Saudi Arabia Launches Art Expo in Desert Oasis to Boost Tourism

Desert X AlUla features massive site-specific installations from local and international contemporary artists

Rashed AlShashai, A Concise Passage, installation view at Desert X AlUla. (photo credit: LANCE GERBER/ COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND DESERT X ALULA)
Rashed AlShashai, A Concise Passage, installation view at Desert X AlUla.
Saudi Arabia has launched a large-scale contemporary art exhibition in the heart of AlUla, a scenic desert oasis, in an effort to revivify its image and boost tourism.
Desert X AlUla, on view until March 7, is the first site-responsive art show of its kind to take place in the kingdom and features 14 massive installations by local and international artists from the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Lebanon, and Denmark. Organized jointly by Desert X and the Royal Commission of AlUla (RCU), the government-funded art show was co-curated by Saudi curators Raneem Farsi and Aya Alireza in tandem with Desert X’s artistic director, Neville Wakefield.
Perched atop a large rock, an electric blue sculpted figure of a woman seated in a meditative pose gazes out over the desert landscape of AlUla, her expression serene.
Created by American artist Lita Albuquerque, the sculpture is titled NAJMA (She Placed One Thousand Suns on the Transparent Overlays of Space) and is part of a body of work she has been focusing on since 2012. According to Albuquerque, the female figure represents a fictional 25th-century astronaut named Elyseria who travels to Earth to spread interstellar consciousness.
“Now in 2020 she is here in AlUla, Saudi Arabia sitting on top of a boulder at the end of a Valley facing east,” Albuquerque told The Media Line. “Her arms are outstretched gifting the valley with the birth of Astronomy.”
Albuquerque, who was invited by Wakefield to participate in the show, has exhibited her work in deserts around the world, most notably the Mohave, Sahara, Antarctica and the salt flats of Bolivia. Desert X AlUla marks her first time visiting Saudi Arabia.
According to the Santa Monica-based artist, NAJMA might be the first representational sculpture of a woman to be exhibited in Saudi Arabia in over 1,000 years. Islam generally forbids figurative art, especially representations of the human figure.
“Many people on both sides expressed concern that the focal piece was a female, and in addition, this was the only representational work in the exhibit. However the Royal Commission for AlUla gave their permission,” Albuquerque revealed.
Other American artists taking part in the Saudi exhbibit include Gisela Colon, based in Los Angeles; Sherin Guirguis, based in LA; and Wael Shawky, based in Philadelphia and Alexandria, Egypt.
“The exhibition takes its cues from the extraordinary landscape and historical significance of AlUla,” a spokesperson for the exhibition told The Media Line. “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.”
The spokesperson emphasized that the event marks a watershed moment for Saudi Arabia and AlUla, which is attempting to “revive this cultural legacy and add new layers to the destination’s future as an open living museum that inspires creativity.
“Artists were invited to visit AlUla to engage with its environmental conditions, historical context and surrounding communities,” the spokesperson explained.
News of the exhibition was not without controversy, however. When the Desert X organization – which also produces a biennial art show in California’s Coachella Valley – announced its collaboration with the Saudi government last year, the decision was met with concern from some artists and critics. Prominent Los Angeles-based artist Ed Ruscha resigned from Desert X’s board in protest of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and told the Desert Sun at the time that bringing the art show to the kingdom is “like inviting Hitler to a tea party."
Nevertheless, the Saudi government is hoping that events such as Desert X AlUla will draw attention to the region’s rich cultural heritage and eventually become a boon for tourism. Located in Northwestern Saudi Arabia, AlUla is an ancient oasis valley that famously houses the kingdom’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hegra, a 2,000-year-old Nabataean walled city packed with mud-brick and stone houses. The site is at the forefront of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s Vision 2030 initiative, a plan aimed at modernizing the country by diversifying its economy and reducing its reliance on oil.
Officials hope some two million tourists will visit the site annually by 2035.