Desert X AlUla: Art Unveiled in the Desert

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Desert art

In the scorching heat of the desert, a pool made of stainless steel glistens, reflecting the brilliant sunlight. The image it mirrors is ever-changing, shifting with the passing of time and the angle from which it is observed. This sculptured pool stands as a representation of a mirage, capturing the essence of an illusion. However, like a mirage and the ever-shifting sands of the desert, this artwork is transient. As the art exhibition comes to a close, it leaves no trace behind. This monumental installation was part of Desert X AlUla, a grand-scale temporary art exhibition held in the remarkable sandstone landscape of AlUla oasis in Saudi Arabia.

The origins of Desert X can be traced back to the Coachella Valley in California. Since 2017, this exhibition has breathed life into the desert through artistic installations that merge seamlessly with the surrounding landscape. Acclaimed international artists contribute their works, aiming to amplify the beauty of the desert while conveying profound ecological, cultural, and spiritual themes that resonate with indigenous peoples and the global community. Desert X views art as a medium for cultural exchange, which was evident in the choice of AlUla as the first location for a Desert X exhibition outside the United States.

Dana Awartani’s “Where the Dwellers Lay” is one of the breathtaking art installations featured at Desert X AlUla. It endeavors to reflect the region’s rich history, culture, and geology.
[PHOTO: Image provided by the Royal Commission for AlUla]

For countless millennia, AlUla has thrived as a vibrant hub of cultural exchange due to its unique position as an oasis in the vast Arabian desert. The life-sustaining waters of AlUla turned it into a crucial stop for ancient traders who traversed the arduous desert, carrying spices, aromatics, and other valuable goods from southern Arabia to the Mediterranean. Later, with the rise of Islam, AlUla’s oasis welcomed thousands of pilgrims from all corners of the world as they journeyed along the pilgrimage routes to the holy cities of Makkah (Mecca) and Medina. This international exposure made AlUla a melting pot of cultures, influencing the region’s long-standing artistic traditions.

Some of the earliest art in AlUla can be found carved into the very fabric of the desert landscape. Millennia ago, artists from the Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Ages ascended rocky slopes strewn with boulders to etch images onto the sandstone using rudimentary tools. These ancient artworks often drew inspiration from nature, depicting animals that the artists encountered, hunted, or even feared, such as lions, ibex, ostriches, and Arabian leopards. Spiritual motifs emerged in carvings of abstract human figures bearing ritualistic offerings, while prehistoric tombs in AlUla showcased artistic prowess with their distinct stone walls forming graceful shapes and “tails” across the landscape.

In approximately 500 B.C., AlUla possibly fostered its own sculpture school, with the people of Dadan creating exquisite art that may have denoted wealth or played a role in religious practices. Among the most remarkable works are the life-sized and larger-than-life statues discovered at the temple of Dhu Ghabat. These statues bear striking resemblance to those found in ancient Egypt and Greece, but with distinctive Arabian elements like headbands and bracelets, showcasing the local artistic influence on the broader exchange of ideas.

The monumental art of AlUla reached its pinnacle in the grand tomb facades of Hegra. Here, cultural influences from distant lands were etched into the desert itself. The skilled masons responsible for carving these colossal and intricate facades into the cliffs drew inspiration from various corners of the ancient world. A single tomb could incorporate Greco-Roman columns supporting a triangular pediment, stepped crenellations inspired by Mesopotamia, and iconic symbols like sphinxes, eagles, and griffins borrowed from Egypt and Persia. Yet, Hegra’s artists did not adopt a single style but masterfully blended these influences into a unique expression.

Even AlUla’s everyday dwellings were adorned with art. The houses of AlUla Old Town featured vibrant paintings adorning their lime-washed walls. Natural pigments, ranging from red iron oxide to synthetic blue indigo, were used to depict local flora, fauna, household objects, geometric patterns, and abstract symbols inspired by Islamic art. This artistic tradition continued through the centuries, with more recent paintings depicting modern elements like cars and buses, showcasing how artists continued to draw inspiration from the evolving world around them.

And then there is the desert itself—a majestic expanse of rolling sand dunes and rugged sandstone cliffs. The vast openness and tranquil silence of AlUla’s desert, adorned with hues of rusty red contrasting against vivid blue skies and pockets of lush green vegetation, have captivated and inspired people for millennia.

International artists converged upon this awe-inspiring landscape to establish Desert X AlUla, first in 2020 and again in 2022, in different canyon locations. The recent exhibition revolved around the theme of “Sarab,” meaning “mirage,” exploring the concept of mirage and oasis so deeply ingrained in desert culture. Among the 15 newly commissioned artworks were captivating ideas centered around dreams, camouflage, fiction, appearance and disappearance, extraction, illusion, and myth. Visitors wandering through the canyons experienced art interacting with nature on a monumental scale, encountering a series of breathtaking installations.

In one canyon, a meticulously crafted tapestry woven from yellow jugs known as Kufuor gallons, commonly repurposed containers for water storage in Ghana, cascaded down the rock face. Artist Serge Attukwei Clottey’s “Gold Falls” addressed the themes of globalization, migration, and equitable access to water. Claudia Comte’s “Dark Suns, Bright Waves” emulated the movement of desert dunes through a captivating progression of black-and-white walls adorned with algorithmic patterns inspired by geological and natural shapes. Against the timeless backdrop of sandstone, Dana Awartani’s “Where the Dwellers Lay” presented a concave geometric structure, paying homage to Nabataean tombs while mirroring the contours of AlUla’s mountains, gorges, caverns, and rock formations.

“Geography of Hope” by Abdullah AlOthman stands as one of the monumental works of art that made its debut at Desert X AlUla. This temporary exhibition by international artists, revolving around the theme of “Sarab” meaning “mirage,” aimed to create an unforgettable experience for visitors.
[PHOTO: Image by Krystle Wright]

While some of these works remain in their original locations and others have been relocated, a few, like a desert mirage, have vanished. Looking to the future, the vision is to build upon these successes and create an unprecedented permanent art experience that seamlessly integrates with the landscape. Within the larger context of Wadi AlFann, meaning the “Valley of the Arts,” artists from around the world will unite to create defining works set against the monumental backdrop of AlUla. The canvas is prepared, awaiting the artists’ touch to bring it to life. Just like AlUla’s ancient rock carvings, statues, and tomb facades, this awe-inspiring art will endure the test of time—the art of the desert.

Embark on a journey through time to uncover the rich history of AlUla here.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Desert art

What is Desert X AlUla?

Desert X AlUla is a temporary art exhibition that takes place in the AlUla oasis of Saudi Arabia. It showcases monumental installations created by international artists, blending art with the desert landscape.

What is the significance of AlUla in terms of art and culture?

AlUla has been a vibrant center of cultural exchange for millennia. It served as a crucial stop for ancient traders and welcomed pilgrims on their way to Makkah and Medina. The region’s artistic traditions are evident in its rock carvings, statues, tomb facades, and even decorated houses.

What is the concept behind Desert X AlUla?

Desert X AlUla aims to amplify the beauty of the desert while exploring profound ecological, cultural, and spiritual themes. It uses art as a medium for cultural exchange, bringing together artists from around the world to reflect on the mirage and oasis concepts inherent to desert culture.

Are the art installations of Desert X AlUla permanent?

No, the art installations of Desert X AlUla are temporary. Once the exhibition concludes, some works may remain in their original locations, while others might be relocated or removed. The transience of the installations adds to their ephemeral nature, mirroring the shifting sands of the desert.

What is the future plan for art in AlUla?

The long-term vision is to create a permanent art experience within AlUla’s landscape. The Wadi AlFann project, also known as the “Valley of the Arts,” aims to bring together artists from around the world to create monumental works that blend seamlessly with the natural surroundings, leaving a lasting artistic legacy in AlUla.

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4 comments

ArtFanatic123 July 11, 2023 - 7:38 pm

omg the art installations in desert x alula r so inspird! love how they capture the essence of the desert with their mirage theme. it’s like the art is alive in the ever-changin landscape. wish they cud keep all the artworks permanent, but i guess the transient nature adds to their magic!

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TravelBug82 July 12, 2023 - 1:54 am

alula seems like a fascinatin place with a rich history of trade n pilgrimaj. the idea of blendin art with the desert landscape is mind-blowin. i can imagine walkin thru the canyons n discoverin these monumental artworks. gotta put desert x alula on my travel bucket list!

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CreativeSpirit July 12, 2023 - 2:06 am

desert x alula is all abt cultural exchng n creatin art that reflects the beauty n spiritual themes of the desert. love how they incorporate ancient carvins n statues with modern installations. hope they make more permanent art in alula, it wud be a treasure for future genrations!

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ArtLover77 July 12, 2023 - 3:21 pm

wow desert x alula sounds like an amazin art exhibishun! i luv how they blend art n nature togethr in the desert landscape. its so cool that the installations are temprary, just like the sands in the desert. def want to visit alula someday!

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