The Inaugural Desert X AlUla, the Controversial Saudi Art Event, Has Announced a High-Profile Lineup of Participating Artists

Expect work from Danish political art collective Superflex and Egyptian artist Wael Shawky, among others.

Qasr al-Farid at UNESCO World Heritage Site Hegra. image courtesy RCU and Desert X.

Desert X has announced the participating artists for its controversial new exhibition opening in the AlUla region of northwestern Saudi Arabia. 

Curated by Raneem Farsi, Aya Alireza, and Desert X artistic director Neville Wakefield, the exhibition brands itself as the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia. Danish collective Superflex, Egyptian artist Wael Shawky, and five creators from Saudi Arabia are among those who have been tapped to create the 14 site-specific works from January 31 to March 7. (See the full list of participating artists here.)

The works are set to be installed outdoor throughout an ancient desert oasis outside of AlUla. The artists have been tasked with responding to the region’s history of migration and trade as a passageway along the incense route in the Arabian Peninsula. 

The show, a spiritual sister to the Desert X biennial in the Coachella Valley of California, was “conceived to foster artistic exchange and dialogue across continents,” says Farsi in a statement, noting a special desire to give voice to Saudi Arabia’s own artistic community. “Many of the works on view are informed by the multiple layers of history shaping the region and through exhibitions like this, we are working towards a more inclusive future through art.”

Artist Neville Wakefield attends the MTV RE:DEFINE 2017. Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images.

Desert X artistic director Neville Wakefield. Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images.

The initiative was met with a firestorm of criticism when it was first announced last October. At the heart of the matter was the fact that Desert X had partnered with the Royal Commission of AlUla (RCU), a Saudi governmental body chaired by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Almost a year to the day prior to the Desert X AlUla announcement, Salman allegedly ordered the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

On the Desert X website, it states that “RCU’s vision for AlUla pledges to reinvigorate, protect and preserve AlUla as a vibrant, open museum and a unique global destination for heritage, nature and the arts, the first phase of which is delivering an annual temporary exhibitions program in the landscape, building partnerships with institutions, artists and curators, and developing local arts skills and infrastructure including training artisans in heritage arts and design principles to build livelihoods in AlUla.”

Critics, however, have seen the project as shameless promotion for the agenda of the Saudi Arabian leadership, at a time when the country is trying to boost its cultural cachet and present a more welcoming image of itself on the international stage. Three of Desert X’s 14 board members, artist Ed Ruscha, curator Yael Lipschutz, and philanthropist Tristan Milanovich, resigned in protest of the partnership with Saudi Arabia last year. 

“This isn’t about dialogue among artists,” Lipschutz told the Los Angeles Times, “it’s about striking a deal with a national government that has committed a horrific genocide in Yemen, that is completely undemocratic and that has an appalling record of discrimination against the LGBTQ community.”

According to Wakefield, there was no shortage of enthusiasm for the exhibition on the part of artists.

“By their very nature, site-specific shows come with challenges and unknowns that artists chose to accept or not,” the curator told Artnet when asked if any artists declined an invitation to participate. “While it’s not my place to comment on why artists accept or decline these challenges, what has been remarkable is how many wanted to be a part of it even as existing commitments and production issues associated with working at such long-distance sometimes got in the way.”

Desert X AlUla will take place from January 31 to March 7 in AlUla, Saudi Arabia.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
Article topics