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AlUla Arts Festival: Saudi Arabia’s cultural oasis hosts a busy season of international exhibitions

ALULA: On a sandy street framed by the region’s distinctive ancient rock formations, foreign visitors browse a row of craft shops selling scented oils, patterned abayas, delicate jewelry and embroidered bags, many of which are made handmade by the people of AlUla.

This is the scene today in the Al-Jadidah arts district of the old town of AlUla, just a small part of a major transformation underway in Saudi Arabia’s historic northwest, transforming this picturesque desert region, roughly the size of Belgium, into a vibrant cultural oasis of galleries, sculpture parks and art schools.

It was here that the first AlUla Arts Festival opened on February 13, offering visitors an exciting program of carefully curated contemporary exhibitions and massive outdoor sculpture installations by a host of local and international artists.

An exhibition, “What Lies Within”, organized in the Maraya concert hall in AlUla, presents works from the private collection of Saudi collector Basma Al-Sulaiman.

“It’s really a moment of celebration for us,” Saudi artist Lulwa Al-Homoud, who curated the exhibit, told Arab News. “Basma Al-Sulaiman has worked all these years to collect and preserve contemporary Saudi art.”

Installation view of Sultan Bin Fahad, Desert X AlUla 2022. (Courtesy of the artist and Desert X AlUla, photo by Lance Gerber)

The exhibition features works by major Saudi artists, including Manal Al-Dowayan, Shadia Alem, Mohammed Al-Ghamdi, Lulwa Al-Homoud, Musaed Al-Hulis, Hussein Al-Mohsen, Adel Al-Quraishi, Rashed Al-Shashai , Noha Al-Sharif, Dana Awartani, Abdulnasser Gharem, Maha Malluh, Ahmed Mater, Filwa Nazer, Saddek Wasil and Ayman Yossri Daydban.

“I and the artists have worked outside the Kingdom to promote Saudi art,” Al-Homoud said. “It hasn’t been as easy as people think, but all of that effort is now recognized and we celebrate.”

Also on the program of the festival, a photography exhibition organized by “Cortona on the Move”, an international festival of visual narratives, organized by Arianna Rinaldo and Kolhood Albakr and taking place in various buildings of Al-Jadidah. The new arts district will also host the El-Housh Cinema, showcasing the work of Saudi arthouse filmmakers.

The festival, which ends on March 31, is held in tandem with the second Desert X AlUla, which opened on February 11. This striking event confronts the contemporary works of 15 Saudi and international artists with the extraordinary desert landscape of AlUla.

Under the theme ‘Sarab’, this year’s Desert X exhibition explores the ideas of mirage and oasis, both intrinsic to desert history and culture, which have taken on complex global significance over time. .

Invited to consider these ancient concepts, participating artists have responded with new works that address dreams, camouflage, fiction, dis/appearance, extraction, illusion and myth, while examining the dichotomy between natural and man-made worlds.

“The works of art explain how we will form future societies, connect to the earth and how growth happens and how you revitalize in different ways through technology,” said Neville Wakefield, the founding director of Desert X. , to guests at the VIP opening of the exhibition.

“All of these themes are important for the desert but important for the world in general,” he said.

Khalil Rabah, Grounding, Desert X AlUla 2022. (Courtesy of the artist and Desert X AlUla, photo by Lance Gerber)

Among the international participants in AlUla’s busy cultural season is Pierre Sigg, a Swiss art collector who has lived in Saudi Arabia for almost 30 years. His new art residence Sigg opened in the Al-Jadidah arts district in mid-January.

“I was drawn to the beauty of AlUla,” Sigg said when opening the residency. “I had all this space in a beautiful landscape and I thought I could make better use of it, while playing a more active role in the art world, giving artists a place to develop their thinking rather than simply support them by collecting.”

Sigg’s residency hosts artists from the United States, France, Switzerland, Japan, Sweden, Peru, Germany and Saudi Arabia.

The residency’s mission is to “build cultural bridges, with a particular focus on artists who challenge history and artistic heritage through the prism of digital and technological innovation”.

Indeed, building bridges and forging cultural dialogues through art between Saudi Arabia and the international community is the essence of what AlUla is trying to achieve.

“We believe in the power of dialogue,” Nora Aldabal, executive director of arts and creative industries at the Royal Commission for AlUla, told Arab News.

“By 2035, AlUla will be home to 15 iconic destinations for culture, heritage and creativity, each designed in careful dialogue with the region’s unique natural landscape, including museums, galleries, research centers and neighborhoods artistic.

Serge Attukwei Clottey, Gold Falls, Desert X AlUla. (Courtesy of the artist and Desert X AlUla, photo by Lance Gerber)

Promoting the arts and creative industries is a central pillar of Saudi Arabia’s economic reform and diversification agenda.

The AlUla Arts Festival not only demonstrates the enormous potential of the arts internationally in AlUla, but also the great social and cultural changes taking place in the Kingdom.

“Art, before the last few years, was not so important to the Saudi people,” Saudi artist Al-Homoud told Arab News.

“This soft power was not important to the people or to the public, but now it is changing. Only the elite cared about art. But now everyone cares.

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Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor

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