Elephant Rock at Desert X AlUla.
Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer
The second edition of international art exhibition Desert X Alula (Feb. 11 — Mar. 30), features 15 artists who explore ideas of mirage and oasis under the theme Sarab.
Desert X AlUla is a recurring, site-responsive, international art exhibition that takes place in AlUla, a globally significant ancient desert region in the Arabian Peninsula, in north-west Saudi Arabia. It hosts a natural and creative heritage, steeped in a legacy of cross-cultural exchange.
This year’s show, under the curatorial vision of Reem Fadda, Raneem Farsi and Neville Wakefield and free and open to all, features newly commissioned works. The artists, Saudi and international, bring a plurality of voices from around the world.
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The theme of Sarab is intrinsic to desert history and culture. It has taken on complex worldwide significance over time. Invited to consider these ancient concepts, participating artists have responded with works that address dreams, camouflage, fiction, dis/appearance, extraction, illusion and myth, while also examining the dichotomy between the natural and man-made worlds.
Desert X AlUla is a collaboration between Desert X and the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), established to advance new cultural dialogue through art.
The first site-responsive exhibition of its kind in Saudi Arabia, it fosters dialogue and exchange between artists, curators and international and local communities, shaped by a curatorial vision that takes the desert as its inspiration.
Building on the legacy of Desert X, which takes place in California’s Coachella Valley, Desert X AlUla draws on principles of land art, offering an opportunity to experience art on a monumental scale in dialogue with nature.
The upcoming exhibition will take place in a different location in AlUla to the previous edition, situated within a valley that invites visitors to wander through and experience spectacular landscapes, as they weave their journey between the works.
Shadia Alem’s sculptural installation adapts the art of origami, applying the basic principles of geometry and beauty to create shapes that make reference to the Arabian Desert’s literature, mathematics and mythology.
Dana Awartani’s sculpture draws inspiration from the vernacular architecture of AlUla, taking the form of a concave geometric sculpture that references the Nabataean tombs and mimics the shapes of surrounding mountains, gorges, caverns and rock formations.
Serge Attukwei Clottey’s installation addresses the experience of globalisation, migration and water equity, by shrouding slabs of rock in meticulously crafted tapestries made from yellow kufuor gallons, which are plastic containers used in Ghana for storing and transporting water.
Claudia Comte’s work features a progression of walls, imposing their architectural presence within the natural order of the AlUla canyons.
Shezad Dawood’s work explores ideas of deep time and the geo-biological relationship between the desert floor and nearby Red Sea through a pair of coral-like forms.
Land artist Jim Denevan creates ephemeral drawings whose interlocking patterns speak to the shifts in magnitude and scale that so often shape the experience of the desert.
Working at the intersection of nature and technology Stephanie Deumer has created an underground greenhouse; it hints at the lush sanctuary of native plants below.
Sultan Bin Fahad’s mud structure is shaped like a desert kite, with mirrors on the façade that create the look of a mirage, and houses an urn-like sculpture embossed with four protective symbols traditionally used in Nabatean tombs.
Zeinab AlHashemi’s interactive sculpture uses discarded camel skins on an abstract, geometric base, resembling a rock formation in the desert.
Alicja Kwade’s architectural structures reflect and frame the natural artefacts she encountered on the desert floor.
Shaikha AlMazrou’s lengthy steel-made inflated structures are wedged in the voids of rocks, tensely balanced in the landscape, occupying the state between stasis and movement.
Abdullah AlOthman’s piece references theories of light refraction rooting back to the early days of desert civilisation and culture.
Khalil Rabah creates a mirage of an orchard of olive trees, which stand in the desert as living things displaced from their indigenous land and longing to be repatriated, as an exploration of territory, survival and citizenship.
Monika Sosnowska’s sculptural exploration of memory speaks to AlUla’s historical position as a hub and passage of trade and its more recent cultural re-awakening; it uses heritage rails from the Hejaz railway, which ran from Damascus to Medina.
Ayman Zedani’s soundscape installation in a rocky cavern comprises horizontal sculptural wires and an audio projection of music, voices and footsteps, creating sounds that add to the chimes of nature.
Fadda, curatorial advisor to Desert X AlUla 2022, says: “The desert concepts of mirage and oasis have long been tied to ideas of survival, perseverance, desire and wealth.
“The oasis pertains to ideas of finding prosperity or heaven, while the mirage is a universal symbol of the mysteries of imagination and reality. They also connote the incomprehensible beauty and abundance of nature in its most bereft state — the desert — and humans’ obsessive desire to capture and control it.
“Under the theme of ‘Sarab’, the artists presented in the exhibition — all of whom have spent time in the AlUla region — have developed ambitious and strikingly innovative, site-specific responses, all of which address profound issues, that emerge from the local context but also resonate with audiences the world-over.
Farsi, co-artistic director of Desert X AlUla, says: “Desert X AlUla plays a very important part in a vast wave of art and culture initiatives that is shaping the ecosystem for creativity in Saudi Arabia.”
Wakefield, co-artistic director of Desert X AlUla and artistic director of Desert X, says: “AlUla presents itself as the perfect site for an exhibition that explores the idea of the desert as a place of cultural interaction, dialogue and exchange.”
Nora Aldabal, arts and creative planning director at RCU says: “The heritage, legacy and character of AlUla must be protected and preserved; with initiatives like Desert X AlUla, we are crafting the next chapter in AlUla’s history as a cradle of artistic inspiration, transfer and expression.”
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