DUBAI: Bahraini-American artist Nasser Alzayani has come a long way since his school days, when his art teachers noticed his talent but dismissed the idea that it could ever become a career.
In 2015, Alzayani earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, but it was her second degree – a master’s degree in fine arts in glass at the Rhode Island School of Design – that shaped her research-based practice and continues to spark the curiosity of others.
“It’s funny because most people expect me to talk about glass blowing and skills like that, but it’s something I’ve never really understood,” Alzayani told Arab News with a chuckle. “The glass department I was in was very focused on allowing us to grow in the directions we wanted and were interested in.”
The multifaceted artwork that Alzayani has gone on to produce examines notions of memory, erasure, documentation, preservation of history, and storytelling. “I was very interested in the use of glass, but more on the glass casting side – trying to explore more metaphorical things or poetic characteristics in the use of glass, like transparency, opacity , the way light travels and how the fragility of the material can be a metaphor that drives a narrative forward,” he explains.
To produce glass, a sand casting process is used as a form to create molds. This natural resource – sand – played a particularly crucial role in Alzayani’s creative thinking, leading him to one of his most personal projects.
“I was really stopped in my place when I discovered the potential of working with sand,” he says. “Because I thought I had this relationship with her, being from this area, and with her being such a primal material that we experience in our daily lives.”
In 2021, Alzayani became the first recipient of the $50,000 Richard Mille Art Prize at Louvre Abu Dhabi, where he presented his latest project – “Watering the Far, Deserting the Near” – between November 2021 and March 2022. It was an extremely delicate, old-looking compressed installation made from moist, decaying sand. They contained traces of Arabic inscriptions linked to a now dried up freshwater spring in Bahrain, called Ain Adhari. During the 1950s and 60s, this invigorating and culturally significant spring – the largest in the country – drew hordes of people to its lush greenery and cool waters.
“The project started as a very personal exploration, as I had this memory of visiting Ain Adhari when I was a child,” says Alzayani. “In my head, I only remember one case. But by the time I remembered this, the spring had already dried up, so there was no way to really experience this place even if I had been there. It became this research to try to figure out if this memory I had was real or not.
Alzayani dug into the archives and even traveled to the area, which no longer has the original source. Some of its surrounding buildings have been revived and there is a man-made swimming pool there.
“I wanted to revisit the space and see if it brought back any memories for me. It was a very strange experience,” he says. “There were definitely parts of the landscape that I recognized, like the water channels carrying water from the spring, but as I got closer it became more and more foreign to me, because it had also undergone so many changes.”
The project is also about words and music. During her research, Alzayani discovered that the spring had been visited by legendary Welsh singer Shirley Bassey in 1976. According to a vintage BBC documentary, she flew via Concorde – a one-of-a-kind flight from London to Bahrain. “It’s a really amazing thing to watch, because you see her get on the plane and she sings on the plane. She lands in Bahrain, gets in a Rolls-Royce that has ‘Shirley’ on the plate matriculation and eventually you find her playing Ain Adhari. It’s really a magical moment, where you see her emerging from behind the trees and at the same time, it’s this really weird experience, where we look at it now, knowing what we know,” he said.
Bassey’s song choice is “The Way We Were”, a nostalgic composition about memories and loss. “It’s a really strange, almost prophetic moment,” Alzayani says.
The title of Alzayani’s project, “Watering the Far, Deserting the Near”, is a common expression in Bahrain and is mentioned in “Adhari”, a melancholic poem with political overtones written by Bahraini poet Ali Abdulla Khalifa, which addresses the source and gives it an identity.
“The spring had channels that would carry this water over great distances to water the lands of the wealthy. This (poem) is about the struggle for resources and the balance of power,” says Alzayani. “He describes in one of the lines how the spring dried up but then our eyes started to gush because of it. Those are very powerful words.
The first two lines of the poem were included in a song by Mohamed Yousef Al-Jumairi, and Alzayani stenciled its words onto his tablets, which resemble archaeological totems found in major museums. At the Louvre Abu Dhabi exhibition, the tablets were presented to visitors without the usual protection of glass.
“I wanted people to have a sense of how fragile these objects are and (realize) that they weren’t going to last forever,” says Alzayani. “I hope the crumbling of these pieces actually creates a stronger, more lasting memory of history. Once it’s gone, all that’s going to be left is what’s in your head.
“It just made a lot of sense to incorporate sand and use its physical properties to advance these metaphors of fragile landscapes – memory as something ephemeral,” he continues. “When you lose the physical existence of a landscape, what happens to its existence in your memory?”
So, was Alzayani able to determine if his own memory of Ain Adhari was real or artificial?
“I really don’t have an answer. But I think that’s okay, in a way, because the project was really about telling the collective history and memory of this place and how it changes and fades,” he says. “It’s about trying to encourage people to hold on to their memories and make them feel like these are things worth documenting and cherishing.”