The inaugural edition of Desert X AlUla in Saudi Arabia, an outdoor sculpture exhibition co-curated by Raneem Farsi and Aya Alireza with Desert X’s artistic director Neville Wakefield, has named the artists who will show site-specific works in the country’s northwest AlUla region. The artists who will participate in the exhibition, which is set to open January 31 and will position works amid ancient rock formations in the Saudi Arabian desert, are Lita Albuquerque; Manal AlDowayan; Zahrah AlGhamdi; Nasser AlSalem; Rashed AlShashai; Gisela Colon; Sherin Guirguis; Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim; Nadim Karam; eL Seed; Wael Shawky; Muhannad Shono; the collective Superflex; and Rayyane Tabet.
Desert X, which first staged an exhibition of large-scale artworks in California’s Coachella Valley in 2017, has come under fire for accepting funds from the Saudi government’s Royal Commission for AlUla for the show. The Los Angeles Times reported that the MaddocksBrown Foundation, one of Desert X’s donors, withdrew funding from the exhibition in October 2019, citing widely reported human rights violations and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The artist Ed Ruscha told the Los Angeles Times that Desert X’s partnership with Saudi Arabia “is a way to move the spotlight away from [the country’s] other problems,” referring to Khashoggi’s death.
In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, art critic Christopher Knight wrote that Desert X’s Saudi Arabia edition “mark[s] the beginning of the end for a once-promising art event” in part because of limitations imposed on artistic expression in Saudi Arabia. “Unless artists are willing to make their host’s state control of expression an explicit subject of their work, those who participate cannot escape compromise from the polluted context,” Knight writes.
Desert X founder and board President Susan Davis told the Los Angeles Times that the organization’s collaboration with Saudi Arabia “is rooted in our belief that it is better to engage than to isolate, and that we have an opportunity to connect with the people of Saudi Arabia through the arts and, in turn, connect them with the rest of the world.”
Desert X AlUla is slated to run through March 7.