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Philippe Laurella: The layover that lasted over 45 years

Rabeeha Amir
17 December 2022, MVT 10:25
Philippe Laurella: He is a naval architect, painter and restaurateur. PHOTO: ART GALLERY MALÉ
Rabeeha Amir
17 December 2022, MVT 10:25

It was sheer coincidence that Philippe Laurella came onto the shores of the Maldives.

In the 1970’s a young Philippe was on a voyage around the world in what was famously dubbed the ‘magic bus’. From Amsterdam to Kathmandu the magic bus took curious dwellers across traditions and cultures unknown to them before. Reaching Pakistan, Philippe came to the South of India, where he met a French couple in Kovalam. The invite by the couple to the Maldives for a stopover spanned out to 45 years and counting.

Soft spoken, a relaxed style of attire, a distinct walk with no hurry and white hair that stands out, Philippe is the embodiment of cool. When he came to the Maldives, it was almost completely unknown to the outside world. A nation that seemed far from civilisation, Philippe had his doubts on what he could do to occupy his stay. He decided the only way was to acquire a Dhoni which would set him to sail the Maldives for 18 months.

He is wistful of the memory he has of the Maldives back then; the incredibly celestial island nation that has lost its inherent charm over the years.

Philippe’s creative contributions during his life in the Maldives as a naval architect, painter and restaurateur are impressive. He has earned his keep among Maldivians as the white man who married a Maldivian and settled. The first ever safari boat, "Barabaaru", was designed by Philippe which was when he got to put his naval architect skills to use, for a good ten years. He opened a restaurant, "Rendezvous", in front of the then Buhari Cinema which was another addition to his persona as a jack of all trades.

In 1998, a diver saw a painting that Philippe did and bought it from. This was the beginning of his venture as an artist. The Laurella family is known for their artistic flair. It is in his genes; he has an older brother who paints, a younger brother who plays music, and a sister who is both a painter and a classical dancer. His paintings over the years have warmed homes and the hearts of the people who resonate with them.

Searching for Lost Time

His latest exhibition in the Art Gallery Malé portrayed 36 intricate watercolour paintings that reflect Maldives through his journey as a resident here.

The spirally, at times maze-like paintings are an intimate reflection of his time spent in the Maldives. In his words, 'Searching for lost time' seemed like the perfect title for the present day Maldives. A Maldives that is slowly losing its traditions and the natural beauty that had felt untouched by urban development 40 years ago.

Through his paintings, Philippe embeds his perspective as a foreigner taking home in the country, through portraits of culture and the eco-rich seas. The simply-worded paintings depict a strong sense of his time here, in a profound way. From ‘Somewhere in the Bazaar’ that shows a group of adults and a child engrossed in chess to ‘Her Majesty the Sailfish’ that speaks for itself, the contours and details of each piece are enthralling.

When asked why the painting named ‘The child and the Small Dhoni’ was his personal favourite, Philippe said that it best resembled what it meant for him to be ‘Searching for lost time’. The child tugs along a small Dhoni through a school of fishes that has paved the way for him upon a mosaic sea. It illustrates a period of vitality and youthful purity during less complicated times.

His message for the youth is simple; to be curious. He talked of a time when a young man asked to take a puff of the cigar he was smoking. Philippe was adamant not to pass his cigar and said, ‘at your age you don’t smoke cigars’. The young man then formed a close friendship with Philippe and through him explored learning French, which he is fluent at and learnt not to stay in one place ‘all your life’ travelling across borders. The young man like Philippe learned to be curious and open to other possibilities in life.

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