How Saudi Art Is Emerging From The Shadows

15 March 2020
Saudi Arabia, Saudi Art, Saudi, Culture, Arab culture, Arab, Art Dubai, Desert x AlUla, AlUla, Desert
With a significant presence at the 14th edition of Art Dubai, and the ongoing Desert X AlUla project making international headlines, is the Kingdom’s art scene finally emerging from the shadows?

In North-West Saudi Arabia, 1100km from the capital, Riyadh, and 300km from the holy city of Medina, sits AlUla, a vast, jaw-dropping desert region of profound historical significance.

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Incorporating the Kingdom’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Al-Hijr (Madâin Sâlih), the largest conserved site of the ancient Nabataean civilisation south of Petra, Jordan – AlUla is set to regain its status as a cultural powerhouse. This is not by accident.

Part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s mission to diversify his nation’s economy, in 2017 the Crown Prince issued a royal decree establishing the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCA), an organisation tasked with transforming it into a cultural hub that would attract two million tourists by 2035.

The biggest step so far towards this goal was taken in January, with the launch of Desert X AlUla, a “site-responsive” exhibition produced in partnership with the RCA and Desert X, the people behind the art biennial of the same name in Southern California’s Coachella Valley.

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Neville Wakefield, Artistic Director of Desert X and co-curator of Desert X AlUla sees the exhibition as proof-positive of Saudi’s commitment to presenting artists from the wider Gulf region to a global audience. But more than that, for Wakefield, this is just the beginning of the country’s engagement with the international art world. “For me, one of the great revelations of Desert X AlUla has been to discover an art scene in Saudi that’s as vibrant and engaged as anywhere [else],” he says.

So, working alongside Saudi curators Aya Alireza and Raneem Farsi, Wakefield helped pick the 14 artists to participate in Desert X AlUla and produce the exhibition. It was a selection that included Saudi nationals Manal Al Dowayan, Zahrah Al Ghamdi, Nasser Al Salem, Rashed Al Shashai and Muhannad Shono.

“It’s been a privilege and an education to work with Raneem and Aya,” says Wakefield. “The experience has been immeasurably enriching. Not only is there enormous commitment, passion and knowledge within the rapidly emerging art scene, but there’s also a deep thirst for dialogue with the world at large.”

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Alia Fattouh, Director of Athr Gallery in Jeddah, is also positive about the impact of Desert X AlUla. “It’s important because it puts Saudi on the international art map,” she says. “Or at least [the] radar! Controversy or not – three Desert X board members, including the acclaimed artist Ed Ruscha, resigned in protest at the partnership – the art that’s on view right now is what people should be discussing, not the politics of the country.”

For Fattouh, Desert X AlUla is an invitation to the world to come and visit Saudi Arabia. “Art and culture are agents of change and powerful means of crossing boundaries,” she says.

In 2020, that merging of boundaries is important, particularly for a nation attempting something of an image change. But the fact is that, as Fattouh explains, there has been an art scene in Saudi Arabia since the 1960s, only really coming to life in the 21st century. This renaissance began in 2003, when British artist and entrepreneur Stephen Stapleton and a group of Saudi artists, including Ahmed Mater and Abdulnasser Gharem, founded Edge of Arabia, an organisation with a mission “to encourage grassroots cultural dialogue between Saudi Arabia and the Western world”. Then it gathered pace with the opening of Athr Gallery in 2009 – the gallery’s participation in major international art fairs putting Saudi art in the global spotlight – and the formation of The Saudi Arts Council and the establishment of its annual art week 21, 39 in 2013.

In the last couple of years it has received a further boost. “The art scene is thriving and [we are currently] experiencing a radical transformation through a top-down push to build a lasting and wholesome scene that continues to nurture the roots,” says Fattouh, referring to the efforts of the Ministry of Culture to promote the arts in Saudi Arabia. “Jeddah’s art scene is full of independent and underground initiatives, and with the extra push by the Ministry, these will have a significant impact. If sustainable, the future holds a major place for art and culture in Saudi, hopefully with a significant presence on an international level.”

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This month, Athr Gallery and fellow Jeddah-based gallery Hafez Gallery will take part in Art Dubai, the foremost art fair in the Middle East. “Saudi Arabia has always been an important neighbour for Art Dubai and we continue to work towards developing and bolstering a relationship with the Kingdom,” says Pablo del Val, Artistic Director of Art Dubai.Artists to look out for include Sarah Abu-Abdallah (Athr Gallery), whose exhibition For the First Time in a Long Time will run at Jameel Art Centre in Dubai until April 20, and celebrated Saudi painter Saud Al-Qahtany (Hafez Gallery). There’s also the Saudi presence in Gulf Now, a section of the fair dedicated to non-governmental arts initiatives across the Gulf. Meanwhile, Fahad bin Naif, the winner of this year’s Ithra Art Prize – launched in 2017 to promote emerging Saudi artists – will unveil his new work, Rakhm (Incubation), at Art Dubai, too.

“It an honour and a privilege even to be shortlisted, let alone win this prestigious prize,” says bin Naif.  “In just three years it has accumulated a certain weight and position in the regional and global arts and culture scene. I am an architect by education and profession, and [I am] interested in tackling socio-spatial and socio-economic issues through the lens of contemporary art. Winning the Ithra Art Prize ensures that these issues are highlighted, discussed and recognised on an institutional level, which is important.”

For del Val, the substantial Saudi representation at Art Dubai is recognition of its burgeoning status in the international art world, and with events such as 21, 39, Desert X AlUla and the opening of Art Jameel’s Hayy: Creative Hub in Jeddah scheduled for later this year, he says this growth shows no signs of slowing down.

“Saudi Arabia is a very important player in the regional and global art scene today, with some of the most sophisticated art collections found here,” he says. “Contemporary practices have existed in Saudi Arabia for a long time and opening to the West in recent years has truly supercharged the widening of opportunities.”

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So, as the sun sets on art in the AlUla desert, only to rise in Dubai, you feel that shifting sands are fully in motion. Slowly but surely forming a new narraitive.

Start Your Saudi Art Collection

Six to follow from director of Athr Gallery, Alia Fattouh

  • Dana Awartani
  • Muhannad Shono
  • Nasser Al Salem
  • Sarah Abu Abdallah
  • Ahmed Mater
  • Ayman Yossri Daydban

Art Dubai, March 25-28, artdubai.ae  Desert X AlUla runs until March 7, desertx.org/alula