It took British artist Jason deCaires Taylor nine months to develop his latest work: a 20-foot-tall stainless steel cube decorated with life-size human statues and semi-submerged in a coral lagoon in crystal blue waters off the Maldives islands.
But it took the Maldivian police just a few hours to wreck it.
Acting on a court order, police used pickaxes to smash the statues on Friday. Muslim politicians, including the outgoing Maldivian president, had deemed the artwork un-Islamic because it depicted human figures.
Local police tweeted photos of men using electric saws, ropes and axes to dislodge the statues.
“I was extremely shocked and heartbroken to learn that my sculptures have been destroyed,” deCaires Taylor wrote on Instagram.
He called it “a sad day for art and sad day for the environment.”
Famous for palm-fringed atolls and bikini-clad international tourists, the Maldives is an overwhelmingly Muslim island nation of fewer than half a million people in the Indian Ocean. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has increased its investment there, funding mosques and spreading a more orthodox and austere version of Islam.
Muslims generally avoid the depiction of human forms in art. Islam’s holy book, the Quran, does not explicitly outlaw them, but it condemns idolatry.
Police reportedly sent a local Maldivian newspaper photos and video of the destruction, including one clip in which a man is heard saying, “Allahu akbar,” or God is great.
The artwork immediately drew criticism from the Maldives’ president, Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, who was running for re-election. He lost in the polls to an opposition lawmaker on Sunday, and has said he will step down.
In late July, Yameen issued a statement asking the country’s Tourism Ministry to “facilitate” the sculpture’s removal due to “significant public sentiment against the installation.”
The artwork is set about 500 feet offshore. It’s 20 feet tall, half underwater, with a stairway leading to the top of the cube, which is intricately cut to feature silhouettes of coral patterns. Sculptures of human forms stood atop the cube and beneath it underwater.
To reach it, tourists could snorkel, scuba dive or swim.
Local media report that 30 statues were removed and quote the resort as saying the “removal process was peaceful and friendly.” It said the cube structure remained intact.
“We have initiated immediate re-imagination plans with the artist, creating a new underwater gallery that will be in harmony with the locals and environment,” the resort was quoted as saying.
Like many of deCaires Taylor’s underwater sculptures, it was made from nonpolluting materials and designed to attract marine life — algae, shellfish and fish — and raise awareness of the fragility of coral reefs in the Indian Ocean and beyond.