From California to Saudi Arabia: Desert X lands in Al Ula

When considering a follow-up venue for an arts festival that got its start at the famously louche Coachella music festival, the Islamo-unitarian country of Saudi Arabia doesn’t immediately spring to mind.

But that’s exactly the path taken by Desert X, the site-specific contemporary art biennial founded in 2017. On January 31, Desert X Al Ula unveiled 14 grand-scale installations in the kingdom’s remote north-western region. 

Much of the work is exuberant and visually spectacular, from a giant swing set by the Danish collective Superflex (which first appeared in Tate Modern in 2017) to a 13ft-tall silver fuselage-type installation by American artist Gisela Colon that calls to mind a sex object outlawed in the kingdom.

Saudi and Arab artists with roots elsewhere in the region are also represented in the exhibition, put together by Saudi curators Raneem Farsi and Aya Alireza, as well as Desert X artistic director Neville Wakefield. 

A 13ft fuselage by artist Gisela Colon (Lance Gerber)

Saudi artist and storyteller Muhannad Shono showed his The Lost Path installation, which binds together 65,000 black plastic pipes to wind hundreds of feet through the dunes and cliffs. The work, he says, is meant to invoke a treasure map as well as a reminder of the oil that the tubes once contained and the far-reaching effects of that modern-day treasure. Zahra Al Ghamdi, the Jeddah-based land artist, showed an installation of about 6,000 metallic boxes usually used in the area to store dates, coalescing into a river in the desert. 

Aside from the Instagram bait of the contemporary installations, the surrounding desert also has its share of wonders. The landscape is breathtaking: dunes of fine sand broken up by soaring red sandstone karsts, and the odd acacia tree. The natural beauty was appreciated by the ancient Nabateans who built the Unesco-listed city of Hegra here. Their necropolis remains, over 100 stone-carved tombs with ornamental facades drawing from Hellenistic, Ptolemaic, and pre-Islamic Arab aesthetics. The Royal Commission for Al Ula (RCU), launched by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, is working to develop the region into a tourist destination for the arts, nature conservation, and archaeological heritage. Aside from Desert X Al Ula, this month RCU is hosting the Winter at Tantora Festival, with headlining acts including Sister Sledge and Kool & The Gang. New tented camps in the shadows of the karsts are breaking ground all the time, locals say, to service what RCU hopes will be an influx of tourists. 

Desert X’s link with the prince calls into question whether the exhibition will be a success. In light of the 2018 murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, many in the art community are indignant over the decision to show in the kingdom. The most vehement objection comes from the Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight, who called the partnership “morally corrupt”. 

International human rights organisations routinely criticise the kingdom for a wide variety of abuses, from the Khashoggi murder, to the imprisonment of activists, writers, and their families, and its role in the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen.

Manal AlDowayan’s trampolines entitled: Now You See Me, Now You Don’t (Lance Gerber)

For her part, Egyptian-American sculptor Sherin Guirguis had doubts about whether to participate in the show. “I did think maybe that boycotting was the right thing to do,” she says, standing in a shady natural canyon in which her work is installed. Kholkhal Aliaa is a huge-scale version of a traditional Bedouin woman’s anklet passed down to her by her mother. Inscribed on the inside of the anklet is a verse by the “almost forgotten” female Bedouin poet Aliaa bint Dawi Alayyah AlDalbahi AlOtaibi. “It took a team of us to find out her full name,” Guirguis says. 

Ultimately, it was her reflections on the historical marginalisation of women’s work in the Middle East, as well as in the art world, that convinced her to show in Al Ula. “There’s no archive,” she says, “nothing in the history books that contains these narratives [of Arab women]. My practice tries to create a platform for visibility for women’s work. I realised if I don’t do this work, the archive remains invisible.”

Part of her project incorporates a Bedouin craft traditionally practised by women that is dying out: tent making. In collaboration with local weavers, Guirguis created a textile to complement the installation, embroidered with Arabic calligraphy.

The Superflex swing first seen at the Tate Modern in 2017 (Lance Gerber)

For other artists, controversy or not, this exhibition is indicative of a major step forward in the Saudi art scene.

“The amazing thing,” says Shono, “is seeing so many young people who have been locked away in their bedrooms developing their ideas suddenly having all this opportunity and their hard work being respected.

“I don’t feel fearful of testing the boundaries, I feel excited. It feels like everything is coming together to make something happen we’ve all been dreaming about.”


Desert X Al Ula runs until March 7.


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