ALULA — Desert X AlUla announced Saturday participating artists for its site-responsive exhibition, the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia, opening Jan. 31. The exhibition will run till March 7.
Organized collaboratively by Desert X and the Royal Commission of AlUla (RCU), the exhibition takes place in the desert of AlUla, an ancient oasis in Saudi Arabia, and brings together a plurality of voices, co-curated by Saudi curators Raneem Farsi and Aya Alireza with Desert X Artistic Director Neville Wakefield.
An exploration of desert culture, the exhibition is a cross-cultural dialogue between artists from Saudi Arabia and its surrounding region and artists from previous iterations of Desert X in California, taking its cues from the extraordinary landscape and historical significance of AlUla.
Participating artists are: Lita Albuquerque (US); Manal AlDowayan (Saudi Arabia); Zahrah AlGhamdi (Saudi Arabia); Nasser AlSalem (Saudi Arabia); Rashed AlShashai (Saudi Arabia); Gisela Colon (Canada); Sherin Guirguis (Egypt); Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim (UAE); Nadim Karam (Lebanon); eL Seed (France); Wael Shawky (Egypt); Muhannad Shono (Saudi Arabia); Superflex (Denmark) and Rayyane Tabet (Lebanon)
Over the past year, AlUla has welcomed artists to engage with its environmental conditions, historical context and surrounding communities. Large-scale site-specific works presented in the exhibition will inspire new dialogue about the desert and reflect on themes that range from the passage of goods and ideas along the ancient incense route, the cultural memory that passage has left, and the natural resources that have shaped the region, both past and present.
Serving as a crossroads between three continents and a gateway between East and West, AlUla was built from successive civilizations and for millennia was a place for cultural exchange.
As AlUla’s first major contemporary art exhibition, Desert X AlUla marks an exciting and transformative moment for Saudi Arabia, reviving this cultural legacy and adding new layers to the destination’s future as an open living museum that inspires creativity.
RCU’s wider long-term plan is to reinvigorate, protect and preserve AlUla, rooted in a Cultural Manifesto developed to create a sensitive, sustainable transformation of the region with its community integrated into the process.
The exhibition is unlocking national talents, providing opportunities for local guides, engaging with youth and community through schools, universities and public outreach programs, including artist-run workshops, and laying the groundwork for future creative endeavors and collaborations.
Lita Albuquerque’s star map NAJMA (She Placed One Thousand Suns On The Transparent Overlays Of Space) invokes the cosmic myth of a female astronaut who arrives on earth to spread light and information, an ode to the region’s genesis as the birthplace of astronomy; Rashed AlShashai’s A Concise Passage reflects on the passage of goods and trade from ancient past to modern times, creating a bridge between a vast open landscape and the economic systems that determine present day borders.
Rayyane Tabet’s Steel Rings, from the series The Shortest Distance Between Two Points, references the Trans-Arabian Pipe Line Company’s pipeline bisecting the Arabian Peninsula with forty rings forming the sculpture, each inscribed with the distance from the pipes source; Muhannad Shono’s The Lost Path takes youth as the new commodity across Saudi Arabia through a decaying pipeline that rests motionless, semi-submerged beneath the shifting sands.
Zahrah AlGhamdi’s Glimpses of the Past is a flickering oasis made of thousands of date containers, once key to AlUla’s agricultural wealth; eL Seed’s Mirage is inspired by the image of fertility that the AlUla oasis presented to those who first crossed the arid landscape in search of trade, allowing viewers to enter a script-like structure submerged beneath the ground. The evanescence of objects and images within this landscape is also at the heart of Manal AlDowayan’s Now You See Me, Now You Don’t, an installation of artificial puddles.
The fragility of the desert ecosystem is evident in Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim’s Falling Stones Garden, which consists of rock-like forms painted in highly saturated color; inspired by the diverse flora and fauna of the Arabian desert, Nadim Karam’s On Parade is a caravan of forms that appear to have sprung out of barren ground like desert bloom after rain.
Nasser AlSalem’s Amma Qabel is a sculpture with both interior and exterior landscapes, which embraces the idea of time as a continuum that connects all cultures and civilizations; Gisela Colon’s monolith The Future is Now is at once high-tech and futuristic but also reminiscent of the mystery of ancient cultural artifacts such as totems — it speaks to a moment in history marked by the coming together of old and new.
Sherin Guirguis’s Kholkhal Aliaa looks at the role of cultural memory in shaping ideas of the present. Wedged within a rock crevice, a sculpture of a Bedouin anklet is a symbol of female power and agency as well as a metaphor for journeys, referencing the old city of AlUla; Wael Shawky’s installation, Dictums: Manqia II, recalls the once thriving historic town as a place of architectural memory through video projected onto the rockface. One Two Three Swing! by Superflex is a call to collective action, connecting people through shared endeavor.
Desert X AlUla co-curator Raneem Farsi said, “Artists are at the center of this exhibition conceived to foster artistic exchange and dialogue across continents. The diversity of backgrounds, concepts, and themes found in this exhibition affirms the power of art in creating cultural exchange beyond geographic boundaries.
“Alongside international and regional artists, Desert X AlUla gives voice to Saudi Arabia’s dynamic artistic community, cultivating new audiences for contemporary art in the country. Many of the works on view are informed by the multiple layers of history shaping the region and through exhibitions like this, we are working towards a more inclusive future through art.”
Neville Wakefield, Desert X artistic director and co-curator of Desert X AlUla, stated, “Site-specific exhibitions such as Desert X take their cues from land art of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, when artists consciously gravitated towards the remote as a means of breaking down the walls — physical, experiential and economic — of the institutions to which they felt bound.
“Since then, globalization has left us with a radically altered perception of the world. The universe may have contracted but cultural walls remain. Our hope is that in helping bring a site-specific contemporary art exhibition to the desert of AlUla, there will be new conversations, new cultural dialogue between individuals and communities.
“The exhibition will engage with the citizens of the country — half of whom are under 30 years of age. Fostering engagement at this critical time provides a way to connect artists and individuals who have remained isolated for far too long.”
Nora AlDabal, RCU’s arts and culture engagement manager, noted, “The remarkable heritage and enduring traces of culture that have traversed AlUla for millennia are a reminder this ancient crossroads cradled reflection, creativity and ingenuity.
“Desert X AlUla is a continuum of AlUla’s legacy as an oasis for art. By putting the transformative power of art center stage, we can foster new perspectives and opportunities for transformative conversations that build understanding between people.
“The exhibition captures the spirit of the Cultural Manifesto of AlUla, as we continue to preserve, enhance and interpret a constellation of natural and historic wonders.
“We believe culture is indispensable to our quality of life, and we are proudly spearheading an environment which supports creativity, unleashing new and inspiring forms of expression that will interact with the world.”
Susan L. Davis, Desert X founder and president, said, “Desert X AlUla will shine a light on contemporary art being made in Saudi Arabia and the neighboring region, bringing the work of international artists to new audiences. We believe that art has no boundaries and fosters mutual understanding. Our goal is for Desert X AlUla to activate international dialogue through the voices of artists, and the RCU is advancing this shared vision.” — SG