On March 10, 2022, the 31-year-old Bahraini-American artist Nasser Alzayani was announced as the first winner of the inaugural Richard Mille Art Prize that had been established by this luxury Swiss watchmaker in partnership with Louvre Abu Dhabi, in order to showcase creative talent from the Middle East. Prior to this, Alzayani’s contemplative and poetic installation Watering the Distant, Deserting the Near had been shortlisted among the works by six other participants showcased at the Louvre Abu Dhabi Art Here 2021 exhibition, its main theme being Memory, Time, and Territory.

The winner was handpicked for the award by a distinguished international panel comprising of HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, Chairman of UAE Unlimited, an avid art collector and patron of the Centre Pompidou, the British Museum and Sharjah Art Foundation; Christine Macel, Chief Curator at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou and an art critic; Hala Wardé, founding architect of HW Architecture and long-term partner of Jean Nouvel, who was the lead of the Louvre Abu Dhabi project; and Dr. Souraya Noujaim, Louvre Abu Dhabi’s Scientific, Curatorial and Collections Management Director. It is expected that Richard Mille’s relationship with the museum will extend for at least ten more years. The $50,000 cash award is eligible to UAE and Emirati-based artists, and Alzayani was its first recipient.

Alzayani, who currently resides in Abu Dhabi, was presented the award by the glamourous pop-star Pharrell Williams, Richard Mille and Louvre teams. “Nasser is paving the way for future artists across the region to join this initiative and encourage all creative talent to take part”, commented Peter Harrison, CEO of Richard Mille EMEA.

Upon receiving the first edition of The Richard Mille Art Prize, the artist commented: “I am so thankful to have won the 2021 Richard Mille Art Prize. When I think back to when my project started, before it even made it to be part of this exhibition, it all really feels like it has come full circle. I would like to thank Richard Mille and Louvre Abu Dhabi for giving me the opportunity to be part of this exhibition, I am so proud to have been able to show this work. This experience has given me a lot more than art, it has given me the chance to build a community of peers I look up to and lifelong friends. I am very grateful for the support that this initiative has provided, and I am excited to see what the future holds for me and the other artists who will be given this opportunity.”

Also, in a generous gesture, worthy of a prince, Alzayani shared his cash prize with all shortlisted artists: the Emirati Latifa Saeed and Mohammed Kazem, Lebanese-Italian artist and writer Cristiana de Marchi, Palestinian Mays Albaik, Palestinian-Kuwaiti Tarek Al-Ghoussein and Dagestani Taus Makhacheva. This decision was approved by the Louvre Abu Dhabi board in the attempt to demonstrate how financial support and sustained income were crucial for artists to continue their practices.

The winning Alzayani’s piece is part of an ongoing series that he began in 2015, while working on his MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design. The work is centred around the natural spring of Adhari, that used to exist near the artist’s childhood home in Bahrain and was very dear to him. The spring has since dried up, and the familiar landscape around it also gradually faded away, overtaken by the sands of the desert. “The water is gone, and soon the memory of it will vanish too - but we still have stories to tell,” nostalgically muses the artist on his website. His practice incorporates themes of factual and fictional archaeology and relies on the painstaking documentary research that helps to re-integrate the lost shards of memory back into the collective experience. Alzayani’s other projects also deal with vanishing cultural landscapes, both physical and symbolical, and resurrect their faded memories.

For the exhibition at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Alzayani created sand tablets resembling the museum’s artifacts. Sand also acts as the counterpoint to a place of sustenance that used to exist there before, providing livelihood for people. The tablets featured a Bahraini poem, whose lines were carved in raised Arabic script. As the sand crumbled and loosened over time, they gradually disintegrated, too, in fact, right in front of the viewers’ eyes. This process of disintegration is key to the idea of the installation, as it also symbolises the crumbling and dissolution of memories, which gradually turn into the “apparition of a landscape that no longer exists”. “Much like the waters of the spring, the memory of this once iconic landmark will soon evaporate from the minds of future generations who now have other, newer monuments to refer to and preserve,” states the artist on his website. This sounds particularly poignant, as the drying up of the spring was caused mostly by a rapid increase in population and overuse of resources. However, the main reason was the human greed: the spring ran out of water due to drilling for oil. These facts reveal strong ecocritical stance underpinning Alzayani’s work.

Apart from expressing his nostalgia for the landscape of his childhood, the artist was also willing to address the issue of relationship between the artifacts and the viewer (there was no glass case, separating the viewer from the installation) and reference the Louvre’s methods of display. Nasser is a passionate advocate of archaeology and museums as means of preserving national memory and creating narratives, especially as this attitude is not very typical of Bahrain. However, museums “don’t just display history—they use objects to tell a version of it,” concludes the artist.

He believes that sand is a poetic material, adding an extra dimension to his works, both as a medium and metaphor of time and memory. Both are fluid: like the sand of the desert, they ebb and flow into the dunes-like millenia. Protean, the sand of the desert can take any shape. It rustles and whispers, softly lulling the ages of history into oblivion, covering the traces of the past with its grainy blanket. “The desert is the setting for an orchestra of the wind. No woods or brass here, the instruments are your ears,” poetically suggests the artist. It depends on how well the artist’s ear can attune itself to that endless music and comprehend its mysteries.

“Nasser embraces the ideals of artistry and innovation combining these to deliver outstanding works of art that push the boundaries of contemporary creativity,” believes Peter Harrison, CEO, Richard Mille EMEA.

We also asked Peter Harrison to explain why Richard Mille decided to join in partnership with the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2021.

“Our partnership with the Louvre Abu Dhabi seeks to champion the region’s visionary creativity and redefine innovative perspectives on a global scale. Art Here 2021, the exhibition we devised with the Louvre Abu Dhabi, was staged to coincide with the UAE’s 50th anniversary, hence it was very important for us to celebrate the country and its history, its geography and culture, its vision for the future, and ultimately, the entire nation and what it stands for, “ explained Peter Harrison. “The overarching goal of the Richard Mille Art prize in partnership with the Louvre Abu Dhabi is to offer a cultural platform to artists within the region to further cultivate the art scene in the UAE, GCC and Middle East as a whole.” It also underlines the symbiotic relationship that exists between visual and horological arts.

Having been asked why contemporary art was so important to Richard Mille and its creative vision, Peter Harrison, CEO, Richard Mille, EMEA, responded:

Art permeates every part of our lives, from the surfaces we touch, feel, or interact with to the simple melody of a song, the pigments used in fashion, or indeed the intricate craftsmanship of a timepiece. Where the Louvre Abu Dhabi focuses on building understanding through culture, we endeavour to do the same through unrivalled savoir-faire and artisanship. As a brand, Richard Mille has vision and a passion to curate immersive cultural experiences in the Middle East that transcend the boundaries of time, space and location. For many years, we have strived to curate ground-breaking experiences for the region, be that in business or culture, with the ultimate goal to rewrite the current landscape of contemporary art in the region by offering a platform to artists where they can create and share their artistic talent with the wider world.

And, finally, we enquired about Richard Mille’s approach to each timepiece as a three-dimensional kinetic painting. Here is the response: “We always integrate artistic inspiration into every detail, playing up the full possibilities of space, volume, and movement. Our core vision is to incorporate an artistic element into every watch we craft, be it through the journeys we share with our clients and partners or our dedicated watchmakers who imprint those stories into our timepieces.

We have finally asked Peter Harrison to comment on the recent Richard Mille collaboration with Pharell Williams while creating new RM-52-05 watch: “If we take the RM 52-05 Tourbillon Pharrell Williams watch as an example, it’s a truly artistic project; one that hinges on artistic collaboration between two visionaries who crossed into each other’s worlds to interpret an idea and turn it into reality. Pharrell has always felt a deep connection to the cosmos and derives a sense of spirituality from it; all of this was encapsulated into this specific watch, which conjures this emotion and vision through artistic innovation.”

Obviously, Richard Mille are dedicated champions of contemporary art, who are encouraging talent and promote interest in the art of the regions lesser known or not so well represented, such as, say, the USA or European contemporary art.

From this year onwards, the exhibition Art Here will run in the Louvre Abu Dhabi on an annual basis, with the Richard Mille Art Prize serving as a platform to showcase local contemporary artists working in a variety of media. Each year the exhibition will see several artists selected through an open call for proposals, each exhibiting one artwork in the Forum, a space of interaction and exchange within Louvre Abu Dhabi. The theme for the 2022 Louvre Abu Dhabi Art Here and the open call for submissions for the second edition of the Richard Mille Art Prize will be announced soon.

Meanwhile, Alzayani is preparing for a 2023 group exhibition at Warehouse 421. His piece explores the arrival of oleander in Bahrain. Introduced to Bahrain by the British in the early 20th century, the plant’s complex history and collective memories linked to it lend themselves well to Alzayani’s approach of deep and nuanced historical exploration and his “archaeology of memory” approach.