Latifa Saeed's piece 'The Pathway' is on display as part of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Art Here 2021 exhibition. Picture credit - Augustine Paredes / Seeing Things


Memory, time, and territory are difficult to define, and the works in the Louvre Abu Dhabi Art Here 2021 show dig deeper into them, offering new perspectives on how we perceive things and how place shapes us.

The exhibition, which will launch on November 18, will be a break from the museum's normal fare. It's a solo exhibition of contemporary art that includes pieces competing for the inaugural Richard Mille Art Prize, which was inaugurated this year by the Louvre Abu Dhabi in collaboration with the Swiss watchmaker.

Seven UAE artists were chosen from over 100 candidates who responded to an open call in July with concepts addressing the themes of memory, time, and territory. Taus Makhacheva is one of them, with her 2020 work Mining Serendipity, which consists of video and "body-oriented artifacts," a jewelry set consisting of a chain necklace and seven pendants that serve as a sort of high-tech talisman.

Makhacheva collaborated with Mineral Weather, a Moscow-based company, to create the piece, which explores how traditional jewelry may "form your psychological, cultural, and emotional body," as the artist puts it. Makhacheva's designs serve a variety of objectives. The Highly Superior Biographical Memory Candy necklace, for example, has a porcelain nut coated in candy that, when consumed, can build empathy. Another is the Morphic Resonance Compass, which is designed to encourage telepathic communication with plants and animals. Visitors are encouraged to take up the jewelry set and experiment with different combinations of its components. Mining Serendipity – which the artist describes as a "toolkit for different meetings" – creatively considers new forms of connecting in the aftermath of the epidemic, despite being off-theme.

Nasser Alzayani's installation Watering the far, deserting the near, which was completed this year, is located next to this work. An arrangement of sand tablets, laid out like museum objects, is slowly disintegrating, with particles from the shards, which bear elevated lines of Arabic calligraphy, breaking off until they are nothing more than dust. External factors, or simply the incapacity of the concept to hold itself together, chip away at memory in the same way.

Nasser Alzayani with his installation 'Watering the distant, deserting the near'. Photo: Augustine Paredes / Seeing Things

Alzayani is preserving the memories of Ain Adhari, a Bahraini spring that has lately dried up. "As a metaphor for memory, I'm thinking about sand." It's brittle, and it crumbles. It's reformed into these artifacts with new meanings, and it's only via their reconstruction that we can piece together the full story and history of this area," he says.

The compressed sand tablets were made using laser-cut stenciling technology and are designed to look like the spring location today. Their ever-changing state eloquently captures time and the impact of landscape erasure on collective and personal memory.

Work on paper juxtaposes graphic data regarding the spring's water levels with song lyrics, poetry, and personal recollections of Ain Adhari in the exhibit. Collected recordings of songs and news broadcasts on the drying spring play in the background. The sand tables already demonstrate much of what the artist is attempting to communicate, so some of the new features feel out of place.

Latifa Saeed's The Pathway, on the other hand, emits purity. Her glass rendition of pavement bricks, which are commonly found in Dubai and other emirates, sit calmly on the floor. Saeed forces us to slow down when approaching the sculpture by converting the traditionally hard material into something breakable. It also pulls off a double whammy by prompting one to inspect an object that is frequently overlooked in plain sight in ordinary life while using a translucent substance that can elude inspection.

Territory in The Pathway, like in Alzayani's work, is an ephemeral concept that could shatter or crack at any time. Saeed's art symbolizes the Gulf's fragile development, where hyper-expansion constantly defies normal timescales while also exposing the region to abrupt change.

The Pathway leads to Mohammed Kazem's Images with Flags, a series of photographs created in 1997 and then again in 2003 by the established Emirati artist. The photographs were taken by Kazem's mentor, artist Hassan Sharif, and depict the younger artist peering out from construction sites and standing next to marker flags put around Al Mamzar, which is located between Dubai and Sharjah, and Al Khan in Sharjah.

Kazem's photographs depict a continuous cycle of construction and collapse, and his subject is a witness to it all, albeit the future remains uncertain. "We have to keep it open. That is why the series looks like a story, where I'm moving spontaneously from one site to another. So many things have changed in our society and continue to," he says.

Mohammed Kazem’s 'Photographs with Flags' is a series produced by the established Emirati artist in 1997 and then again in 2003. Vidhyaa Chandramohan / The National

Tarek Al-ongoing Ghoussein's Odysseus series from 2015 has a lone guy staring out over the landscape in some pictures, although his perspective is larger and more abstract. Kazem gives us what his subject sees, giving his work a more intimate, personal perspective, whereas Al Ghoussein's lens throws its gaze beyond boundaries or from above.

While Kazem's works indicate fear about change, as evidenced by the stiffness with which the figure stands, Al Ghoussein's Odysseus, who fades with his surroundings at times, depicts someone adrift in that shift. His interventions in the terrain reveal a subtle conflict between humans and the environment.

Mays Albaik's Awaiting Weightlessness is a one-of-a-kind piece in the show, including humanoid aluminum video sculptures with human feet modeled after the artist's own. Interconnected video essays play on three screens at different speeds: a second, a minute, and an hour.

The Palestinian right of return is central to Albaik's work, which he describes as a "terror-filled desire" that pervades the Palestinian diaspora. Albaik, a "third-generation Palestinian refugee" who grew up in the UAE, finds it particularly poignant. She explores how "time can be a gauge of distance," despite the fact that the Nakba has been over seven decades.

"Awaiting Weightlessness" by Mays Albaik at Louvre Abu Dhabi Art Here 2021. Vidhyaa Chandramohan / The National

"Do we wait for here to become home?" asks one question on the screen, which may resonate with many. "Or do we wait a return?" The idea of a homecoming lingers in the air in a country where the majority of the population is from somewhere else. "I'm trying to think of return to other places," she says. "It's really problem for me – how can we imagine a return that is not traumatic for the place and the returnee?" she asks of Palestine.

Albaik quotes Walid Sadek, a Lebanese writer who wrote on the tragedy of forced disappearances during the civil war in Lebanon. "He thinks of absence as an active space, so if a disappeared person actually appears, they do not refill that space. During that absence, the void continues to move, shift and grow."

Displacement, in a way, replicates and mutates with the passage of time. Time is the great eraser for Cristiana de Marchi, erasing memories of place. Mapping Gaps is her beautiful hand-embroidered work. Beirut is depicted as a strewn picture of the city. The 11 panels portray neighborhoods that are personal to the artist, who has lived in Beirut and Dubai, but she emphasizes the importance of the gaps between these images.

Cristiana de Marchi with her work 'Mapping Gaps. Beirut'. Photo: Augustine Paredes / Seeing Things

These pieces, created by hand over a year, have a profound and sorrowful quality about them. Even though the artist works to map out memories with each stitch, the passage of time continues unabated. When working by hand, De Marchi sometimes foregoes precise street representations. Memory becomes a faulty compass when surveying the country of the past.

Overall, Louvre Abu Dhabi Art Here 2021 is a welcome injection of local contemporary art into the museum, which hosted Co-Lab: Contemporary Art and Savoir-faire in 2017 as its last devoted exhibition of UAE artists.

The current exhibition may aid Louvre Abu Dhabi in establishing its roots in the UAE a little more deeply, while the works on display provide means to comprehend the UAE.