Artist Nasser Alzayani on Using “Artifact Language” to Create Stories from Fragmented Memories

A selection of fragmented tablets were recently exhibited at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The Arabic script of a Bahraini poem was engraved on it. Carved in the sand, they gave off the aura of the eons.

In fact, they were collapsing very slowly, right in front of the participants’ eyes.

But it was not a tragic loss of valuable antiquities, and the tablets were not part of the institution’s historical acquisitions. They are part of Nasser Alzayani’s “Watering the Far, Deserting the Near” series, and they are destined to disintegrate.

“Sand is a poetic material to work with,” the 31-year-old Bahraini-American artist said this week from his home in Abu Dhabi.

Nasser Alzayani, “Watering the distant, deserting the near”. Photo by Xavier Ansart, courtesy of Richard Mille.

He continued: “I have no formal training, but I try to use archaeological methods to give legitimacy to the objects I create, to attract people and give importance to stories. I am interested in using the language of artifacts to create fictional and truthful narratives, and also to shift perspective and tell stories from a different angle, or not the established narrative.

In March, Alzayani won the first Richard Mille Art Prize, the $50,000 luxury watchmaker prize eligible for artists based in the United Arab Emirates and the Emirates. “An immeasurable amount of creative talent exists in the Middle East,” said company CEO Peter Harrison.

Richard Mille’s relationship with the museum will continue for at least another ten years. “Our partnership allows the two brands to come together and provide recognition for artists in the region as well as a platform from which to share their art with the world,” said Harrison.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi.  Photo by Mohamed Somaji.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi. Photo by Mohamed Somji.

Seven shortlisted artists presented works at the Louvre Abu Dhabi Art Here 2021 exhibition – “Memory, Time and Territory” – which ended last week. The theme was particularly evocative in Alzayani’s piece, which is part of an ongoing series he began in 2015, while working on his MFA at Rhode Island School of Design.

“Watering the Far, Deserting the Near” centers around the natural spring of Adhari, near the artist’s childhood home in Bahrain. It has since dried up.

“It really started with this memory I had of visiting this place,” Alzayani said, “and it stuck because this place no longer existed. My research started trying to figure out if that memory was real or no, because I had no proof that I had ever been there.

The island country had more than thirty natural springs; most of them have dried up in the past 50 years. “These are mainly human factors – a rapid increase in population and overexploitation of resources,” Alzayani explained. “Then there is the destabilization of the water table due to oil drilling.”

Artist Nasser Alzayani with his Richard Mille Art Prize-winning work.  Photo by Xavier Ansart, courtesy of Richard Mille.

Artist Nasser Alzayani with his Richard Mille Art Prize-winning work. Photo by Xavier Ansart, courtesy of Richard Mille.

The series also includes interviews with people who have visited the springs. As Alzayani explained, “Truth is a perspective, on who exhibits these objects and writes the descriptions, and on the framework from which people obtain this information.”

He added, “Museums and archeology are an important part of nation building and storytelling.” They don’t just display the story, they use objects to give a version of it.

Alzayani is currently preparing a group exhibition in 2023 at Warehouse 421. Her piece centers around the oleander. Introduced to Bahrain by the British in the early 20th century, the complex history and qualities of the plant lend themselves well to Alzayani’s approach of deep and nuanced historical exploration.

“It’s a very beautiful plant and it grows almost all over the world now, which is a result of colonial expansion,” the artist said. “It’s also very toxic.”

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