Open to all, Desert X AlUla is a recurring and temporary, site-responsive, international open-air art exhibition taking place in AlUla, a globally significant ancient desert region in the Arabian Peninsula. Desert X AlUla takes place as a highlight of the AlUla Arts Festival. Raneem Farsi and Neville Wakefield will return as this year’s artistic directors and the exhibition will be curated by Maya El Khalil and Marcello Dantas. El Khalil is a renowned art advisor and curator with a focus on the MENA region. Dantas is an award-winning curator known for innovative interdisciplinary practices linking science, history, technology to create engaging and participatory exhibition experiences.
Following two exhibitions since 2020, Desert X AlUla returns for its third edition from 9 February – 23 March 2024, placing visionary contemporary artworks by Saudi and international artists amidst the extraordinary desert landscape of AlUla, a majestic region in north-west Saudi Arabia of natural and creative heritage steeped in a legacy of cross-cultural exchange.
Under the theme of In the Presence of Absence, Desert X AlUla 2024 asks ‘what cannot be seen?’. Often dismissed as spaces of emptiness, deserts are rendered mute, static, but there is much more than meets the eye. Artists taking part in Desert X AlUla 2024 have been invited to explore ideas of the unseen and the inexpressible. Encouraged to engage with what is not immediately apparent, they stage new encounters with the landscape, imagining alternative perspectives that appreciate the imperceptible forces and atmospheres of time, wind, light, the flows of history and myths woven into the place.
Desert X AlUla is a collaboration between Desert X and the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) established to advance new cultural dialogue through art. The first site-responsive exhibition of its kind in Saudi Arabia, it fosters exchange between artists, curators and international and local communities, shaped by a curatorial vision that takes the desert as its inspiration. Building on the legacy of Desert X, which takes place in California’s Coachella Valley, Desert X AlUla draws on principles of land art, offering a profound opportunity to experience art in dialogue with nature.
Desert X AlUla has played a pivotal role in paving the way for the development of another initiative due to open in AlUla in 2026, Wadi AlFann, a 65 square kilometre site set to become a global destination for monumental site-specific, permanent land art. Both Desert X AlUla and Wadi AlFann are examples of RCU’s vision for art in the landscape.
As well as being a historic cultural site, AlUla is at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning arts scene. Arts AlUla is dedicated to creating a culturally enriched place to live and visit, to revive the rich legacy of arts in the region and to create opportunities for the community to experience art as a source of education and enrichment through job creation and skills development.
The upcoming edition of Desert X AlUla will be situated in locations within the Wadi AlFann desert, Harrat Uwayrid and AlManshiyah Railway Station, inviting visitors to wander through and experience spectacular and varied landscapes as they weave their journey between the works.
Desert X AlUla aims to contribute to and continue the artistic heritage of the local community and region: Works from Desert X AlUla 2020 by Sherin Guirguis, Lita Albuquerque, Manal AlDowayan, Superflex, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim and Nadim Karam have been acquired by RCU, some of which are on view at Habitas, AlUla. Works from Desert X AlUla 2022 by Dana Awartani, Alicja Kwade, Monika Sosnowska, Sultan Bin Fahad, Khalil Rabah, Shezad Dawood and Serge Attukwei Clottey have been acquired by RCU, some of which are on display. Jim Denevan’s work for Desert X AlUla remains in its original location, where it will dissipate naturally. Desert X AlUla has been building local and international audiences over the years, with a 53% increase in average visitors per day from 2020 to 2022 editions.
Home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hegra, built by the Nabataeans over 2,000 years ago, the AlUla region has been at the crossroads of cultural exchange for millennia, historically lying on the incense trade route and once capital to the ancient Kingdom of Dadan. Today, it is once again a crossroads of cultural inspiration, valuing arts and creativity as an essential layer of enrichment.
Desert X AlUla takes place as a highlight of the AlUla Arts Festival. During the festival, More than meets the Eye, an exhibition of modern and contemporary works by Saudi artists will be presented by the contemporary art museum, AlUla. There will also be an exhibition of work by Wadi AlFann commissioned artist Manal AlDowayan in Aljadidah Arts District. The festival will immerse visitors in a vibrant celebration of contemporary visual and public art, design, curated cinema, art tours, and artist residencies. At AlUla’s mixed-use creative hub, Madrasat Addeera, there will be hands-on workshops on crafts such as palm weaving, pottery, jewelry, geometry, 3D strictures, textiles, and many more.
Maya El Khalil, curator, Desert X AlUla 2024, says:
The region of AlUla is monumental. Formed of inconceivable spans of time and space, the urge is to meet it with imitations of similar size and impact. But the reality is, human efforts struggle to match the grandeur sculpted here across eons. We challenged the artists to adjust their perspective to encounter the unseen aspects of the place with reverence, attuning to the forces, rhythms and processes that shape the landscape in imperceptible ways. Their works diagram and engage ephemeral phenomena like the movement of light or the erosion of wind, becoming performed by these forces to reveal the monumental significance of what might at first seem absent.
Marcello Dantas, curator, Desert X AlUla 2024, says:
The desert, often perceived as a place of emptiness, gradually unveils its intricate layers of existence as one immerses in it. These layers manifest through the ever-shifting terrain, the intricate dance of time, the evidences of life, and the transformative power of climate. Desert X AlUla invites artists to create original works with a unique canvas on an unprecedented scale. We tasked these artists with the mission of uncovering traces that transcend the limits of our sight, blurring the line between what we see and what we truly perceive, in the presence of absence.
Nora Aldabal, Executive Director of Arts and Creative Industries at RCU says:
We are delighted to have Maya and Marcello as the curators for Desert X AlUla 2024. Both have spent time in AlUla and understand its rich heritage as a place of cultural exchange and connect with the complex and spectacular landscapes of AlUla. Under their curation, the selected artists will explore themes of the unseen, challenging human-centric perspectives in an awe-inspiring landscape, we look forward to seeing the works that will be on show.
Press release from the Royal Commission for AlUla
Image: Aseel AlYaqoub. Weird Life: An ode to desert varnish. 2024. Installation view at Desert X AlUla 2024. Photography by Lance Gerber. Image courtesy of The Royal Commission for AlUla