Nasser Alzayani on winning first $50,000 Richard Mille Art Prize at Louvre Abu Dhabi

The Bahraini-American artist is sharing his money with the other shortlisted candidates

Nasser Alzayani with his installation 'Watering the distant, deserting the near'. Photo: Augustine Paredes / Seeing Things
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The first Richard Mille Art Prize at Louvre Abu Dhabi has been awarded to Nasser Alzayani.

The Bahraini-American artist’s winning work Watering the distant, deserting the near (2021) is currently on view as part of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Art Here 2021 exhibition.

His research-based installation is displayed next to works by those shortlisted for the prize, including Emirati artists Latifa Saeed and Mohammed Kazem, Lebanese-Italian artist and writer Cristiana de Marchi, Palestinian artist Mays Albaik, Palestinian-Kuwaiti visual artist Tarek Al-Ghoussein and Russian artist Taus Makhacheva.

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We were approaching this is as a gesture, trying to make a statement about the art ecosystem to support as many artists as possible
Nasser Alzayani, artist

As part of the prize, the artist will be given $50,000. However, Alzayani says he and the shortlisted artists had agreed to share the cash prize months ago.

“We had an early discussion and concluded that we wanted to share the prize money, so we wrote a letter and submitted it to the Louvre team and the judges. They agreed that we could split the cash between us,” he says.

“The group that I was part of was such a great one and we very quickly formed friendships."

The collective decision is also a way to demonstrate how financial support is crucial for artists to continue their practices. “We were approaching this is as a gesture, trying to make a statement about the art ecosystem to support as many artists as possible, rather than just one award to one artist. We realised in order to make work, we need a sustained income and method of support,” Alzayani explains.

Scroll through the gallery below to see the Louvre Abu Dhabi Art Here 2021 exhibition:

The Richard Mille Art Prize is a partnership between the Swiss watch brand and Louvre Abu Dhabi as a way to highlight contemporary artists within the region.

Announced in July 2021, the prize held an open call for artists to submit proposals on old and new works that could fit into the themes of memory, time and territory. The shortlist of seven was chosen from 200 applications, and their works were judged by a four-member jury. The prize will now be awarded annually.

Alzayani’s project Watering the distant, deserting the near began in 2016 and is centred on the state of Ain Adhari, a spring in Bahrain that recently dried up.

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I was working with this idea of transparency, a kind of ghostly apparition of a landscape that no longer exists
Nasser Alzayani

Starting from the uncertainty around his own childhood memories of the Adhari, Alzayani conducted research on the spring’s water levels, and over the years has developed a multimedia installation that juxtaposes data and archival material with song lyrics, poetry and personal recollections.

He has worked with various materials to express the fragility of memory, initially recasting the landscape in glass when the project began. “[Glass] is a material that is considered fragile, so I was working with this idea of transparency, a kind of ghostly apparition of a landscape that no longer exists,” he says.

Eventually, he introduced audio pieces and narration, as well as works on paper to describe the physical attributes of the spring as well. He shifted to using sand, which he explains is a “counterpoint to what existed before, a place of sustenance that provided livelihood for people”.

The opening of the contemporary art show Louvre Abu Dhabi Art Here 2021 at the museum. Vidhyaa Chandramohan / The National

For the work shown at Louvre Abu Dhabi, Alzayani has created sand tablets that mimic the museum’s artefacts, resulting in a new iteration that responds to the site and the museum’s collection. The tablets’ surfaces spell out lines of raised Arabic script, though these have slowly started to break apart as the sand loosens over time.

“I’m thinking of sand as a metaphor for memory," he said of his work in 2021. "It’s fragile; it breaks apart. It is reformed into these objects that can hold new meaning, and it’s only through their reconstruction that we begin to have a complete story and history of this place.”

Once the exhibition in Abu Dhabi ends, Alzayani says he will begin to look at how the work will be stored or transformed. Since disintegration of the sand tablets is essential to the idea of the installation, he says he can keep the remaining slabs as a “record” of a particular moment or exhibition.

After showing a previous version of the project at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2020, he says the museum began constructing a box that would hold the remaining pieces as a form of documentation of the project.

Currently, Alzayani is preparing for a group show at Al Riwaq Art Space in Manama. The space is set to reopen this year after being closed for two years owing to the pandemic.

His new project Yateem Excavation follows his earlier works that weave fiction with memory and archaeology. The work is based on the interiors of building where Al Riwaq Art Space had previously planned to relocate. Struck by the markings on the stripped flooring, Alzayani saw parallels to scripts and forms of writing. These gutted concrete remains reflect a kind of contemporary urban archaeology common to rapidly developing places like the Gulf.

Alzayani has also been collaborating with assistants to capture the details of the floor and translate them into an installation that uses aluminium foil as a primary material.

The exhibition at Al Riwaq Art Space, titled Post-Fiction: Manama, opens on Tuesday and includes works by Mariam Al Noami, Ali Hussain, Jaffar Al Oraibi and Hasan Hujairi.

Louvre Abu Dhabi Art Here 2021 is on view until the end of the month. More information is available at louvreabudhabi.ae

Updated: March 15, 2022, 11:32 AM
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