As the largest country in the Middle East with a population of 35 million, Saudi Arabia has accelerated its investment in contemporary art throughout Riyad’s JAX district to the AlUla oasis. Currently underway, the Diriyah Biennale of Contemporary Art and the AlUla Arts Festival bear witness to this momentum. Although eco-design practices remain less developed in comparison to other countries, a wave of local and international artists are exhibiting their ecological awareness of the environmental crisis through their works and performances.

Jax District, A New Artist Hub

Entirely dedicated to the contemporary art sector, Riyad’s new Jax District continues to be enriched with the addition of new galleries, artists’ studios, artistic residences, and its newest museum. A variety of renowned artists have begun setting up studios, including Ahmed Mater, currently occupying a studio-café-library open to the public, and Muhannad Shono, who recently debuted a solo exhibition at the ATHR gallery in the same district. Opened last November, the new Saudi Museum of Contemporary Art (SAMoCA), currently offers the exhibition In the Night, curated by Géraldine Bloch, featuring Andrey Zouari’s and Bertrand Gadenne’s works centered on environmental issues. Just a few steps away, the “Refracted Identities, Shared Futures” exhibition at the Noor Festival (Riyadh Art and Light Festival) continues after the grand outdoor installations have been extinguished. As demonstrated by artists Ayman Zedani, Federico Acciardi, and Talin Hazbar, video media is becoming a preferred medium to address ecological topics. Still within the Jax District, After Rain, the second edition of the Diriyah Biennale of Contemporary Art,  takes the spotlight, making waves throughout Riyad.

A Global Biennale Placing the Environment at the Heart of its Concerns

Curated by Ute Meta Bauer, the Diriyah Biennale of Contemporary Art unveils 12,900 square meters and 177 artworks showcasing genius works of reconciliation and reparation Entitled “After Rain”, Bauer places significant emphasis on ecology both in her programming and in her scenography, avoiding the use of picture rails and plastic whenever feasible. Intended to reflect the multitude of artists and cultures featured through the plurality of the title, this exhibition features an entire hall devoted to the theme of “Environments and Ecologies.” Offering a space of representation to post-capitalist counter-cultures, this Biennale also features traditional knowledge and indigenous traditions. Artist, Marjetica Potrč, presents The Time of Humans on the Soča River, a monumental tree of life inspired by Slovenian folk traditions linked to the Soča River. Saudi artist Asma Bahmim depicts the current state of the world, using the bestiaries of ancient Islamic fables, on an ecological-sourced paper she makes herself. Tomás Saracenos sculpture, co-created with two spiders, from his Hybrid Web series, is paired with a letter manifesto against arachnophobia.

Sopheap Pich has created monumental structures from natural Cambodian materials, bringing awareness to the increasing disappearance of the Banyan tree. In a similar manner, artists such as Ursula Biemann, Joan Jonas, and Martha Atienza, incorporate the use of video media to explore indigenous knowledge and its link with nature. Atienza also simultaneously evokes the threats to biodiversity on Bantayan Island. 

Innovative solutions for climate resiliency are also apparent in the works of Liam Young, who devoted his film The Great Endeavor to carbon capture technologies, and Lucy + Jorge Orta’s OrtaWater – Purification Factory, a performative sculpture for water treatment systems that serves as a reminder of its scarcity in a world in the face of desertification. Lastly, the very title of the Biennale is presented through olfactory projects by artists Sissel Tolaas (see interview link), recreating smells of natural rainfalls on soil, and Anaïs Tondeur*, showcasing her piece Fragments of Soil, developed in collaboration with anthropologist Germain Meulemans.

The capital’s ambitious dynamism is far from having said its last word. The Irqah Creative Art Laboratory, directed by Abdelkader Damani, is currently under construction. This former hospital in the north of Riyad will be entirely dedicated to contemporary creation, from music to visual arts, alongside a material library and residencies. Covering an area of 100,000 m2, it will significantly  exceed the Louvre and its 66,000 m2.

AlUla, a Desert Backdrop for Contemporary Art

Some 1,000 km from the capital lies AlUla, at the same time an oasis, a major archaeological site, and a new epicenter for contemporary art. Joining forces in 2018, the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) and the French Agency for Alula development (Afalula), are transforming the region into a site of cultural exploration and a global tourist destination. 

Kicking off on February 9, the AlUla Arts Festival features a multitude of events and exhibitions, including the third edition of Desert X, Alula’s Residency Program exhibition, and the Future Culture Summit.

Desert X, the desert as El Dorado?

Returning with its third edition in Alula, Desert X introduces the theme, In the presence of Absence. In the rocky desert landscape of Wadi AlFann, curators Maya El Khalil and Marcello Dantas, along with artistic directors Raneem Farsi and Neville Wakefield, have dispersed fifteen works in dialogue with the natural environment and ancient traditions of northwest Saudi Arabia. Among them, artists Rana Haddad and Pascal Hachem created large towers constructed from terracotta jars, which will later be transformed into birdhouses. Aseel AlYaqoub‘s towering sculpture covered in luminous varnish, highlights the natural hues of the various geological formations of the AlUla landscape. Tino Sehgal, deeply mindful of his environmental impact, explores the interaction between the natural elements of the desert and human intervention through the use of movement and sound.

                               Left: Tino Sehgal, Right: Rana Haddad and Pascal Hachem, Desert X x AlUla

Land Art is not intended to remain ephemeral in the region. As a major pillar of AlUla’s development, it is destined to become a perennial trend. RCU and the French Agency for AlUla development (Afalula), have announced five monumental works to come, including those of the eagerly-awaited Ahmed Mater.

AlUla Residency Programs: emering and engaged artists 

AlUla runs a program of residencies for artists and designers intended to create dialogues between local heritage and culture, and young creative talents. The AlUla artist residency currently serves as a platform for two exhibitions curated by Ali Alghazzawi and Arnaud Morand.

The visual art exhibition, “The Shadow Over Everything”, brings together works from Maitha Abdalla, Reem Al Nasser, Bianca Bondi & Guillaume Bouisset, Grégory Chatonsky, Marlon de Azambuja, Hugo Servanin, and Joel Spring, all which were created during the residency from October 2023 to February 2024. Among them, Emirati artist Maitha Abdalla explores the cultural influences of Arab folklore and traditional adobe technique; Bianca Bondi and Guillaume Bouisset expose an ancient city gate to the alchemical powers of water and salt, while Hugo Servanin uses sand to erode an anthropomorphic sculpture, symbolically examining the fragility of civilizations.

Resident designers Leo Orta, Studio Raw Material, Hall Haus, Leen Ajlan, and Bahraini-Danish also presented their works in the “Unguessed Kinships” exhibition. Leo Orta created a series of furniture pieces, using adobe and straw inspired by the AlUla landscape. Meanwhile, Studio Raw Material explored the relationship between natural resources found in the AlUla oasis and traditional creative processes, presenting an arrangement of objects made from local materials.

Hugo Servanin, Bianca Bondi, “The Shadow Over Everything”, AlAUla

The AlUla Arts Festival’s rich program doesn’t stop there! Other highlights include Hassan Hajjaj’s solo photographic exhibition that presents contemporary photographs of residents of AlUla, and the Future Culture Summit, organized by the RCU in partnership with the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Culture, which invited around 300 local and international key players from creative and cultural industries – a highlight for AlUla ending the month of February.

If resources invested in art and culture seem out of the norm, AlUla faces a major challenge: global warming, currently altering its landscape and shortening the periods of moderate temperature. In this arid country, where social issues are paramount, the future will undoubtedly be made up of a skillful combination of climate change adaptation and the creative influences of artists, making this land fertile artistically, socially, and ecologically.

“AlUla is emerging as a 21st-century cultural utopia, with the ambition of becoming a new model for artistic creation and production. Our cultural programs, particularly our artist residencies, weave together the environmental and social issues specific to these great development projects with contemporary creation. Moreover, for the very first time at this scale, we’re proposing a unique experiment: that of bringing together artists’ vision and a scientific approach in the writing of narratives, in the reinvention of a destination. This will contribute to establishing AlUla as a new kind of cultural destination.” – Arnaud Morand, Head of Arts and Innovation at the French Agency for Alula development (Afalula)

*Winner of the Art of Change 21 prize 

written by Alice Audouin, Sana Tekaïa, Zoe Reed

Riyad, JAX district

The Ground Day Breaks, Mohannad Shono, ATHR Gallery, 18 February  – 20 May 2024 

In the Night, SAMoCA, 15 February – 20 May 2024

After Rain, Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale 2024, 20 February – 24 May 2024

Refracted Identities, Shared Futures, Noor Riyad Exhibition 2023, 23 December 2023 – 2 March 2024


AlUla Arts Festival, 9 February  – 23 March 2024

Desert X AlUla– In the Presence of Absence, 9 February  – 23 March 2024

The Shadow Over Everything, AlUla Visual Art Residency Exhibition, 8 February – 30 April 2024

Unguessed Kinships, AlUla Design Residency Exhibition, 8 February – 30 April 2024

Cover: “The Ground Day Breaks”Muhannad Shono, Galerie ATHR


Impact Art News, Jan-Feb 2024 #47

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