The Louvre Abu Dhabi has named Bahraini American artist Nasser Alzayani as the winner of its inaugural Richard Mille Art Prize, which carries a $50,000 cash award. Rather than keeping the money all to himself, however, he is planning to share it equally among himself and the six shortlisted artists.
The seven artists, drawn from a regional open call, currently have work on display in the first entry in the museum’s new exhibition series “Art Here.” Launched in 2021 in partnership with the watch brand Richard Mille, the annual showcase will feature emerging artists, one of which will be selected by an international jury for the grand prize. The inaugural edition—timed to the 50th anniversary of the U.A.E.’s federation—is titled “Memory, Time and Territory”. Artists were asked in the open call “to reflect on the country’s legacy as a territory where questions of past, present, and future combine and overlap.”
Alzayani’s winning piece was the research-driven installation Watering the distant, deserting the near (2021), an archival study of Ain Adhari, a freshwater spring in Bahrain that has since dried up. Adhari studied the spring’s water levels over the years, reconstructing a landscape now lost, its ghost living on in numbers and his own childhood memories. The final artwork incorporated data, audio narration, song. Most significantly, he replicated parts of the site as sand tablets bearing the text of a Bahraini poem. The tablets are crumbling at different paces and places, obscuring bits of meaning until just dust remains.
“The work began with a memory that I had of visiting Ain Adhari, questioning whether this memory was real or not. I visited the place again and it had completely changed; the fresh water was gone, the spring was completely dry and had been replaced by an artificial pool of the same shape, the outline of which I recreated in my work,” he said of the work in an interview for the Louvre Abu Dhabi. “It was really a strange experience because it was clear that this place was important enough to maintain the shape of the pool and to reintroduce water, so people could still come to the site they recognized.”
Also on view in “Art Here” is Latifa Saeed’s The Pathway, which takes its inspiration from pavement bricks common in the Emirates. Saeed reimagined the material as a glass pathway, compelling the viewer to consider the weight of their steps forward. By transforming a beaten road into something breakable, she calls 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 land and vice versa. In his Odysseus series (Abu Dhabi), begun in 2015, he focuses on several uninhabited islands off the coast of Abu Dhabi, which act as placeholders between the desert landscape and rapid feats of urbanization inland. Meanwhile, Italian Lebanese artist Cristiana de Marchi uses textiles, embroidery, film and performance to explore how memory, itself susceptible to change, alters our relationship to the past. Her work, Mapping Gaps. Beirut (2016–17), explores these existential concerns through embroidered maps.
Speaking to the National on the collective decision to split the prize money, Alzayani said, “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 realized in order to make work, we need a sustained income and method of support.”