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Nasser Alzayani

2021 Richard Mille Art Prize Laureate
Art Here 2021
18 November 2021 – 27 March 2022

Nasser Alzayani is a Bahraini-American artist (b.1991, Manama) whose practice is a research-driven documentation of time and place through text and image. Watering the distant, deserting the near (Abu Dhabi, 2021) began as an archival study of the natural springs of Bahrain, with the artist documenting the factors contributing to the demise of the local landscape. With the drying up of the water, the memory of the spring became tethered from its territory. But this rupture opened a new understanding of time and space. Material loss and faded recollection provoked a broader research project based on recording and replicating through casts and molds. Further excavation of the original springs uncovered a wealth of new material, resulting in sand tablets laid out on a support mimicking the site.

Darah Ghanem

Produced using a laser cut stenciling method similar to screen printing, the raised surface of the tablets provides traces of information which, under varying light conditions, are revealed and concealed, lost and hidden. The text – a script from a Bahraini poem – wears down over different durations of time. As the tablets break into pieces, some quicker than others, the surrounding space is affected – the viewer becomes aware of the structure of his own place. The fundamental yet fragile connection between memory and territory is broken but not lost; rather, it is reinscribed in a new texture, an alternative narrative of belonging which reduces the relation between memory and territory to its fundamentals: a physical accumulation of sedimentary production, the material construction of a reconfigured space.

“I was born in Bahrain and actually grew up not far from the spring of Adhari. Bahrain is famous for these freshwater springs. There were over thirty of them, that sadly do not exist anymore — at least not as they once did. As a child I did not think about it; for the younger generation the place was not as important as it was for the older generation, who would go to the spring regularly in the fifties and the sixties when it was full of water and full of people. It was also a source of life for all of the greenery and the farms surrounding the spring.

When the project started I was living here in the UAE. I had been away from Bahrain for about seven years, and I was coming to realize how formative it was, and that I missed it. 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. 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.

Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi Photo Seeing Things

Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi Photo Seeing Things

From there I became really interested in trying to record the story of this place, but not through the typical narrative. Instead, I used parts of the story that are hidden in the background, that lie outside of history. I tried to give a sense of that loss and the hopes of the people in Bahrain. The story that I am telling can be heard in the audio piece. I began searching through archives, documents, geological surveys, and old photographs, finding that it was a very popular site for cultural production in Bahrain. I unearthed songs and poems related to the spring, like the one from Ali Abdulla Khalifa, who writes “Adhari, how long will you water those distant palms?”, out of which came the title of the work Watering the distant, deserting the near. You can also hear a song from Shirley Bassey, recorded and filmed at Ain Adhari when she flew on the first flight of the Concorde from London to Bahrain in 1976. At a time where the spring was still full of water, Shirley sings “The Way We Were”, which is all about memory and the feeling of remembering something that you don't have anymore. While working on these archives I asked myself: what do I do with this information? How do I make a sculptural work that reflects these ideas? That’s when I came to create the works made of sand, with the idea of using it as a material that describes the nature of the place as it exists now. Sand represents the dryness of the earth that used to be full of water, but sand also represents the physical qualities of the memory, a material that is always changing, that is quite fragile.

Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi Photo Seeing Things

These pieces hold the lyrics to a song from Mohamed Yousef Al Jumairi, who himself uses the first two lines of Ali Abdulla Khalifa’s poem “Adhari”. The fragments tell the story of the spring and are meant to slowly disintegrate over time, the same way that the memories of this place are fading. I am interested in archaeology and especially in the methods of excavation and preservation. By making those sand tablets, I try to create a more contemporary version of that familiar way of recording information. I am also questioning the realities of these archaeological practices. If I wanted to make something that lasts, I would use clay or stone. I began working with sand when I was doing my MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and I had invited an archaeologist from Brown University to come visit my studio. I asked her what she would do if she found this at an excavation site? The first thing she said was that she would not touch it, which was the exact opposite of what I was doing. I was touching it all the time, even though I knew that by touching it I was actively destroying the work.

When I showed this work at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), I experimented with an archaeological display to create a fictional excavation site. For this exhibition I am trying to fit it within the context of a museum, where the display is extremely important. I visited the Louvre Abu Dhabi, studied and took notes of many armatures that were created very specifically for every single piece in order to replicate those techniques.

The Arabic language is an important part of this work. A lot of the cultural production that has been made in reference to this spring has a poetic meaning in Arabic. I write, for example, about the double meaning of Ain, which in Arabic can mean both “spring” and “eye”, with the eye significantly being a part of the body that produces water. This double meaning is very symbolic and metaphorical to me, the story of Ain Adhari and its waters being quite a sad story, that can produce tears. In his lyrics, Al Jumairi even pleads with the spring, asking it to not cry.

I came to the UAE in 2010 to study architecture at the American University of Sharjah. I never worked as an architect, but I think a lot of the work I make is the result of skills, ideas and concepts that I learned while studying it. Then, I moved to Abu Dhabi and I started working as an archivist and researcher for Lest We Forget, an initiative that runs an archive on Emirati history, documenting the life of the UAE through family photographs. I learned to document and record people's histories, especially in relation to places or objects. I was then selected to be a part of the Salama bint Hamdan Emerging Artists Fellowship program (SEAF), where I really began to explore my art practice more seriously.

I started using sand when I was studying glass at the Rhode Island School of Design. I began by making sand molds for glass casting, when I got so fascinated with the sand as a material in itself that I chose to use the mold making method as a means of producing the work. It was the perfect material to express what I wanted to say, to tell the story. Sand is complicated, its image is quite stereotypical in the region, referring to the desert, to heat and dryness. But it is a slight misrepresentation, even though more and more areas of land are turned into deserts. This project references the fact that the landscape is changing steadily towards desertification, especially in Bahrain, which used to be much greener.

It is hard to frame myself as the person who creates this work. My involvement is of one who is collecting and presenting a narrative, through the lens of the archaeologist, the archivist, the curator or the historian. As this project evolves it is always taking on new voices, and I hope that in the future I can incorporate the work of other artists and newer stories. I know for a fact that there are other artists from Bahrain who are interested in this place, and I think that the more work that is created around it, the longer Ain Adhari is going to live on, watering the channels in people’s memories.”

Interview with Nasser Alzayani, 3 November 2021, Abu Dhabi

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