RIYADH: The global pandemic shut down much of the world—but not Basma Bouzo’s ambition or imagination. As a self-proclaimed “cultural instigator,” Bouzo took the challenges of the pandemic in her stride and used it as an opportunity to found the Saudi Design Festival.
The first of its kind in the Middle East, the three-week festival opened in historic Diriyah on Sunday. A pioneer in creating niche initiatives in the Kingdom for the past 14 years, she took a lesson from the pandemic and reflected on how to streamline the way in which design is presented in Saudi Arabia.
“The pandemic has so many negative connotations, but it really accelerated a lot of things and a lot of plans; it really made us push towards this new structure,” she told Arab News.
In the 21-day ticketed festival in the hip district of Al-Diriyah Al-Jadida, or New Diriyah, where curated local and international talents are invited to come together to experiment, collaborate and learn about each other. Workshops, talks, and contests will be announced soon. The general public will also be encouraged to stop by and offer support.
“We are re-shaping what a design festival is. We moved from Design Week, which is huddled in one place, in one location and everything under that umbrella, to toward eventually a city-wide activation that would put design at the center because design is everywhere—you have to just look at it,” she said.
No stranger to the local and global art & design scene, Bouzo and her sister Noura started pulling together narratives from Saudi voices in 2007 and presenting them in a print publication, the aptly titled Oasis magazine. In 2014, she launched Saudi Design Week and now, in 2022, the Saudi Design Festival.
“The crux of what we started doing is that a lot of people didn’t understand that Saudi design existed,” she said.
She said that, while there has always been a talent pool in the Kingdom, it was difficult to see and develop because there was no clear place in which people could easily meet and mingle. There was no design community.
The decision to host it in the Jax Art District was serendipitous.
“I think part of our journey has been always finding locations that are unique that people kind of overlook — and this fell into place with our partnership with the Ministry of Culture and the Architecture and Design Commission,” she said.
Jax Art District is a cluster of warehouses that house different creative spaces. Many of the studios are still being built and the work-in-progress feel serves as a symbolic backdrop for this festival.
Amid the seemingly never-ending construction in Jax, the location also serves as fuel for Bouzo to keep going. The entire area is being created in real time, from the ground up — much like the festival itself.
Riyadh-native Munira Altheeb visited the Saudi Design Festival on its opening night and was very proud at how her home town was morphing into a hub for designers. She appreciated the community which Bouzo is creating and was energized by the promise of what is to come.
“As someone from Riyadh, I never would have imagined that this festival would be happening — culture and design together in one space, with young people and professional designers together. I’m really happy to be in it,” she told Arab News.