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Saudi Arabia’s Ancient Desert Transforms Into a Striking Art Exhibition

By Sarah Buder

Feb 7, 2020

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Desert X Al Ula’s “Mirage” installation by Dubai-based French artist eL Seed is inspired by the landscape of the ancient Saudi Arabian oasis.

Photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy of the artist, RCU, and Desert X

Desert X Al Ula’s “Mirage” installation by Dubai-based French artist eL Seed is inspired by the landscape of the ancient Saudi Arabian oasis.

The site-specific installations are on display amid sandstone cliffs on the grounds of a historic incense trade route and desert oasis in Saudi Arabia.

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A host of large-scale installations in Saudi Arabia’s northwestern Al Ula desert have been built to temporarily decorate the arid landscape, in the country’s first public exhibition of its kind. Desert X Al Ula, currently on view through March 7, 2020, is a 90-minute flight from the capital, Riyadh; it comes just months after Saudi Arabia loosened long-standing restrictions on female citizens’ travel and shortly after it began to issue tourist visas to foreign travelers.

The free, site-specific art exhibition features interactive installations by 14 artists from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, France, Denmark, Puerto Rico, and the United States. Each of the works is intended to reflect on the history of the Saudi Arabian desert, which for thousands of years served as a major incense trade route between Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. 

The hope, curators say, is to encourage a dialogue about the passage of goods and ideas along this ancient path, which formerly acted as literal grounds for cultural exchange by facilitating the trade of commodities such as incense, spices, textiles, and precious stones. According to Saudi curators Raneem Farsi and Aya Alireza, who co-organized the exhibit with Desert X artistic director Neville Wakefield, various installations will also recognize the significance of the natural resources, such as oil, that have shaped the Arabian Peninsula region throughout history and today. 

Saudi artist Manal AlDowayan’s Desert X Al Ula installation features trampolines that have been installed to resemble puddles in the sand.

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In Now You See Me, Now You Don’t by Saudi artist Manal AlDowayan, visitors can jump on real trampolines that have been installed to resemble puddles in the sand. In the evening, the trampolines become light activated and change in appearance as people interact with them. According to AlDowayan’s description of the installation, the fluctuating puddles symbolize the impending water crises caused by man-made climate change.

When the desert sun sets, “Now You See Me, Now You Don’t” becomes light activated and the trampolines fluctuate in appeareance as viewers interact with the installation.

Other works on display in the Al Ula desert include U.S. artist Lita Albuquerque’s NAJMA (She Placed One Thousand Suns On The Transparent Overlays Of Space), which depicts the cosmic tale of a female astronaut who arrives on Earth to spread light and information. The artwork, which is displayed across a large stretch of sand that extends to an abstract-looking rock formation, is described in the exhibition catalogue as “an ode to the region’s genesis as the birthplace of astronomy.”

A large-scale cosmic artwork by U.S. artist Lita Albuquerque depicts the journey of a female astronaut as an ode to the region’s ties to the origins of astronomy.

Through March 7, the Saudi Arabian desert will also be home to the reflective, cylindrical Amma Qabel installation by Saudi artist Nasser AlSalem, which features a passageway shaped by calligraphic lettering that translates loosely to mean “what precedes.” A similarly themed piece titled A Concise Passage by Saudi artist Rashed AlShashai reflects on trade from ancient eras to modern times, as well as the economic systems that transform natural landscapes into present-day borders.

The circumference of the “Amma Qabel” installation by Saudi artist Nasser AlSalem is shaped by calligraphic letter forms that read “Amma Qabel.”

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Desert X Al Ula runs in Saudi Arabia’s Al Ula desert through March 7, 2020. The site-specific art exhibition is open to the public on Monday through Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and on Thursday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tickets to the exhibition are free and can be arranged (along with transportation to the Desert X site) by visiting experiencealula.com.

“A Concise Passage” by Saudi artist Rashed AlShashai reflects on the ancient and modern economic systems that transform vast natural landscapes into present-day borders.

Desert X Al Ula is organized by the Royal Commission of Al Ula (RCU) in collaboration with Desert X, a recurring contemporary art exhibition founded in California’s Coachella Valley.

>>Next: Saudi Arabia Is Issuing Tourist Visas for the First Time Ever

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