Saudi Arabia’s AlUla lands interactive art exhibition

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AlUla is an archaeological marvel — boasting golden sandstone canyons, colossal arches and rock formations — that has played host to numerous ancient civilizations, making it a significant cultural crossroads. (Photo/Supplied)
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AlUla is an archaeological marvel — boasting golden sandstone canyons, colossal arches and rock formations — that has played host to numerous ancient civilizations, making it a significant cultural crossroads. (Photo/Supplied)
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AlUla is an archaeological marvel — boasting golden sandstone canyons, colossal arches and rock formations — that has played host to numerous ancient civilizations, making it a significant cultural crossroads. (Photo/Supplied)
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Updated 20 January 2020

Saudi Arabia’s AlUla lands interactive art exhibition

  • Famed for its rock formations and archaeological treasures, the valley’s dramatic landscape inspires creative concepts

JEDDAH: The Royal Commission for AlUla has collaborated with Desert X to bring an interactive installation to the area for the first time.

Desert X began in 2017, in California’s Coachella Valley, as a way to connect modern art with desert communities and cultures.
It is Desert X’s first international collaboration and starts on Jan. 31, running through to March 7, as part of AlUla’s Winter at Tantora festival.
AlUla Valley is famed for its rock formations, dramatic desert landscape and archaeological treasures.
Neville Wakefield, artistic director and co-curator for Desert X, said the exhibition would bring together local artists and ones from further afield.
“You discover that the same things that we find artists following in southern California — the interest in the environment, natural resources, cultural memory, trade and migration — they’re common for everyone,” he told Arab News. “What’s interesting to me about Saudi Arabia is the demographic, it’s a very young nation. I hope this opens the door to encourage a new generation of artists to emerge and take (their) place on an international stage and vice versa.”

Outdoor exhibition
Site-specific exhibitions differ greatly from a gallery setup in a museum with a controlled or fixed environment. Curators and artists face more external factors that could hinder the installation process from the weather to safety measures such as falling rocks. Wakefield said the uncertainty made shows such as Desert X exciting. “It really is about engaging with the landscape.”
Artists were brought to the Kingdom on a site visit last year to process the surroundings and create their own installation proposals.
They were selected based on their response to the landscape, not only its physical nature but culturally, historically and socially.
Riyadh-based artist Muhannad Shono said he would have done anything to take part in Desert X.
“I wasn’t going to let it slip through my fingers,” he told Arab News. “We don’t get a lot of chances with free access and support to visualize and bring to life something in the desert — an enchanting and romantic place to set up an installation.”
He changed his mind about the concept several times before finally embracing his design — a sculptural path.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Desert X began in 2017, in California’s Coachella Valley, as a way to connect modern art with desert communities and cultures.

• Artists were brought to the Kingdom on a site visit last year to process the surroundings and create their own installation proposals.

• They were selected based on their response to the landscape, not only its physical nature but culturally, historically and socially.

“I wanted to trigger things we’ve experienced as children in the audience. For example, finding a treasure map of the desert and an X that marks the spot where oftentimes, you reach the spot and find nothing there. The chest is empty — either with nothing there or that someone got there first. But the journey and adventure are amazing,” said Shono.
The Saudi artist wanted to give people a chance to unleash an inner curiosity that would set them on a purposeful discovery, not one of materialistic value but to find meaning in themselves.
He said the installation was not easy to find. “It goes further and higher and the more you go, the more you discover yourself. Alone with yourself and that’s what’s important,” he added.

Humans and nature
Tunisian-born and US-based artist Lita Albuquerque has often explored the relationship between humans and nature. Her AlUla project also draws on her passion for cosmology.
“I’ve been working on a narrative about a female astronaut who comes to this planet to see interstellar consciousness. She wants to teach us about our relationship to the stars,” she told Arab News.
The astronaut visits through different periods of time, the artist explained. She comes from the future but also visits the past “as if she’s birthing astronomy, giving us this whole map of the stars down the valley.”
The astronaut sits on a boulder positioned at the western end of the valley, looking eastward down the entire valley.
“It looks as if she is offering something, and below her are 99 blue circles of different diameters that correspond to the aligned stars above. She’s a little bit bigger than life-sized. It’s surprising to see her in such a grand space,” Albuquerque said.
She first visited AlUla last September and got to see the whole region while scouting for sites.
She has worked in desert sites since the start of her career, so Desert X was a natural step for her. “I felt like I was part of Desert X from the very beginning,” she added.


Turning a new leaf: Saudi Arabia’s Jazan region ditches qat crops for coffee trees

The growth of the educational landscape in the region, in addition to the success of the coffee industry, are some factors that help the authorities combat qat abuse. (SPA/Supplied)
Updated 24 February 2020

Turning a new leaf: Saudi Arabia’s Jazan region ditches qat crops for coffee trees

  • The Khawlani coffee bean is being offered to UNESCO for inclusion on a heritage list

JAZAN: Efforts to draw the younger generation in the Kingdom’s Jazan region away from the harmful and addictive substance qat are succeeding, with even the crop being replaced by coffee trees to support the booming coffee business.
Qat, a plant that is native to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, is a stimulant that triggers excitement and alertness. But it can also cause anxiety, insomnia and aggravate pre-existing mental health conditions.
It grew in the Jazan region along with coffee trees. But the strength of the coffee industry, combined with an increased awareness about the harmful nature of qat, has led to its gradual disappearance.
The governor of Al-Dayer, Nayef bin Lebdah, said the people of Jazan were proud of the Khawlani coffee bean. He also said that coffee beans were much more economically beneficial than qat.
“All newly planted qat trees have been completely uprooted,” he told Arab News. “All the people have found that planting coffee beans is much more feasible and rewarding than qat. Attempts to smuggle qat have also dropped thanks to the security efforts along the border with Yemen. Add to that, young people themselves have concluded that their future will be in coffee beans.”
Teacher Yahiya Shareef Al-Maliki viewed qat as an “intruder’’ and said the coffee tree was the region’s indigenous product.
“In 1970, there were only four people who used to chew qat in the entire governorate,” he told Arab News. “It then started to become common among the people here in 1995 due to opening the borders that caused importing qat from abroad.”

FASTFACTS

• In 2014, people reconsidered coffee as an alternative crop and young people started to grow coffee beans with the help of unlimited support from the governorate.

• Some 50,000 seedlings were distributed and farmers began to restore the profession of their fathers.

• The governorate replanted more than 10,000 genuine Khawlani coffee seedlings and gave them to the farmers.

The increase in qat cultivation affected the planting of coffee beans, he added, but in 2014 people reconsidered coffee as an alternative crop and young people started to grow coffee beans with the help of unlimited support from the governorate. “Some 50,000 seedlings were distributed and farmers began to restore the profession of their fathers.”
People in Jazan used to waste their time and money on qat, he said. They would gather and chew qat for many hours, he added, hours that could have been spent working. But the growth of the educational landscape in the region, in addition to the success of the coffee industry, was a factor in combating qat abuse, as young people were able to access more opportunities and improve their prospects.
The Khawlani coffee bean is being offered to UNESCO for inclusion on a heritage list.
“The preparation of the file related to the skills and knowledge pertaining to the cultivation of Khawlani coffee in the Jazan region has been completed before presenting it to UNESCO,” the Kingdom’s Culture Minister Prince Badr bin Abdullah said. If listed, he added, it would be the Kingdom’s fourth intangible cultural heritage and eighth among the total heritage items included in the UNESCO heritage list.
Saudi columnist Hamood Abu Talib said the Jazan region was the only place the beans were grown. “This festival (Coffee Beans Festival), which is being held in collaboration with the governorate (of Jazan), the farmers themselves and Aramco, is an important national economic investment,” he told Arab News.
“Many countries’ economies, such as Brazil and Ethiopia depend mainly on this product — coffee. It needs professional marketing through the media to attract visitors from inside and outside the Kingdom. This is an essential strategic transformation.
“We know that the Faifa Mountains Development and Reconstruction Authority’s strategic goal was to uproot the harmful trees of qat and replace them with profitable crops that are beneficial to the farmers as well as the whole region. These were also intruding, invasive trees. We replanted more than 10,000 genuine Khawlani coffee seedlings and gave them to the farmers.”