The Louvre Abu Dhabi named Bahraini American artist Nasser Alzayani as the winner of its inaugural Richard Mille Art Prize, with a cash prize of $50,000. Rather than keep the money all to himself, however, he plans to split it equally between himself and the six shortlisted artists.
The seven artists, drawn from a regional open call, currently have works on display in the first entry in the museum’s new series of “Art Here” exhibitions. Launching in 2021 in partnership with watch brand Richard Mille, the annual showcase will feature emerging artists, one of whom will be selected by an international jury for the grand prize. The inaugural edition, scheduled for the 50th anniversary of the federation of the United Arab Emirates, is entitled “Memory, time and territory”. As part of the open call, artists were invited to “reflect on the country’s heritage as a territory where questions of the past, present and future combine and overlap”.
Alzayani’s winning piece was the research-based installation Watering the distant, deserting the near (2021), an archival study of Ain Adhari, a freshwater source in Bahrain that has since dried up. Adhari has studied the spring’s water levels over the years, reconstructing a now-lost landscape, its many living ghosts, and its own childhood memories. The final work incorporated data, audio narration and song. More importantly, he reproduced parts of the site as sand tablets bearing the text of a Bahraini poem. The tablets crumble at different rates and in different places, obscuring elements of meaning until only dust remains.
“The work started with a memory I had of a visit to Ain Adhari, wondering if that memory was real or not. I visited the place again and it had completely changed; the fresh water had disappeared, the spring had completely dried up and had been replaced by an artificial pool of the same shape, the outline of which I recreated in my work,” he said of the work in a interview for the Louvre Abu Dhabi. “It was a really strange experience because it was clear that this place was important enough to maintain the shape of the pool and to reintroduce water, so that people could still come to the site they recognized.”
Also featured in “Art Here,” Latifa Saeed The path, which is inspired by the paving bricks common in the Emirates. Saeed reimagined the material as a path of glass, forcing the viewer to consider the weight of their steps forward. By transforming a beaten path into something brittle, she draws attention to the fragility of mundane territories. Tarek Al-Ghoussein, born to Palestinian refugees and raised in Morocco and Japan, examines through photography how anonymous lives leave traces on the earth and vice versa. In his Ulysses Series (Abu Dhabi), started in 2015, it focuses on several uninhabited islands off the coast of Abu Dhabi, which act as placeholders between the desert landscape and the rapid feats of urbanization inland. Meanwhile, Italian-Lebanese artist Cristiana de Marchi uses textiles, embroidery, film and performance to explore how memory, itself subject to change, alters our relationship to the past. His work, Map the gaps. Beirut (2016-17), explores these existential concerns through embroidered cards.
Addressing the National on the collective decision to share the prize money, Alzayani said“We were approaching this as a gesture, trying to make a statement about the art ecosystem to support as many artists as possible, rather than a single award to an artist. We realized that in order to make work, we need a sustained income and a method of support.