A view of the exhibition spaces at Ithra.
Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer
The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, Ithra, recently hosted its second Ithra Annual Gathering at the Center in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. At the event, attended by intellectuals, artists, writers and thought leaders, Ithra announced the most prominent programmes and events planned for 2021.
The events calendar features diverse cultural activities suited for all ages that address the fields of art, creativity, culture, knowledge and society.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has led to major transformations in how we deal with the creative and cultural industries, as society has proven its ability to adapt to the pandemic,” says Hussain N Hanbazazah, Director of Ithra.
“We were keen to provide innovative solutions so we could continue interacting with our audiences. While the threat of the pandemic is receding, we will remain committed to providing various programmes and rich content that enhance the rapid growth and the massive transformations being experienced by the kingdom’s creative and cultural industries.”
Hanbazazah underlined the ability of the creative sector to enhance communication in a global framework during a crisis, a factor not experienced or attempted before.
He specifically pointed to the United Nation’s resolution to make 2021 the international year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development as evidence of the sector’s importance.
“After all, it was the creative industries — from film and television, books and music to art and gaming — that we all turned to for solace when the situation was bleakest.”
Hanbazazah says COVID-19 revealed the immense potential of creative industries. “Beyond their restorative and comforting qualities, these activities also enabled us to connect with others in our shared humanity, like never before.
“There are personal and social benefits intrinsic to the industry — but the sector also has much to offer economically, as the world works to recover financially.” Ithra Connect, the flagship online initiative, provided a platform to stay connected with communities, giving them access to the Center notwithstanding distances.
The 2020 offerings were taken fully online and grew to feature more than fifty ongoing programmes for children, families, students and creatives, covering different interests and formats, encapsulating podcasts, talk shows, quizzes, video series, a collective online diary, virtual exhibitions and tours, seminars, society meetups and more.
“If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we need to be more mindful of our digital wellbeing,” says Abdullah Alrashid, Ithra’s Head of Programs. “In developing our activities for 2021, we’ve been conscious about not just using technology for the sake of having technological components, but we are continually considering how technology can be employed in a beneficial manner.”
Alrashid says this year will see the inaugural Theater in Schools programme which supports the development of Saudi’s theatre and performing arts sector both on and off stage, as well as the launch of the Ithra Academy, in which Ithra partners with world-class institutions and entities to offer scholastic training programmes that will provide long-term exposure to the creative and cultural industries.
Other highlights include the immersive Shatr AlMasjid: Art of Orientation exhibition, a deep-dive into mosques and the objects they contain; Seeing & Perceiving, based on optical illusion and visual deception; the return of the flagship creativity and innovation conference Tanween and the annual Eid and Saudi National Day celebrations.
According to Ithra’s recently released Annual Report, the Center’s Ithra Connect initiative had more than one million virtual attendees and over 19,000 participants, while 45,880 visitors attended the Vietnam-oriented inaugural edition of the Ithra Cultural Days festival.
Ithra’s livestream video with Neil deGrasse Tyson currently has over 17,000 views on YouTube. In 2020, Ithra provided training for more than 20,000 young professionals, while the submissions for its National Reading Program iRead exceeded 50,000. Ithra also trained 1,500 volunteers in 2020, delivering 50,000 hours of productivity.
Ithra’s 2021 calendar points to Ithra’s status as Saudi Arabia’s premier cultural and creative destination. The present programmes and activities will doubtless add to the blossoming cultural landscape of the Kingdom.
Ithra is a project pioneering in innovation, culture, and knowledge, founded by Saudi Aramco. The ambitious Center began work on May 20, 2008.
The opening ceremony celebration was attended by His Majesty the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, who laid the cornerstone of the project. Ithra opened its doors to the public in 2018.
Ithra’s mission is to provide an environment that stimulates the production and exchange of knowledge, develop talent and provide a range of visitor experiences through local and international programming. Ithra’s iconic building earned the highest American Concrete Institute (ACI) “Excellence” award in Concrete Construction Awards and Gala event in 2019.
It was designed as a collection of stones symbolising unity by the Norwegian architectural firm, Snohetta. Just as the location was symbolic, the building was designed with time in mind: the tower represents the future, the ground floor components represent the present, and the underground components preserve the past.
The building and its facilities cover over 80,000 m2. The structure includes the four-floor Library, 18-floor Knowledge Tower, three-floor Idea Lab, Energy Exhibit, four gallery Museum, 315 seat Cinema, 900 seat Performance Arts Theater, Archives, 1,500 m2 Great Hall, and Children’s Museum.
Sand, gravel and clay from around the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been used in construction. Ithra is a Gold LEED certified structure.
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