Saudi Arabia’s campaign to assert itself as an arts destination continues with the launch of the first artist residency in the ancient city of AlUla. Six artists are participating in the 11-week pilot residency, a project of the Royal Commission for AlUla that started in November and continues into January.
The six inaugural residents are Saudi conceptual artist and educator, Rashed AlShashai; Sara Favriau, a Paris-based multidisciplinary artist working in sculpture, installation, and performance; Talin Hazbar a Syria-born, Sharjah-based architect and a visual artist whose work processes the intersections of nature, history, and ecology; the French multimedia artist Laura Selliesis; Dubai-based Sofiane Si Merabet, whose work interrogates memories, identities, and migration; and Muhannad Shono, a Riyadh-based multidisciplinary artist. The first edition of the residency will be based in Mabiti AlUla, and later established in the arts and design center Madrasat AdDeera. Throughout the residency, the artists will work around the theme “rebirth of the oasis.”
Jean-François Charnier, AlUla’s scientific director, and Arnaud Morand, head of creation and innovation, called the residency program “an unprecedented experiment to associate at this level artistic vision and scientific approaches in the writing of the narratives and the reimagination of a destination. This will undoubtedly contribute to further mark the originality of AlUla as a cultural destination of a new kind.”
The residency is a small piece of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s expansive plan to boost Saudi Arabia’s cultural credentials and promote a more “open” image of the country. AlUla, once inaccessible to tourists and avoided by locals out of deference to superstition, has been reincarnated as “the world’s largest living museum.”
It is home the kingdom’s star heritage attractions, such as the UNESCO World Heritage Site comprising Hegra, Dadan, AlUla Old Town, and Jabal ‘Ikmah. (The government hopes it can draw more than a million tourists by 2035.) The contemporary art exhibition Desert X AlUla, a partnership between the California-based art biennial Desert X and the Saudi government, held its inaugural exhibition in 2020. Site-specific works by an international roster of artists were installed throughout the valley and sandstone mountains.
But the initiative was met with criticism and inspired the resignation of three members of Desert X’s board of directors, including the artist Ed Ruscha and art historian Yael Lipschutz who said the exhibition was “about striking a deal with a national government … that is completely undemocratic.” Despite the condemnation, organizers maintained that the partnership was about bridging gaps between cultures.