In 2017, a group of people landed at an airport in AlUla, in northwestern Saudi Arabia.
The trip was organized by the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. They were there for a brief tour of one of the world’s great archaeological sites, but also to meet the newly created Royal Commission for AlUla, a body with big plans for the region.
Among the group was Basma AlSulaiman. The London-based collector had been named by Art + Auction magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the art world. She was also Saudi: born and raised in Jeddah, 700 km south of the airport. And yet, it was the first time she had seen AlUla.
Nothing strange there: educated and well-traveled Saudis often know other countries better than their vast territory.
“We always knew of its existence, but AlUla was not a destination,” she says. “But discovering Saudi Arabia was not on the agenda. I would have traveled a lot more in England.
Now she realized what she, her fellow Saudis and travelers around the world had been missing. Everyone she introduced to AlUla on her subsequent visits was, she says, “stunned” by what they saw.
“You enter a living museum,” she says. “A park of natural sculptures.”
“I’ve been back maybe 10 times and you never lose that wow factor. It’s really unbelievable. It’s like nature in its splendor. It’s the work of thousands and thousands of years of wind and erosion, creating these beautiful natural shapes.
AlSulaiman told us about Jeddah. She was about to return to AlUla – this time not as a tourist. Since that first visit, a remarkable mirror building named Maraya has come into being. This year, Maraya hosted What Lies Within, an exhibition of contemporary Saudi art from the world’s largest collection of such works, curated by Riyadh-born artist Lulwah AlHomoud. This collection belongs to AlSulaiman.
Saudi art is having a moment, with auction houses holding international sales and collectors adding Jeddah and Riyadh to their itineraries. Architectural Digest was caught up in the excitement, calling What Lies Within, “simply unmissable.”
“It’s my moment,” AlSulaiman ironically acknowledges. “I’m center stage.”
Ironically, because she spent 20 years defending a cause that only seemed to interest her by spending money on jobs “that no one else wanted”. She may not have experienced the ancient wonders of AlUla, but it didn’t take the intervention of a foreign museum to open her eyes to the richness and diversity of modern and contemporary Saudi art. .
It’s an easy step to link the excitement of the Saudi art scene to the wider changes that have swept the country in recent years, culminating in the easing of Saudi Arabia’s international visa restrictions to the fall 2019 – perhaps the most decisive opening. up moment.
Easy, but wrong.
The more you think about it, the more you see that Saudi artists have carved out their own niche – not over years, but over decades. AlSulaiman is also not alone among Saudi collectors who acquire works from their own country as well as Western artists.
Hence the objective of What Lies Within: “to present Saudi art on its own terms”.
“A lot of Saudi art is very authentic,” says AlHomoud. “Open to, but not so influenced by, various schools of art. A lot of art in the region is inspired by the environment, the values, the diversity of the Kingdom.
The discovery of oil in the late 1930s propelled Saudi Arabia into the modern world. Saudis traveled, for work, leisure and education. Arts education appears on the program. Saudi artists went to art schools abroad, learned about portraiture and realism, but also turned to a distinctive Saudi tradition and the environment around them.
While some of the early Saudi modernists were perhaps, in AlSulaiman’s words, “eager to be accepted by the West” and “to do things that were nice and acceptable to another culture”, it was not a one-way street. AlHomoud notes how artists such as Paul Klee and Kandinsky turned to Islamic models, while schools such as the Abstract Expressionists rejected realism.
AlSulaiman, who describes herself as a “nurturer” rather than just a collector of contemporary Saudi art, challenged herself. Could she discover a generation of artists with a true Saudi identity whose work would be “in keeping with modern practices, but also in keeping with our customs, our heritage, our religion and our spirituality”?
Al Homoud is one. She began to find her signature technique, in which she uses the abstract language of coding and mathematics to create abstract works that unite the ancient and the modern. The work can be abstract but also seems tangible and poetic. Now his work has been acquired by the British Museum as part of its permanent Islamic collection.
AlHomoud’s hometown of Riyadh is home to a thriving gallery scene. Cosmopolitan Jeddah has always had the reputation of being the home of the creative industries, but it is AlUla that offers the most fertile setting both for the work of Saudi artists and for international creators in search of inspiration.
The word “desert” fails to capture the diversity and drama of a landscape that ranges from scrub to oases, from volcanic plateaus to ancient limestone towers – from Afghanistan to Arizona, from Mars to the Moon.
In addition to What Lies Within, the second Desert X AlUla also concluded in late March, where the “site-specific” installations were a microcosm of the AlUla and wider art scene in the Kingdom today. In addition to inviting international artists, the open-air museum served as a showcase for Saudi-born artists Shadia Alem, Dana Awartani, Sultan Bin Fahad, Abdullah AlOthman and Ayman Zedani, whose works adorned a network of deep canyons and meandering through sandstone stacks and mountains.
Desert X AlUla has brought the power brokers of the international art world – along with over 9,000 visitors to this once remote outpost. The vision – a “travel through time” – is to connect the ancient past, present and future in this historical cultural crossroads.
In the middle of the long, deep and flat canyon that defines AlUla, lies an old settlement, abandoned in the 1980s and now restored, refurbished and reinvigorated by the Royal Commission. It’s a neighborhood in AlUla’s old town, AlJadidah, that offers a different, perhaps more unexpected, portal to Saudi arts and culture, 2022-style.
Inside the disheveled dwellings of four and five floors, there are galleries. In the empty space between the houses there are documentary photographs. At the center is the Athr Art Gallery, housed in the town’s new Design Gallery – a modern rectangular building with a traditional lattice screen made modern by echoing the shapes of the cinder blocks used in local construction.
It’s the kind of remarkable architecture you can imagine dominating a city block or proudly sitting on its own man-made island. But the building, designed by AlUla’s in-house team, does not dominate its surroundings. At 500 square metres, it is spacious enough to display a range of ambitious contemporary artworks: but it is designed on a human scale, not dominating the surrounding streets and squares, where visitors flock to eat, sip coffee and browse the shops.
Pioneers like AlHomoud and AlSulaiman, artists and curators, embarked on their own journey through time, immersing themselves in the culture and tradition of their land and uniting it with contemporary themes. DesertX and Maraya brought the wow factor to AlUla. But it may also be that the streets and alleys of AlJadidah, the permanent galleries, anchored year after year in the community, have a discreetly different and lasting influence.
For more information or to book a trip, visit experiencealula.com