• Zeek Ashraf

The Dark and Dysphoric Art of Aal



It is well past eight in the evening, and I am sitting with a friend, sipping a cinnamon iced tea at the newly opened Oevaru Cafe’ and Gallery. An artsy little joint tucked away from all of the city’s hubbub, this is the establishment at which nineteen year old Aal previously worked, and it is where he is soon set to exhibit his most recent collection of work.


The ice cubes in my tea are at the cusp of total disintegration, when I see the young artist walk in through the door. After waving a few hellos at his fellow colleagues, he sits at our table with a notebook for us to look over. “I thought this might come in handy.” Its pages, although visibly worn out, consist mainly of Aal’s older pieces, varying from pink flu-stricken swine, to an array of (likely psychedelic) mushrooms.


We begin by discussing Aal’s earliest memories he has of creating art. “I was three years old when I made my first drawing,” he muses, sinking back into the leather seat. “It was a Friday afternoon, during prayer time, much to the dismay of my poor mother. According to her, I’d been quietly sketching what turned out to be the devil Iblis.” He pauses for a beat, then laughs.


“You could say my art has remained more or less the same since then. I tend to stick to darker themes and characters, channeling all my negative emotions into what I produce. I may now come off as a bubbly guy, but like many others, I’ve had my fair share of angst and depression over the years. Art is extremely therapeutic in that way.”


When I ask about his broader influences, Aal is quick to praise the many illustrators that have moulded his perception over time. “I consider myself an almost cult follower of Japanese art,” he states matter-of-factly. “Artists like Takato Yamamoto, Suehiro Maruo and Junji Ito, I grew up reading their manga. They all have such a distinct style of grotesque horror, with an underlying tone of softness to them. I think you’d be able to notice the obvious inspiration in more of my recent work.”

Tribute to Junji Ito (Aal's work on the left, Junji Ito on the right)

While delving into the world of Eastern artistry, we stumble upon the topic of Ero guro, a prewar cultural phenomenon that manifested in Tokyo during the 1920s. “The movement was basically a violent eruption of erotic fetishism, decadence and gore,” says Aal. “Artwork from this era generally depicted acts of gross brutality, sexual or otherwise. I suppose it was a necessary outlet for artistic expression back in the day, but some of it is still incredibly disturbing to see, even for me.”


As I continue flipping through the battered notebook, Aal suddenly gets up, as if lightning had struck. “Are you a fan of spicy food?” he asks with a funny look. I nod, unsure of what to make of his question, and watch him scramble hurriedly to the back counter.


He returns with two glass jars, containing thick, murky orange substances of dubious origins. “Our newest hot wing sauces,” he declares and hands me a spoon. “We’ve actually been experimenting with various flavours here the past couple of weeks. That one you’re eating there has been made with over twenty different chili peppers, and grilled pineapple.” The combination packs a delightful punch, but good God does it burn. I reach for the water, much to everyone’s amusement. “Clearly not for the faint of heart,” says Aal with a laugh.


Making our way back to the interview at hand, we wander on to the subject of our local art scene here in Raajje. Aal’s sentiments are mostly concerned with the lack of variety, and emotion put into such work. “Maldivian art is so homogenised now,” he contends, “to the point where you can’t tell one artist from the other. Art is meant to be an expression of yourself, your own thoughts and feelings, and the way you view the world. I’d love to see the emergence of new art styles in our community, instead of the same old stuff over and over again.”


On a final note, I ask about the young artist’s upcoming exhibition at the cafe’. “We’ve got some exciting stuff lined up for the event, like selling stickers and prints, along with live music. If inkbox arrives on time, I’ll also be doing live temporary tattoos on customers which will last a week or two. I don’t think this has ever been done in the Maldives before, so needless to say, I’m pretty stoked.”


To check out Aal’s exhibition, and possibly grab some crazy hot wings to go, head on over to Oevaru Cafe’ and Gallery on the 23rd and 24th of August. You can also see more of his work on his Instagram here.

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