Saudi Arabia's Desert X AlUla biennial returns for second edition next spring

In a new location in the desert complex, the exhibition will explore ideas of “mirage and oasis”

 installation view of Lita Albuquerque's NAJMA (She Placed One Thousand Suns On The Transparent Overlays Of Space) at Desert X AlUla Photo: Lance Gerber, courtesy of the artist and Desert X AlUla

installation view of Lita Albuquerque's NAJMA (She Placed One Thousand Suns On The Transparent Overlays Of Space) at Desert X AlUla Photo: Lance Gerber, courtesy of the artist and Desert X AlUla

The second edition of the contemporary art exhibition Desert X AlUla is due to take place in Saudi Arabia next year (11 February-30 March 2022). Site-specific works will again be dotted around the ancient region in the northwest of the kingdom that has been described as a “living museum”, but this time the works will be displayed in a different location.

The Desert X biennial initially launched in the Coachella Valley in California in 2017. The first AlUla edition launched in 2020; this iteration is curated by the founding Desert X director Neville Wakefield, Raneem Farsi of Saudi Arabia and Palestine-born Reem Fadda. Desert X AlUla has been organised in collaboration with the Royal Commission for AlUla, the Saudi governmental body led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“Following the success of the inaugural edition in 2020, Desert X AlUla is continuing in sustaining the artistic and natural heritage of the region by placing visionary contemporary works by Saudi and international artists amidst this extraordinary and majestic desert landscape,” says Nora Aldabal, the arts and creative planning director at the Royal Commission. 

Under the theme of Sarab, the exhibition will explore ideas of “mirage and oasis”, touching on ideas such as illusion and myth along with contrasts between the natural and man-made worlds. Participating artists are due to be announced next month.

The new site for Desert X AlUla 2022

“AlUla is a vast and ancient desert landscape with many distinctive geological wonders from three eras of geology, this makes it unique from other desert landscapes and gives our curators and artists many different inspirational options,” says Aldabal. 

But who will come? “We are not a mass tourism destination; our masterplan sets out our ambition to create a light-touch, sustainable and responsible tourism destination. It is estimated that by 2035, AlUla will receive two million visitors annually of which roughly 40% will be international visitors,” Aldabal adds.

Works from the 2020 edition by Lita Albuquerque, Manal AlDowayan, Sherin Guirguis, Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, Nadim Karam and Superflex remain in place while Saudi artists Rashed AlShashai and Muhannad Shono are currently working as artists-in-residence in AlUla.

In April, the Spanish archaeologist José Ignacio Gallego Revilla, who is the executive director of archaeology, heritage research and conservation for AlUla, said that the masterplan for the vast region will focus on “15 new cultural assets, including galleries, museums and education centres” stretched over a 20km corridor, involving partnerships with scientific institutes and museums around the world. Meanwhile, Unesco recently struck a partnership deal with the Royal Commission to develop AlUla’s rich heritage. 

AlUla is a vast desert area located in Madinah province, in the north-west of Saudi Arabia

The AlUla project and numerous other arts events such as the Diriyah Biennale (11 December-11 March 2022) are part of a drive to promote the cultural credentials of Saudi Arabia, helping to diversify the economy and deliver a more “open” image of the country—largely associated with the suppression of women’s rights—in line with the government’s Vision 2030 plan. 

“The aims of the work of the Royal Commission for AlUla are aligned to the holistic blueprint of Vision 2030; however, AlUla’s cultural ambitions are bespoke, combining resolutely modern ideas and unique projects that stir the imagination and speak to all humankind. We believe art can be transformative for societies everywhere, with tremendous power for opening new perspectives and dialogues,” Aldabal says.

A Middle Eastern curator who preferred to remain anonymous says: “The Vision 2030 plan is a very serious cultural strategy which will create jobs and many public benefits. The culture sector is a very healthy addition to the economy. But the lines are becoming increasingly blurred—between art, entertainment, propaganda and luxury—and the social value of art, as a safe space for meaningful dialogue and social critique, is getting buried in the sand.” 

Meanwhile, a Saudi man suspected of involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been arrested in France according to the BBC. Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the Saudi government, was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.