Artists address environmental crises in Jeddah art exhibition ‘I Love You, Urgently’

In Marwah Al-Mugait’s video, a powerful group of performers move and chant, recalling the reactive, unconscious defense mechanisms of organisms in danger. (Supplied)
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Updated 15 February 2020

Artists address environmental crises in Jeddah art exhibition ‘I Love You, Urgently’

  • The latest edition of Jeddah arts fair ’21’39 challenges viewers to make a difference

JEDDAH: Journey down the winding streets of Jeddah’s historic Al-Balad district and you’ll reach one of the many UNESCO-protected traditional homes that proliferate the area. Step inside and you’ll come into contact with something you didn’t expect: Several video works and installations that explore environmental crises in Saudi Arabia and worldwide.

This is “I Love You, Urgently,” the main show of the seventh edition of ‘21’39 Jeddah Arts, which runs until April 18. Curated by Maya El-Khalil, it focuses on the global crisis of our planet through works by 21 local and international artists.

In one room a slide projector plays views of candy-colored water parks in the Eastern Province and Riyadh. While guests quickly become enamored with the photographs and the delectable aesthetic of the many slides and structures in the park, they’ll be puzzled by one aspect: There are no people in the images.

In an installation called “Al-Manakh, You Will Be Missed” (2019), by Saudi artists Alaa Tarabzouni and Fahad bin Naif chart the story of the Yamamah cement factory. (Supplied)

The installation — “1056%” — created this year by Aziz Jamal, an artist from the Eastern Province, documents how the elaborate and vibrant infrastructure of these abandoned water parks is now rendered purposeless. How? These desolate scenes scream of Saudi Arabia’s silent crisis: The country has used 1056% of its total renewable water sources, far exceeding the conservative global water-scarcity threshold of 20-40%. It has water debt.

As the Kingdom continues its rapid development — with buildings such as Jeddah Tower, which will stand 3,280-feet-tall (making it the tallest building in the world) when it opens later this year — the question of how the country will grapple with the water emergency threatening the desert landscape remains. Through his work, Jamal addresses this concern.

The installation — “1056%” — is created this year by Aziz Jamal. (Supplied)

“Participating in ‘I Love You, Urgently’ has proven to me that connectivity is in full effect when it comes to our relationship to our bodies and our environment,” says Jamal. “In a subject like the water crisis, the issue ripples into every crevice of our life and is at the core of our future in nearly every aspect.”

Elsewhere in the show, works by regional artists — which take the form of video, sculpture and installations — draw inspiration from the work of the award-winning German architect Frei Otto, who is the subject of a special exhibition in the show. Otto built a number of projects in Saudi Arabia during the 1970s and 1980s and was known for his willingness to experiment — drawing from the fields of biology and art for his structures.

“This exhibition is inspired by the legacy of Otto,” El-Khalil, the curator, tells Arab News. “The works created are personal statements by the artists. We are at a point now when Saudi Arabia is going through so much change and with so many projects being announced, I thought it would be interesting to present this alternative voice that has built substantial structures in the Kingdom.”

El-Khalil presented a brief to the selected artists, asking them to explore the concepts of biomimicry — an approach that seeks nature-inspired solutions for a healthy planet; adaptability; and the idea of specificity from a local viewpoint.

Manal Al-Dowayan’s “Ephemeral Witness” (2020) tells of another kind of urgency: The changing status of women as they enter the public sphere of Saudi society. (Supplied)

The works on show in “I Love You, Urgently” illustrate the personal nature of the ongoing environmental crisis. In an installation called “Al-Manakh, You Will Be Missed” (2019), Saudi artists Alaa Tarabzouni and Fahad bin Naif chart the story of the Yamamah cement factory, built in the 1960s in the Al-Manakh neighbourhood of Riyadh. Producing 18,600 tons of cement per day, the factory is, almost single-handedly, responsible for the construction of the modern-day capital city. Now, though, it is on the verge of closure and the two architects used this work to contemplate the ramifications of its disappearance; the localized ecological crisis it has created by its presence; and what will happen to the community of workers who have worked —generation after generation — at the factory and will now need to go elsewhere. 

“I want this artwork to become a dialogue starter for changes in legislation and on the growth and deterioration of the environment,” bin Naif tells Arab News. “The environment is urgent and this relates to the theme (of the show). There’s an emotional urgency now to save the environment.”

In a large-scale 11-minute video called “I Lived Once” (2020) by Riyadh-based artist Marwah Al-Mugait, a powerful group of performers move and chant, recalling the reactive, unconscious defense mechanisms of organisms in danger. “My collaborators and I came out of this project with different realizations about how precious this environment is, and how it has been giving to us unconditionally,” says Al-Mugait. “There was beauty in how we collectively felt connected to nature and our environment with our movements.”

The large-scale 11-minute video called “I Lived Once” (2020) is by Riyadh-based artist Marwah Al-Mugait. (Supplied)

Other works on view ponder the rate of change taking place in the Kingdom. Saudi artist Manal Al-Dowayan’s “Ephemeral Witness” (2020) tells of another kind of urgency: The changing status of women as they enter the public sphere of Saudi society. The work — a large recreation of a desert rose made in natural silk, ink and rope — hangs from the ceiling of one room of the Gold Moor Mall, another location of ‘21’39. The desert rose, Al-Dowayan says, was always portrayed as a beautiful mystery. Here, she uses it as a metaphor for what she calls an “ephemeral witness to time” — words used by geologists to describe rare crystals. Her work, like its name, is a witness to the Kingdom’s rapid development, its effects on the environment and on women — Al-Dowayan cites a 2019 report from CommsMEA, which says women’s participation in the workplace in Saudi Arabia rose from 3 percent to 20 percent in a little over a decade.

The effects of the shift are both behavioral and social. They also change the nature of shared physical space. Al-Dowayan seems to ask: How does one reconcile with the past as we accelerate into the future and a new society?

The same goes for the environment. “The emergency situation we face today cannot be handled by one group,” she says. “Artists and their spaces of activity must participate in addressing the impending danger facing us and our future.”

The French agency helping Saudi Arabia realize AlUla’s potential

Updated 21 February 2020

The French agency helping Saudi Arabia realize AlUla’s potential

  • Afalula is contributing to the development of site that forms a vital part of Vision 2030 plan
  • Kingdom seeks to turn AlUla into the world’s largest living museum and a major heritage tourism destination

PARIS: Gerard Mestrallet is executive chairman of the French Agency for the Development of AlUla (Afalula), the Saudi heritage site that is fast becoming an international cultural and tourist attraction.

AlUla, in the Kingdom’s northwest, is known for its natural beauty and archaeological diversity.

It has hosted major cultural events, including a site-responsive outdoor art installation featuring the work of Saudi and international artists, and a music festival with world-famous stars.



French gastronomy has been an important part of the Winter at Tantora Festival, which will continue in AlUla until March 7.

Earlier in February, it announced that the Kingdom is planning to develop AlUla into the world’s largest living museum and a major cultural, arts, adventure tourism and heritage destination.

Mestrallet spoke to Arab News from Afalula’s Paris office, where pictures and videos of AlUla welcome visitors, and perfumes produced in AlUla with the expertise of Grasse, the southern French city renowned for fragrance, tickle the senses.

He talked about how the agency and France will contribute to the development of a site that forms a vital part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform plan.

“French President Emmanuel Macron appointed me to head the agency for the development of AlUla because I’d previously managed Engie and Suez, which contributed to important world projects and had invested massively in water treatment, desalination of seawater, and electricity production in Gulf countries,” Mestrallet told Arab News.

Afalula’s Paris office, right.  (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)

“When Macron met the crown prince, the prince asked him for French support for the development of AlUla, and the president entrusted me to negotiate the development and to create a French agency for AlUla on the model of the French agency for the (Louvre) museum that was created in Abu Dhabi,” he said.

“We negotiated with the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) before the Crown Prince’s visit to Paris in April 2018, and we were prepared. The agreement was signed at the Elysée Palace during the crown prince’s state visit.”

The agency’s creation was defined in a treaty between France and Saudi Arabia, Mestrallet said.

“We have a dual role — on the one hand, to plan the project jointly with the RCU, and on the other hand, to mobilize the vast range of French expertise in all areas of the project: Engineers, architects, urban planning, infrastructure for roads, energy, transport, water and gastronomic training,” he said.

“We have access to renowned French chefs in AlUla, but young Saudis are also given gastronomic training in France. We also have contributions from major French cultural institutions such as the Louvre, Chambord, Versailles, and we have access to French knowledge relating to tourism, hotels and security.”

He said the team comprises 30 highly qualified people. The architecture and urban planning sector are headed by Etienne Tricaud, former president and founder of AREP, the biggest architectural firm in France.

Tricaud was so efficient, according to the Saudis, that he was given the responsibility to integrate both teams — the French one and the RCU’s — into a single entity.

Gerard Mestrallet, head of the agency for the development of the site

Nicolas Lefebvre, head of Afalula’s department of tourism and hospitality, along with the CEO of the Eiffel Tower Co., have been charged with making the site a leader in sustainable tourism.

Mestrallet said: “For security, the head is Bernard Petit, the former chief of the Paris Police Judiciaire. For botanical products and concepts, we have Elizabeth Dodinet, with over 20 years’ experience in archeology, ethnobotany and aromatic plant research.

“Then we have Regis Dantaux, in charge of human resources; Charles Chaumin, in charge of water and the environment; Stephane Forman, in charge of agriculture; and Jean-François Charnier, scientific director.

“Clearly, we have an exceptionally high level of expertise that France is making use of in order to make this Saudi project a success in every sense.”

Mestrallet said the masterplan represents what the project will be in 10-20 years, with resorts, hotels and museums, and there are plans for eight museums to be built.

One project is from the French “star-chitect” Jean Nouvel, who built the Louvre in Abu Dhabi. Nouvel is designing a hotel complex in Sharan Nature Reserve. The project was the crown prince’s idea before the RCU was officially created, Mestrallet said.

An architecture competition was organized for a hotel complex, and Nouvel won. “I was part of the international jury that selected him, and his project is really amazing,” Mestrallet said.

“It will be built entirely in the rock, and will thus have a minimal impact on the nature reserve.”

The AlUla project is on a site the size of a small city, and Afalula will take part in its future development.

“There will be billions in investments, but it will be essential for us to respect the site, its natural features, the heritage, principles and rules for sustainable development, and its impact on the local populations. It is thus a complex challenge,” Mestrallet said.

“These principles are part of the Crown Prince’s Vision 2030, and are included as part of the treaty between France and Saudi Arabia. French companies will take part just like others in tenders, and we’re here to assist and mobilize them.”

Saudi Arabia aims to host 2 million visitors per year in AlUla by 2035. The RCU, which is responsible for protecting and promoting the area, estimates that the project will create more than 67,000 jobs, almost half of them in the tourism sector.

Around 80 percent of AlUla county will be protected, including cultural and natural heritage sites.

Mestrallet said the first masterplan will be finished in six months. “We’re very happy to be associated with this project, which touches upon the soul of Saudi Arabia and will have a huge impact,” he said.

“The project is linked to 7,000 years of history in the Kingdom, and by developing it, King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman want to reveal this history to their people. Our role is to use French expertise in order to serve this purpose.”

There will be a large research center on Arab civilization, and eight museums in AlUla.

One museum will be dedicated to modern art, and Afalula is relying on revered French cultural institutions such as the Pompidou Museum to participate.

Another museum is devoted to the Nabatean period, and other museums will focus on horses, astronomy, minerals, perfumes and oases.

French gastronomy was an important part of the second year in the Winter at Tantora festival, which takes place every weekend for 10 weeks from the beginning of December, Mestrallet said.

“A concert hall has been built in the desert, as well as housing for the festival. There’s a magical spot, surrounded by Nabatean tombs, which features an open-air restaurant where many-starred Michelin French chefs visit and cook. Some of these are Anne Sophie Pic, who has two three-star restaurants and another with two stars.

The first female French chef who came was Hélène Darroze. Other outstanding chefs included Yannick Alleno of Le Doyen restaurant in Paris; Guy Martin, chef of the Grand Vefour restaurant in Paris; and Arnaud Donckele, the three-star chef of the Cheval Blanc hotel in St. Tropez, who will open a Cheval Blanc restaurant at the Samaritaine department store in Paris.”

The AlUla project aims to open the Kingdom to the world, Mestrallet said, adding: “It’s an immense privilege for us to follow up on the French president’s decision to participate in the creation of this project.

“We want to be sure that the project is respectful of sustainable development, the wellbeing of the environment, and its effect on all the local populations.”