44 prominent artists, writers, and journalists have signed a letter urging President Joe Biden to address Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, especially alleged abuses concerning freedom of expression, during his visit to the country later this month.
Among the signatories are visual artist Kiki Smith, photographer Alec Soth, and writer Lydia Davis.
“Saudi Arabia jails writers who criticize the Kingdom, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and their policies that harm human rights and free speech. The government detains them for long periods of time, sometimes indefinitely, subjecting them to lengthy periods of solitary confinement and even torture. In some instances, they are never charged with an offense,” the letter states.
It was released by PEN America, a nonprofit organization which tracks the state of freedom of expression worldwide. In April, PEN America published its 2021 Freedom to Write Index, which identified Saudi Arabia as one of the world’s worst jailer of writers, second only to China.
The letter outlines alleged abuses committed against Saudi writers by the government, including years-long detainments without a charge or trial, floggings, and extended periods of solitary confinement. Additionally, the government is accused of releasing writers under strict conditions that continue to infringe on their freedom of expression, such as prohibition of using social media, travel bans, and suspended prison sentences.
The signatories called on President Biden to advocate for the release of Fadhel Al-Manasef, a blogger, writer, and human rights activist, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2011, and Maha Al-Rafidi Al-Qahtani, a journalist who has been held without charge since 2019.
“We ask you not to be fooled by Saudi efforts to disguise the stifling of free speech, including through the release of a number of writers, bloggers, and activists in 2021,” the letter continues. “We encourage you to fulfill your commitment to placing human rights at the center of your foreign policy and to use this opportunity to make it clear to the Kingdom that the US will stand up for free expression and human rights.”
Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has been under sharp international scrutiny as it proceeds with an enormous cultural development plan. Dubbed Vision 2030, the plan is responsible for a slew of new arts programming, including the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale, the first event of its kind in Saudi Arabia. The inaugural exhibition was held last year in a suburb of the capital Riyadh, and was curated by Philip Tinari, director and curator of Beijing’s UCCA Center for Contemporary Art. A companion biennial, the Diriyah Islamic Arts Biennale, will open this year.
Critics of the cultural initiative say that art is being used to rebrand Saudi Arabia as an “open” society and assuage controversies like the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi within the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul by Saudi agents in 2018.
In 2019, three board members of Desert X, the open-air art biennial in California, resigned in protest of its planned expansion to Saudi Arabia. The resigned members, including American artist Ed Ruscha, cited the murder of Khashoggi and the ongoing Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen which has caused a humanitarian disaster.
The first edition of Desert X AlUla opened in 2020 in the ancient city of AlUla, in the northwest desert of Saudi Arabia, with installations by Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabet, French artist eL Seed, and Superflex, the Danish artist collective, among others.
AlUla, once a thinly populated region home to several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, is being remade into an arts hub that the Saudi government projects will attract approximately two million visitors annually.
This week, Iwona Blazwick, the former director of London’s Whitechapel Gallery, was named chair of the Royal Commission for AlUla’s Public Art Expert Panel. In her new role, Blazwick will oversee the installation of site-specific artworks in the nascent Wadi Al Fann—or “Valley of the Arts” —a 25-square-mile expanse of deep red rock formations and sand dunes. Some of the artists tapped to create monumental installations for the valley are Manal Al Dowayan, Ahmed Mater, and James Turrell.
Responding to criticism for her partnership with the Saudi Arabian government, Blazwick said, “I’d rather be involved where I can help contribute to freedom of expression, to art being nurtured, because I believe art changes society.”