Mashael Alsaie, by Megan Macnaughton

Pockets of air solidified in an instant. Evaporating frankincense trapped in still glass. An evocative scent that can no longer be smelled, made inaccessible, stripped of its olfactive function and relegated to the realm of the visual. Suspended, both in space and time. Once free and shared, now locked up, as if seized by the artist’s hands and withheld from the onlooker’s senses. 


Mashael Alsaie, Barren Spring, 2022, Frankincense, Glass, Size Variable

In the Barren Spring installation, first presented in June 2023 at Kulturstiftung Basel H. Geiger (Switzerland)*, Mashael Alsaie arranges several hand-size organic-shaped glass sculptures in the center of the room, on white pedestals of varying heights. Photographs printed on silk fabric line the walls to mark, along with the sculptures, the culmination of Alsaie’s research into the Adhari spring, a natural reservoir located in her native Bahrain that was a popular freshwater spring until it dried up in the early aughts. If Adhari no longer refers to the physical site that once was, it has become a common setting for constructed narratives and oral mythologies that played an essential role in the creation of a collective Bahraini imaginary.

For Barren Spring, Alsaie first turned her attention to this – once heaving, now desolate – space when listening to her grandmother speak of the heydays of this site. She soon came across the story of the rape of a young maiden by an older man in the heart of the Bahraini desert. Devastated and traumatized, the female character drowns the landscape in an unstoppable flow of tears, making this arid spot home to a freshwater spring. The spring allows a natural environment to thrive, with lush vegetation suddenly all around and a forest of palm trees appearing from nowhere. Drawing on this folktale, the sculptures from Barren Spring materialize these pockets of tears – frankincense extracted from myrrh trees, its sap similar to the tears of a weeping willow – and give a tangible form to a story traditionally relegated to the realm of fiction. 

Fascinated by recollections of what she names ‘acts of quiet violence’**, Alsaie’s practice continuously questions the format and function of oral mythologies, while also stressing the importance of deconstructing them and reevaluating their legitimacy and value today. Why is the victim most often a young virgin? How are common sexist tropes sensationalized and perpetuated? Who has the power to overturn this systematic relegation of the female character to the backdrop of the narrative? 

In her rereading of this famous tale, like a poetic treatment of intergenerational memorabilia, Alsaie reasserts a traditional association of the female body with landscape. “The degradation of land is very much related to the exploitation of our bodies”, she says***. In doing so she aligns herself with eco-feminist thinkers and practitioners who use the association of womanhood and land as an emancipatory tool to simultaneously defend our planet’s ecosystems and share matrilineal histories. 

Like the nymph Daphne in Greek mythology being forced to metamorphose into an evergreen laurel tree to escape from Apollo, here the maiden also loses the ability to express herself and is condemned – by a man – to perpetual silence. However, Alsaie is careful to grant her female character the primacy of the narrative, along with the supernatural ability to create a source of life where there was none. 

Beyond the metaphorical reading of the story, Alsaie also underlines women’s physical agency by emphasizing the bodily engagement required in the creative process of the work. Using the method of glass blowing for the first time, Alsaie chooses a technique that demands strength to transform a conglomerate of sand – that alludes to the very material present in her native land – into a permanent transparent and solid form, through the power of her own breath. This process, verging on the performative, marks a new beginning in Alsaie’s practice and demonstrates the artist’s capacity to explore formal limits beyond what she already knows.

Mashael Alsaie, a self-taught photographer, uses sculpture to recreate the clicking of the shutter on an analog camera. If the medium varies, the artist’s gesture and essential goal remains the same: to capture a fleeting moment, the present. In the photographs presented alongside the glass sculptures, the silk print and blurry effect accentuate the tension embodied by the images. Traditionally used to certify, ascertain or determine the truth, here the photographic tool is stripped of its essential documentary and archival function, to play on the ambiguous nature of mythologies. Alsaie explains: 

The thing about memory is that it can be entirely false. I’m very aware that there are few ways to validate a story, as there is no way to invalidate a story, and there is kind of a beauty to that. I’m encouraging a space to collapse all our thinking onto one myth. You can choose to believe it, not to believe it, but it’s really about how you interact with these ideologies and these stories: this is the fertile ground I’m trying to work with****. 

To exist in all present times, and last beyond the passing moment: therein lies not only the essence of the photographic medium, but perhaps the overall aim of Alsaie’s practice, like the air delicately trapped inside the solidified glass of her sculptures.

Mashael Alsaie therefore utilizes mythology not as an end in itself, but as a means of enabling boundless possibilities for inter-generational and -cultural exchanges that are most often materialized and remembered through the archive. The archive has always occupied an essential role in Alsaie’s practice. First as a subject of research, when completing a BA at UC Berkeley and an MA at NYU, and later as a guiding concept in her activity both as an artist and writer. In 2021, she approached the archive as a physical space when completing a residency at Salama Art Foundation in Abu Dhabi. There she conducted research into the Bahrain Television Archives, and found out that files from the years 1976-77 were missing. From this loss (due to an alleged fire in the building in the 1990s) was born the installation Channel 18 (2022) that underlines the artist’s exploration of the representation of the aesthetics of memory. Echoing French philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s argument that a space becomes a place from the moment an event or narratives occurs or takes place there*****, Alsaie’s objective is to reveal the memory of a setting through specific experiences. 



Mashael Alsaie, Channel 18, 2022, Video Installation, Collage, Lights, Sound

Nourished by the experience of migrations to and from the Gulf region, Alsaie’s practice turns to the past, while remaining solidly anchored in a quest to understand and deconstruct the present. In this temporal tension she draws on the countless layers of intimate histories to build the foundations for imagining the protagonists of mythologies – old and new – and to pay tribute to the settings of her youth and family homeland. Rising with determination and maturity, Alsaie’s voice is one that should be attentively listened to among the dynamic scene of young artists emerging from the Gulf, as it begins to resonate far beyond tangible geographic borders.



* The group show, entitled 'Evaporating Suns.Contemporary Myths from the Arabian Gulf', was commissioned by Kulturstiftung Basel H. Geiger, including Alsaies’ artwork, and curated by Dirwarza Curatorial Lab with Verena Formanek.

** Interview with the artist, July 2023.

*** Mashael Alsaie in ‘Social Arrangements and Structures with Mashael & Dania (Evaporating Suns Special Season)’, Khosh Bosh with Anita and Sarah [podcast] 2023.

**** Interview with the artist, June 2023.

***** ‘Là où il ne s’est rien passé, même une photographie reste muette, un nulle part (…), quelque chose qui sort de l’histoire et ne se rattache à rien. En revanche, il suffit d’un petit événement mystérieusement gravé dans ma mémoire pour que le lieu où il s’est produit revienne à la surface de ma conscience. Ce qui est advenu ‘‘a eu lieu’’.’ Paul Ricoeur, La Mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli, Paris, Seuil, 2000, p. 49.

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