office in February 2012 – he and his supporters termed it a coup – Mr Dahlgaard started to become concerned. He stayed on, agreeing to work in collaboration with Lebanese artist Khaled Ramadan and an Arab-European collective called the Chamber of Secrets (CPS).

But in the spring of this year, Mr Dahlgaard and the official exhibition finally parted waves. Mr Ramadan, who has made a documentary about the Maldives, and the CPS were instead appointed curators.

Mr Dahlgaard recruited a group of Maldivian and international artists to produce an alternative show. “We’re the parallel exhibition,” he said.

The CPS yesterday declined to comment on the peculiar situation in Venice or answer questions about its artists and their work. However, a background briefing posted on the website of the exhibition says: “When we claim to protect nature we are actually protecting ourselves, but does nature need our protection?”

It adds: “A 60cm raise in sea levels would see the entirety of the Maldives smothered by the ocean and make the Maldivian population probably the first refugees of global warming.”

The events at the 55th Venice Biennale take place as Maldives prepares for new elections in September. These were demanded by the international community following the ousting of Mr Nasheed last year and his replacement by the then vice-president Mohammed Waheed Hassan.

Ironically, no issue was more closely associated with Mr Nasheed, a former political prisoner, than that of climate change.

He was once held a cabinet meeting underwater to highlight the threat of rising oceans and announced his intention to establish a fund to purchase an alternative homeland because he feared the Maldives could be drowned