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Desert X AlUla Artists Announced - Exhibition Opens 9 Feb - 23 March

Open to all, Desert X AlUla is a recurring and temporary, site-responsive, international open-air art exhibition taking place in AlUla, a globally significant ancient desert region in the Arabian Peninsula. This year’s exhibition, under the curatorial vision of Maya El Khalil and Marcello Dantas, with artistic direction from Raneem Farsi and Neville Wakefield, features 15 newly commissioned artworks.

Following two exhibitions since 2020, Desert X AlUla returns for its third edition from 9 February – 23 March 2024, placing visionary contemporary artworks by Saudi and international artists amidst the extraordinary desert landscape of AlUla, a majestic region in north-west Saudi Arabia. Positioning AlUla as a global destination for experiencing site responsive monumental art, Desert X AlUla invites artists to engage in a dialogue with the landscape, nature and heritage of AlUla to create distinctive works that emerge from the local context and resonate with audiences around the world.

Desert X AlUla takes place as a highlight of the AlUla Arts Festival, part of the annual AlUla Moments calendar of events. AlUla Arts Festival runs from 9 February – 2 March 2024. Under the theme In the Presence of Absence, Desert X AlUla 2024 asks ‘what cannot be seen?’. Often dismissed as spaces of emptiness, deserts are rendered mute, static, but there is much more than meets the eye. Artists taking part in Desert X AlUla 2024 are invited to explore ideas of the unseen and the inexpressible.

Kimsooja, To Breathe - AlUla, Desert X AlUla 2024, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy The Royal Commission for AlUla.

The full list of exhibiting artists are:

  • Aseel AlYaqoub, b. 1986, Kuwaiti
  • Ayman Yossri Daydban, b. 1966, Saudi-Palestinian
  • Bosco Sodi, b. 1970, Mexican
  • Caline Aoun, b. 1983, Lebanese
  • Faisal Samra, b. 1955, Saudi Arabian
  • Filwa Nazer, b. 1972, Saudi Arabian
  • Giuseppe Penone, b. 1947, Italian
  • Ibrahim Mahama, b. 1987, Ghanaian
  • Kader Attia, b. 1970, Algerian-French
  • Karola Braga, b. 1988, Brazilian
  • Kimsooja, b. 1957, South Korean
  • Monira Al Qadiri, b. 1983, Kuwaiti
  • Nojoud Alsudairi, b. 1994, Saudi Arabian
  • Pascal Hachem, b. 1979, Lebanese
  • Rana Haddad, b. 1970, Lebanese
  • Rand Abdul Jabbar, b. 1990, Iraqi
  • Sara Alissa, b. 1990, Saudi Arabian

The upcoming edition of Desert X AlUla will be situated across three locations for the first time, inviting visitors to experience spectacular and varied landscapes as they weave their journey between works. Desert X AlUla works can be seen in the desert landscape of Wadi AlFann, amongst the black lava stone terrain and breathtaking views of Harrat Uwayrid and at the AlManshiyah Plaza, which features the carefully preserved AlUla Railway Station, revealing the many layers of history and cultural confluence you find in AlUla.

All artists visit AlUla and spend time in its landscape; their proposals are then developed from this experience.

Sara Alissa and Nojoud Alsudairi, Invisible Possibilities: When the Earth Began to Look at Itself, Desert X AlUla 2024, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy The Royal Commission for AlUla

Sara Alissa and Nojoud Alsudairi turn the landscape into a self-reflective arrangement in Invisible Possibilities: When the Earth Began to Look at Itself. Through different viewpoints and approaches, the work aims to reshape viewers’ understanding of the site’s ecological transition and its physical geographies. As we enter the cylindrical form of Kimsooja’s work, between iridescent walls, visitors are drawn in and out to the center of a spiral. The chromatic walls of To Breathe – AlUla distils light that has travelled aeons into prisms that dance across the visitor and the landscape.

Ayman Yossri Daydban draws the contours of a football pitch with white stones and rocks gathered by the AlUla community from across the valley. Placed in a remote, rocky area, the football field is a mysterious and suspicious presence, provoking collective memory and considering the social role of football. For When I saw my reflection, Bosco Sodi gathered volcanic rocks from across the landscape. Wrapped in gold, they have been placed in rock faces that tower above the desert to draw the viewer’s eyes to the beautiful organic formations and accidents that already exist in the rock formations.

In Caline Aoun’s The Desert Has No Surface, stones from the basalt plateau of Harrat al Sham are polished on one side. The sun is an essential element in Aoun’s work which is activated through the refraction of sunlight producing moments of shimmering that reflect the impermanence of the desert landscape and the natural forces that created it. Rana Haddad and Pascal Hachem’s installation focuses on honouring the traditional crafts of the region, creating a refuge made from rammed earth jars. Dubbed Reveries, each jar in the tower bears geometric cuts, allowing nature and light to shift and cast ever-evolving patterns within.

Also composed of vessels, Ibrahim Mahama’s terracotta pots are scattered across the landscape, suggesting new ecosystems emerging from the relics of history. Mahama’s works can be viewed across Desert X AlUla’s three sites including Dung Bara – The Rider Does No in Wadi AlFann, Hanging Garden at AlManshiyah Plaza and Gabli Din Pali – A Full Gourd Does Not Rattle; It Is Only a Partially Filled Gourd Which Rattles on Harrat Uwayrid. Drawing on AlUla’s legacy on the Incense Route, Karola Braga uses scent to recreate the sensory world of ancient trade. Her structure, Sfumato, engulfs participants in hazy frankincense and myrrh, inviting visitors to reconnect with the olfactory heritage of the route in a unique and immersive encounter.

Aseel AlYaqoub’s Weird Life: An ode to desert varnish is inspired by the ‘desert varnish’ that naturally appears in landscapes like AlUla’s, evolving into a luminous veneer with yellow, orange, red and black, and bemusing scientists for centuries.

Caline Aoun, The Desert Has No Surface, Desert X AlUla 2024, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy The Royal Commission for AlUla

Inspired by pre-Islamic beliefs of jinn inhabiting the desert, Filwa Nazer’s elevated walkway of Preserving Shadows is structured using steel mesh to form a massive, undulating black snake. Elaborated into massive, outsized forms, Monira Al Qadiri’s W.A.B.A.R. echoes mysterious objects that perplexed inhabitants of the desert in the 1930s. The work summons a cosmic folk narrative where upon discovering the pearls, a community in the Empty Quarter believed they had an extraterrestrial origin.

Rand Abdul Jabbar’s Where myths are born of mud and desire, is situated in an alcove in the mountain valley, its five sculptural forms telling the story of Venus. While encountering each piece through the story, the visitor becomes immersed in ancient perspectives and shifting relations to the celestial. In The Dot, Faisal Samra shows how the Wadi AlFann valley originated from an ancient crack, revealing the small forces that shape grandeur over epochs. The illusion of time is symbolized by a line composed of rock fragments.

Giuseppe Penone’s The Logic of the Vegetal – Metamorphosis explores the cyclical nature of all life. Fossilized tree trunks hover between living organism and mineral state, encouraging visitors to reflect on the transformations that occur over time. Necks of glass bottles emerge from Kader Attia’s sculptures in Whistleblower, which whistle when open to the wind. The haunting sound that results encourages viewers to reflect on the concern we should all have for Earth.

An extensive programme of events for visitors and local communities will take place during Desert X AlUla. This will include curator and artist talks, primary school visits and art workshops on themes from collage and model making to print making and photography. Music events taking place during Desert X AlUla include traditional Saudi dance, ambient compositions, and live radio broadcasts.

For the first time, Desert X AlUla has offered a special commission which is realised by Tino Sehgal. Sehgal’s work (un titled), emphasizes the interaction between the natural elements of the desert and the human intervention through movement and sound, creating a connection between the visitor, the environment, and the intangible aspects of experience and imagination.

Rana Haddad and Pascal Hachem, Reveries, Desert X AlUla 2024, photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy The Royal Commission for AlUla

Desert X AlUla is a collaboration between Desert X and the destination of AlUla 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 a profound opportunity to experience art on a monumental scale in dialogue with nature.

Desert X AlUla has played a pivotal role in paving the way for the development of another initiative due to open in AlUla in 2026, Wadi AlFann, a 65 square kilometre site set to become a global destination for monumental site-specific, permanent land art. The epic, monumental scale of Wadi AlFann’s cross-generational commissions will open a new chapter in art history, expanding and continuing for years to come. Both Desert X AlUla and Wadi AlFann are examples of RCU’s vision for art in the landscape, providing unparalleled opportunities to experience contemporary art in dialogue with nature.

As well as being a historic cultural site, AlUla is at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning arts scene. Arts AlUla is dedicated to creating a culturally enriched place to live and visit, to revive the rich legacy of arts in the region and to create opportunities for the community to experience art as a source of education and enrichment through job creation and skills development.

Desert X AlUla takes place as a highlight of the AlUla Arts Festival, which runs from 9 February – 2 March 2024. During the festival, More than Meets the Eye, an exhibition of contemporary works by Saudi artists will be presented by the contemporary art museum, AlUla. There will also be two exhibitions of work by Wadi AlFann commissioned artist Manal AlDowayan in Aljadidah Arts District. The festival will immerse visitors in a vibrant celebration of contemporary visual and public art, design, art tours, and artist residencies. At AlUla’s mixed-use creative hub, Madrasat Addeera, there will be hands-on workshops on crafts such as palm weaving, pottery, jewelry, geometry, 3D structures, textiles, and many more.

Desert X AlUla aims to contribute to and continue the artistic heritage of the local community and region: Works from Desert X AlUla 2020 by Sherin Guirguis, Lita Albuquerque, Manal AlDowayan, Superflex, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim and Nadim Karam have been acquired by RCU, some of which are on view at Habitas, AlUla. Works from Desert X AlUla 2022 by Dana Awartani, Alicja Kwade, Monika Sosnowska, Sultan Bin Fahad, Khalil Rabah, Shezad Dawood and Serge Attukwei Clottey have been acquired by RCU, some of which are on display. Jim Denevan’s work for Desert X AlUla 2022 also remains in its original location, where it will dissipate naturally. Desert X AlUla has been building local and international audiences over the years, with a 53% increase in average visitors per day from 2020 to 2022 editions.

Maya El Khalil, Curator, Desert X AlUla 2024, says:
The region of AlUla is monumental. Formed of inconceivable spans of time and space, the urge is to meet it with imitations of similar size and impact. But the reality is, human efforts struggle to match the grandeur sculpted here. We challenged the artists participating in Desert X AlUla 2024 to adjust their perspective to encounter the unseen aspects of the place with reverence, attuning to the forces, rhythms and processes that shape the landscape in imperceptible ways. In response to this, the artists have developed innovative and dynamic works that address profound topics such as trade, migration and time that are relevant to the region and connect with the wider world.

Marcello Dantas, Curator, Desert X AlUla 2024, says:
The desert, often perceived as a place of emptiness, gradually unveils its intricate layers of existence as one immerses in it. Desert X AlUla invites artists to create original works with a unique canvas on an unprecedented scale. As visitors explore Desert X AlUla, they’ll discover that in times of uncertainty, when the tangible is elusive, nothing is more real than the presence of the invisible. We invite visitors to encounter the limitless boundaries of imagination and discover the profound forces that silently shape our world.

Raneem Farsi and Neville Wakefield, Artistic Directors, Desert X AlUla 2024, say:
Taking place across three sites for the first time, this edition of Desert X AlUla will fully immerse visitors in the heritage, nature and landscape of AlUla. A crossroads of trade and culture for centuries, projects like Desert X AlUla continue AlUla’s legacy as a place of cultural exchange and dialogue. The last two editions of Desert X AlUla in 2020 and 2022 proved how AlUla’s landscape and community can inspire artists to create works that resonate with audiences around the world.

Nora Aldabal, Executive Director of Arts AlUla, says:
In AlUla, we are working towards building the next chapter of art history. Through arts initiatives such as Desert X AlUla, artists are invited to collaborate not only with other artists, but with the spectacular landscape and heritage of AlUla itself. This edition of Desert X AlUla with its striking artworks and educational and cultural programming underlines the value of arts and creativity as essential and transformative layers for enriching society, economy and quality of life.

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