In the Maldives : Cosmopolitan Ocean Residency + Commission

A wonderful thing bubbled up from the deep blue sea this summer: an invitation for an ocean residency and artwork commission at Patina Maldives, an eco-resort with primary mission of functional sustainability and an art collection that includes a commissioned Skyscape architecture by renowned artist James Turrell.

The Maldives is a place that has long been on my mind ever since I learned it was the lowest lying country on earth and would be ‘ground zero’ for sea level rise from climate change. The Maldives is an island nation of 1,190 coral islands, with 80% of them standing less than 1 meter above sea level.

Maldives is also the home of a most inspirational person, Mohammed Nasheed, the man who spearheaded the first democratic election in the Maldives after 3 decades of a despotic ruler, and was instrumental in forging the first-ever global climate treaty, the UN Paris Agreement in 2016. President Nasheed is the subject of a profound documentary titled The Island President (a must see.)

As with nearly every spot on earth, the Maldives is also a victim of ocean plastic invasion. With the focus of Cosmopolitan Ocean 2023 on the ocean, its energy, inhabitants and invaders, I was contacted to begin work on a large-scale site-specific commission for a 10-day research residency in July and 2-week creation residency in October at the Patina Maldives, Fari Islands.

Both residencies included my long-time assistant Susan to accompany me and work collaboratively. In the research residency, we spent time exploring, collecting plastic from all beaches of the Fari islands, taking in the vibe of the place, meeting many of the residents and staff of Patina, selecting our commission site, and snorkeling the reefs and bicycling for hours around the large island. We had some active forensic beach cleanings with staff and residents, and Susan found a message with the ocean’s sense of humor: a piece of legacy plastic from Barbie, the ocean’s tip-of-the-hat to the summer of Barbenheimer.

Bird Island, a very small and delicate coral island, is the only remaining of the original Fari islands that stands above water. The main island, quite large by Maldivian standards, is a ‘reclaimed’ island; the sunken coral island was rebuilt to above sea level and thousands of trees destined for destruction were transplanted there. After a short three years, the habitat is thriving with rich underwater life including many juvenile and adult black-tip sharks, sea turtles, titan triggerfish, and schools of butterfly fish, sargeant majors, numerous varieties of parrotfish, many other species of triggerfish (the most plentiful was the adorable Picasso trigger), unicorn fish, multicolor wrasses (including my favorite, the adorable nozzle-nosed bird wrasse,) goatfish, moorish idols, and plenty grouper. There are several bird species, abundant Oriental Garden lizards and each dusk prior to sunset, the air would fill with large and beautiful flying foxes coming home to feed on fruit and roost for the night.

My wildlife encounters at Patina were beautiful and memorable. Each dusk, multitudes of the large rust/brown colored bodies of the Maldivian flying foxes arrived on their 5-foot wide wings to feed on the abundant local fruiting trees and hang upside-down to roost for the night. These immense bats, largest in the world, are critical for seed dispersal on the 1000+ separate Maldive islands and eco-resorts, being the only creature not underwater that can travel the great distances between islands. Their vocal pips and songs were melodious and special to hear.

In the near-shore ocean just 1 foot deep and 2 feet off the beach many juvenile black tip sharks patrolled. The adult ones were frequently seen at the large reef break about 1/3 mile offshore where the best snorkeling onsite was.

Insects were sparse, unfortunately (likely due to necessary mosquito fogging,) but I did discover an extraordinary black bee with iridescent wings, the Tropical Carpenter Bee, many meters offshore, drowning. I got close and saw she was still alive so I gingerly lifted her out of the sea and carried her to shore. She stayed on my hand for a while, drying off and recovering, and then flew away.

Finally, a familiar avian creature, great blue herons, looking very similar to the ones in southeastern US, were the primary nesting species on Bird Island.

With the help of the lovely Maldivian staff, guests and the intrepid General Manager Antonio Saponara, we scoured Bird Island in a forensic cleaning that yielded much material, insights, and messages for the volunteers. Susan and I cleaned and sorted this plastic, reusing and recycling what we could, and choosing the pieces that would travel back to ATL with us for use in the commissioned artwork.

In order to shoot some promo video for the event, we made a quick sketch on the sand with the plastic we had just recovered.

After making dozens of sketches, on our last day on island, I was bicycling down the sand road after a rainstorm and happened to look down to see the most beautiful filigreed algae growing in the sand. Only about 3 inches across, I knew immediately that this would be the inspiration for the design of the artwork. I wanted to honor the overlooked ‘minor’ lifeforms that are essential to all life on the planet.

We traveled back to Atlanta via Greece and Qatar with our artifacts to design and lay out the 1000 or so elements that would become the wall sculpture over the next 2 months. In late October, with the map and all pieces in tow, we took the 36-hour journey back to Patina to begin the construction phase of the piece. The resort’s woodworking crew made the complex 9′ x 4′ panel on island to avoid a costly transport of huge artwork. Our studio, surely the most lovely I’ve ever had, was in one of the villas just steps from a protected beach. Just past the rock seawall you can see, a luxurious reef lies.

It took us many many hours over the course of our residency to create the piece, titled “Ocean Archaeology of Our Time. ” The panel was quite heavy as you can see from the number of the woodworking crew lifting it onto the wall. It is located in the open-air main gathering point called Portico, where residents gather for meals and meetings.

The piece was unveiled at the closing of the Cosmopolitan Ocean event. We were thrilled to see this finally completed and looking better than we could have hoped for in its new home.

It seems not possible to be honored in any greater way. This collective effort, Patina’s belief in my work, providential good luck in all the risky and difficult parts of this project, and the experience of joy that is a tangible presence of this place and the humans that live there, gives me hope. In the stirring words of Patina Maldives:

“Presenting a formidable testament to environmental stewardship at Patina Maldives—a masterpiece by renowned conceptual artist and environmental activist, Pamela Longobardi. This captivating installation, crafted from 21.73 kilograms of repurposed marine plastic, not only highlights Longobardi’s creativity but also stands as a compelling reminder of our collective responsibility to safeguard our oceans.”

My gratitude is immense~

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