The Dubai sand artist creating beauty in UAE beaches: 'There’s something about things that don’t last'

Filipino artist Nathaniel Alapide transforms the Emirates' beaches, if only for a fleeting moment

The first thing Nathaniel Alapide checks when he gets up in the morning is the tide forecast – not because he’s about to go diving, but to see when it’s the ideal time for him to go down to the beach to draw in the sand.

"It's really the tide that dictates what time I would go," says Alapide, who works full-time as a sand artist at Rixos Premium Dubai JBR.

Sometimes, he's up as early as 5am to create his art. Using nothing but a rake, the artist creates murals on wet sand for beachgoers. "I create something there in the morning and people get to see it, and it's nice to be able to share something that I've created," he tells The National.

However, for Alapide, 43, it all started when his grandmother died in 2014 in the Philippines. The artist, who was in Dubai at the time, wanted to pay tribute to her, and so he drew a massive mural of a tree at Jumeirah beach.

“I grew up with my grandparents and my grandmother is like this tree that you love and support,” he says.

After doing that for the first time, the artist found the process to be very meditative and has been doing it ever since. “It really puts you in the present moment,” he says.

For him, the environment and being alone on the beach makes him feel like he’s creating something for nature with nature. “When I do that, I feel connected to something that is bigger than myself. When I create, it feels like the physical part of me is dissolved and it’s pure consciousness.”

However, what Alapide never expected was for something that he did on the public beach for fun and as a passion to lead to a full-time job. “I still can’t believe that I’m doing this for a living or as a job because I wasn’t really planning to do it full-time,” he says.

The work he creates is varied. Sometimes it's what seems to be a painting on the sand and other times it's related to international world events such as International Women's Day or when the UAE space probe Hope was launched to Mars. Back in March, his Stay Home message was a reminder at the peak of the pandemic for people to stay safe by remaining indoors.

Alapide has also been approached to create messages for special occasions such as birthdays and wedding proposals. “I think I’ve done a dozen wedding proposals and they’ve all been a yes,” he says, proudly.

His latest proposal was for a couple from the Czech Republic. The man wanted his message to be written out in the Czech language, which Alapide happily did.

“I wrote it and the girlfriend was on the 24th floor of the hotel, so when he [her boyfriend] woke her up and then opened the windows, she saw this message on the beach,” he says. “When they came down, she was already wearing the ring. It’s beautiful.”

Sand art has also opened doors for Alapide to partner with big brands including Nike and Burberry, and most recently with design company Palmwood.

When he’s not on the beach, he’s in his studio painting. And his work can be viewed at the Showcase Gallery in Alserkal Avenue.

However, when comparing the two mediums, the artist says the sand art feels more liberating. "With a painting, people can buy it and hang it on their wall, but with the sand art, no one can buy it, they have to experience it."

A huge part of that experience for the artist is the ability to let go of the art that he has created and let nature take its course and wash it away, only for him to start something new the next day.

“It’s like watching sunset. It’s ephemeral and fleeting and I think there’s something beautiful about things that don’t last long,” he says. “It reminds you that everything in life is in constant change.”

Back in the Philippines, Alapide has garnered recognition for his art – be it at the beach or in the middle of the desert. He’s had a solo exhibition at the Pinto Art Museum in his home town of Anitpolo Rizal and has done a number of television interviews.

On his last visit, he went to Sitio Remedios, a small village in the north of the country inhabited by many fishermen living there with their children, and he taught them sand art for a week.

"A month ago, I did a Zoom interview as well for a TV channel in the Philippines about the sand art that I do here in the UAE and a couple of papers have published stories about what I'm doing here as a Filipino in Dubai."

What started as a tribute to his grandmother in the Philippines is connecting the artist, who has been in the UAE since 2003, with his home country.