7 highlights from this year’s Desert X AlUla 

7 highlights from this year’s Desert X AlUla 
Faisal Samra, The Dot, Desert X AlUla 2024. (Courtesy of The Royal Commission for AlUla)
Short Url
Updated 22 February 2024
Follow

7 highlights from this year’s Desert X AlUla 

7 highlights from this year’s Desert X AlUla 

ALULA: “We are in the presence of deep times,” says Lebanese art specialist Maya El-Khalil, sitting against a breathtaking backdrop of golden-brown rock formations in the far distance in AlUla. El-Khalil and her Brazilian colleague Marcello Dantas are the curators of the third edition of Desert X AlUla — an open-air show of 15 monumental sculptural art installations in the ancient Saudi desert.  

Spanning three locations, including the up-and-coming ‘cultural destination’ of Wadi AlFann, the show — “In The Absence of Presence” — asks viewers to look beyond the physical in this mystical landscape.  

“Rather than presenting work that addresses the monumentality of the desert, we wanted to approach this edition by maybe focusing on what cannot be seen — what’s invisible to all of these forces,” El-Khalil tells Arab News. “As humans, we’re nothing when you look at this place’s sense of deep time.”    

Seventeen artists are taking part in the exhibition, several from the Gulf and the wider Arab world, including Monira Al-Qadiri, Faisal Samra, Kader Attia, Rand Abdul Jabbar Ayman Yossri Daydban, and Caline Aoun. For their site-responsive works, some artists were inspired by historical narratives, while others delved into poetry, philosophy, nature and performance art.  

“We urged artists to really engage with the landscape with questions and uncertainty rather than certainty,” says El-Khalil.  

So, why have this “light intervention,” as El-Khalil puts it, in an ancient site where protection is a top priority?  

“Probably there is this element of creativity,” she says. “I think it’s quite natural. . . There is creativity in nature and human beings respond to that. It is really about leaving no trace, as much as possible. Having said that, we have a trace of the passage of time, traces of civilization and of the rock art that you see. These are windows into the past that have been left for us to enjoy and learn from.” 

Here are seven highlights from Desert X AlUla, which is free to the public and runs until Mar. 23. 

FILWA NAZER 

‘Preserving Shadows’ 

The Saudi artist designed an elevated bridge-like installation, topped with high black triangles that are meant to give a sense of “fear and hostility in relation to the nature of the desert,” Nazer explained during a press tour. “There’s an ancient belief, even from before Islam, that there are ‘jinn’ or spirits that reside in the shrubs of the desert. I read an account of two men that were sitting in the desert and they lit a fire in the shrub. Snakes flew out of the shrub and they attacked and killed them. Growing up in ‘previous Saudi’ we heard stories about jinn in this part of the country, and it kind of contributed to the fear of not having accessibility to it.” The work resembles “the body of a petrified skeleton of a snake and it’s meant to feel, as you approach it, like you are walking through a journey of shadows and then you reach the end of the ramp — a metaphor for overcoming a dark journey,” she said. 

MONIRA AL-QADIRI 

‘W.A.B.A.R.’ 

In the 1930s, a British explorer — Harry St. John Philby — was looking for Ubar, an ancient city known as the ‘Atlantis of the Sands’ in the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula’s desert. There, he was shown what locals claimed were ‘black pearls.’ It was later discovered that they were, in fact, meteorites from outer space. Philby named them ‘Wabar’ pearls. This little-known story is the inspiration behind Kuwaiti artist Al-Qadiri’s installation, ”W.A.B.A.R.” It consists of five large black spheres, made of bronze, scattered on the sand.  

“It’s a story of disappointment and human imagination,” Al-Qadiri says. “That you could find these small items in the middle of the desert and make this huge story from them about a people and pearls. This is why I exaggerated the size of the objects.”   

FAISAL SAMRA 

‘The Dot’ 

The Bahraini-born Saudi artist presents a trail of rocks lead to the titular large reflective sphere, which stands in a small valley. “The aim for me was for the audience to come and complete the work. It will not be completed without the audience,” Samra says. “I want the audience to live a unique moment of AlUla with this work, which is respecting the environment.” The simple shape is a symbolic one, representing a “trace of a second,” a moment in time, a grain of sand. “The accumulation of dots is the accumulation of moments,” he adds. It also demonstrates how a small dot can be physically impactful — like the drops of rain that, along with the wind, eventually led to the formation of this valley, which was once a single rock.  

IBRAHIM MAHAMA 

‘Hanging Garden’ 

The Ghanaian artist is presenting works at all three sites of the exhibition, including this one at AlManshiyah Plaza, located in a historic neighborhood where the AlUla Railway Station is preserved. In the early 20th century, the station was part of the Hejaz Railway, which connected Damascus to Madinah. Mahama’s work is comprised of dangling terracotta pots of the kind used for storing water in Ghanaian communities — a recurring motif in Mahama’s work at AlUla. According to an Instagram post by the event’s artistic director Neville Wakefield, “Mahama asks how we can restore memories we never had before, and how we can use archeology and the scars of history to create new meanings within a landscape.” 

RANA HADDAD AND PASCAL HACHEM  

‘Reveries’ 

The Lebanese duo created this trio of intriguing, circular towers made of orange terracotta pots, which stand tall in Wadi AlFann. Viewers can enter the narrow spaces and look up to admire the precise, repetitive pattern the pots form. The project pays tribute to regional heritage and craftsmanship. “Our art, like a gentle breeze, whispers the importance of respect, nurturing a harmonious relationship between humanity and the natural world,” wrote the artists. According to a statement released by Desert X AlUla, the work is also “a testament to the circular economy. . . Light, air, and frankincense flow through, creating sanctuaries for desert flora and fauna.” 

SARA ALISSA AND NOJOUD ALSUDAIRI  

‘Invisible Possibilities: When The Earth Began To Look At Itself’ 

The two young Saudi creatives, co-founders of syn architects, carved a geometrical 110-meter-long pathway into the desert, including ledges on which visitors can rest and contemplate their surroundings. “Based on a more poetic criteria of time, memory, materiality, and occupation, the artists believe that this form of intervention raises and intensifies our awareness of the surrounding ecology and creates a place of meaning and contemplation out of a careful reframing of the familiar,” Wakefield explained.  

KIMSOOJA 

‘To Breathe’ 

The South Korean conceptual artist explores the ethereal nature of light, often materialized in site-specific installations in eye-catching iridescent tones. Her work in AlUla is “a reflection on a conceptual and geometrical formation of the AlUla desert landscape,” according to a written statement. “It reflects the movement of wind and the passage of light traversing through the spiral path of prismatic glass surface that becomes a fluid, translucent canvas. Sunlight unravels into an iridescent color spectrum, casting rainbow-colored shadows and circular brushstrokes onto the sandy earth. . . A walk in and out of a contained yet open path of spiral unfolds an abstract lightscape that is at once a drawing, a painting, and a sculpture.” 


Jessica Chastain flaunts Elie Saab look at Breakthrough awards in Los Angeles

Jessica Chastain flaunts Elie Saab look at Breakthrough awards in Los Angeles
Updated 14 April 2024
Follow

Jessica Chastain flaunts Elie Saab look at Breakthrough awards in Los Angeles

Jessica Chastain flaunts Elie Saab look at Breakthrough awards in Los Angeles

DUBAI: US actress and producer Jessica Chastain sparkled in a purple jumpsuit by Lebanese designer Elie Saab at the Annual Breakthrough Prize Ceremony at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.

Chastain — who has previously championed looks by Lebanon’s Zuhair Murad, among other Arab designers — hit the red carpet in the sequined number that boasted a plunging neckline and bootleg-style pants. Celebrity stylist Elizabeth Stewart finished off Chastain’s look with a statement necklace by Damiani jewelry.

US actress and producer Jessica Chastain sparkled in a purple jumpsuit by Lebanese designer Elie Saab. (Getty Images)

French Canadian scientist Michel Sadelain was awarded an "Oscars of Science" for his research into genetically modifying immune cells to fight cancer at the event, AFP reported.

The genetic engineer was awarded the Breakthrough Prize at a glitzy ceremony attended by tech giants such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates, and an array of celebrities including Chastain, Robert Downey Jr. and Bradley Cooper.

His work has led to the development of a new form of therapy called CAR-T that has shown exceptional efficacy against certain blood cancers.

"This prize is an extraordinary recognition," Sadelain told AFP on the red carpet at the Oscars Museum. "It's all the more of an honor because ... my scientific colleagues told me for a long time that it would never work.

Honorees Dr. Michel Sadelain, right, and Dr. Carl H. June accept awards onstage during the 10th Breakthrough Prize Ceremony. (Getty Images)

"The greatest pleasure, however, is to see patients... who no longer had a chance and who thank us, who are alive today thanks to CAR-T cells," added Sadelain.

Launched in 2010, the Breakthrough Prize awards "the world's most brilliant minds" in fields including life sciences, fundamental physics and mathematics, styling itself as the Silicon Valley-backed answer to the Nobels.

Dubbed the "Oscars for Science", founding sponsors include Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg.

Sadelain will split the $3 million prize money with American immunologist Carl June, who also led groundbreaking research into the field independently of his co-winner.

Sadelain studied medicine in Paris, then immunology in Canada, before taking up postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1989.

Other celebrity guests at the event includes actresses Zoe Saldana and Margot Robbie, director Olivia Wilde and Oscar-winner Michelle Yeoh, among others.


Saint Levant addresses Gaza war on stage at Coachella music festival

Saint Levant addresses Gaza war on stage at Coachella music festival
Updated 14 April 2024
Follow

Saint Levant addresses Gaza war on stage at Coachella music festival

Saint Levant addresses Gaza war on stage at Coachella music festival

DUBAI: Saint Levant, a Palestinian French Algerian Serbian rapper, performed at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival music festival in California on Saturday.

The musician used the opportunity to address the ongoing war in Gaza, saying: “Coachella, my name is Saint Levant and I was born in Jerusalem and raised in Gaza … as I hope all of you are aware, the people of Gaza have been undergoing a brutal, brutal genocide for the past six months. And the people of Palestine have been undergoing a brutal occupation for the past 75 years.”

Saint Levant performed a series of his hits, including “Nails,” “From Gaza, With Love” and a slowed-down version of “Very Few Friends.” The artist also performed “Deira” and “5am in Paris,” which was released last week.

“It’s about exile,” he said, describing the new song. “A feeling that us Palestinians know a bit too well.”

Born Marwan Abdelhamid in Jerusalem, the singer previously spoke to Arab News about his childhood.

“The actual cultural makeup is my mom is half-French and half-Algerian. My dad is Serbian, half-Palestinian. And they actually both grew up in Algeria. But they decided, in the early 90s, post the Oslo Accords, that Palestine was going to be free.

“So they went back, my dad went to live in Gaza in the early 1980s. And my dad actually built a hotel there and that’s where I grew up,” he said.

“For everyone, childhood is very meaningful. And for me, it was a juxtaposition because I remember the sound of the drones and the sounds of the bones. But more than anything, I remember the warmth, and the smell … and the taste of food and just the odd feeling of soil.”


Why the bidding may be furious for a portrait of Ottoman ruler Mehmed II, coming up for sale soon

Why the bidding may be furious for a portrait of Ottoman ruler Mehmed II, coming up for sale soon
Updated 14 April 2024
Follow

Why the bidding may be furious for a portrait of Ottoman ruler Mehmed II, coming up for sale soon

Why the bidding may be furious for a portrait of Ottoman ruler Mehmed II, coming up for sale soon
  • The newly rediscovered medallion features a portrait of Sultan Mehmed II The Conqueror
  • The item is expected to sell for around £2 million at auction at Bonhams of London

LONDON: To the Christians of Europe in the mid-15th century, the Islamic leader Mehmed II was “the terror of the world,” a “venomous dragon” at the head of “bloodthirsty hordes.”

The Roman Catholic Pope, Nicholas V, went even further. To him, the seventh ruler of the Ottoman Empire was nothing less than “the son of Satan, perdition and death.”

Understandably, Mehmed’s subjects felt rather differently about the man who between 1444 and 1481 would triple the size of the empire.

Illustration showing Mehmed II, the Conqueror of Constantinople. (Shutterstock)

To them, he was “The Father of Conquest,” the man who in 1453, at the age of 21, achieved the impossible by capturing the supposedly impregnable fortress of Constantinople.

The single most strategically important city of the Middle Ages, Constantinople had been in Christian hands ever since its foundation in 330 AD by the Roman Emperor Constantine.

In modern-day Turkiye, Mehmed II is considered a hero by many. Symbolically, the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, which was completed in 1988 and links Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus Strait, bears his name.

Now, a unique and only recently rediscovered portrait of Mehmed the Conqueror, created an estimated three years before his most celebrated feat of arms, is coming up for sale at an auction at Bonhams of London, at which it is predicted to fetch as much as £2 million ($2.53 million).

This painting of Mehmed the Conqueror by Venetian artist Gentile Bellini in about 1480 can be seen at the National Gallery in London. (Supplied)

This is far from being the only known portrait of Mehmed; one of the most famous, painted by the Venetian artist Gentile Bellini in about 1480, can be seen at the National Gallery in London.

The uniqueness of the likeness on the bronze medallion is that it is not only the only known portrait of Mehmed II as a young man, pictured before he conquered Constantinople, but also the earliest known portrait of any Islamic ruler by a Western artist.

There is no date on the medal. But the clue to when the portrait was executed — almost certainly from life, by a skilled but anonymous Renaissance artist — lies in the Latin inscription, which reads: “Great Prince and Great Emir, Sultan Master Mehmet.”

Tellingly, said Oliver White, Bonhams’ head of Islamic and Indian art, “the inscription lacks the ‘Imperatorial’ title, which was included on medals after the fall of Constantinople.”

Experts have also concluded that, because of the absence of any design or lettering on the reverse of the brass medallion, plus the existence of a hole at its top, through which a chain might have been attached, it could well have been “a deeply personal and significant possession of the great Sultan.”

FASTFACTS

• Size of of Ottoman Empire would triple between 1444 and 1481.

• In 1453, at the age of 21, Mehmed II captured Constantinople.

• Mehmed II made further conquests before dying aged 49 in 1481 .

This, said White, suggests the intriguing possibility that it might once have hung around the neck of The Conqueror as a talisman. Indeed, in a later portrait Mehmed is depicted wearing what appears to be the very same medal.

“For us, the single most important historical element is that we believe that the medal belonged personally to Mehmed,” said White.

“You can also say it was almost certainly done from life, that it is a real portrait that actually looks like him rather than being a typical generic miniature painting of a sultan.”

Although the name of the artist remains unknown, “we do know that it was made in Italy, because that’s where all these pieces were being made at the time, when it was a fairly new thing.

“The whole concept of these portrait medallions, which had been resurrected from ancient Rome, had begun only about 20 years earlier, in the 1430s.”

Presenting the fall of Constantinople as an existential struggle between Christianity and Islam would be to simplify a complex situation, said White. There were Turks among the defenders of Constantinople, loyal to the Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI, and thousands of Christians among the 50,000-strong Ottoman army.

Shutterstock image

In a short biography commissioned by Bonhams, historian Peter Frankopan writes that despite the portrayal of Mehmed in contemporary European propaganda as a tyrant, in fact “the conquest of Constantinople was accompanied by a set of policies that even critics conceded showed a surprising degree of tolerance, most notably to the Greek Orthodox Christians who were protected from persecution by laws as well as by the sultan’s personal command — with similar concessions being given to Armenian Christians, to Jews and to other minorities in the city.”

Nevertheless, the fall of the city, “which had been the subject of lavish investment by the Roman Emperor Constantine and had stood for more than a millennium as the capital of the Roman Empire in the east — usually called the Byzantine Empire — sent shockwaves through the Mediterranean and beyond.

“Constantinople’s fall to Mehmed and his forces was not so much a dramatic moment as a decisive turning point in history.”

Art experts from Sotheby's talk about Paul Signac's "La Corne d'Or (Constantinople)" during an auction preview November 1, 2019 at Sotheby's in New York. (AFP/File photo)

In fact, according to the Victorian British historian Lord Acton, modern history began “under the stress of the Ottoman conquest.”

In Acton’s view, wrote Frankopan, “the failure of Europeans to put their differences to one side, the reluctance of Christians in the west to support their Greek-speaking Orthodox neighbours to the east, and the ineffective response to the threat posed by Mehmed and his Muslim armies set off a chain reaction that ultimately helped shape the Reformation — if not the age of global empires that emerged from places such as Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Britain.”

It was, said White, “no exaggeration to say that the fall of Constantinople shaped the modern world — and it was with the eventual collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century that many of the problems of the modern world arose.”

Ruins of Rumelihisari, Bogazkesen Castle, or Rumelian Castle, built by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II.  located at the hills of the European side of Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul, Turkiye. (Shutterstock image)

In his relatively brief life — he died at the age of 49 in 1481 — Mehmed achieved much, including a series of further conquests in Asia and Europe. But although he carved his way through much of the 15th century with a sword, he was a man of contradictions, introducing many political and social reforms at home and proving a great patron of the arts and sciences.

“He gathered Italian humanists and Greek scholars to his court,” said White, “and by the end of his reign had transformed Constantinople into a thriving imperial capital.”

Opinion

This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

Although Mehmed commissioned many portraits of himself during his reign, executed in the Italian style, it is the rarity of the medallion that has invested it with such a high potential value.

“The medal was acquired by its present owner in an auction in Rome in 2000,” said White. “It was lumped in with a job lot of medals, and considered to be of very little importance.”

At the time no one quite understood its significance. A lot of academics have looked at it, and for seven or eight years after the original sale it was thought it might date to the 1460s, which was post-Constantinople and therefore less.”

Finally, it was realized that Mehmed had been referred to by the Latin title “Magnus princeps” only once before — in a treaty with Venice, drawn up in the 1440s.

In all portraits and references following the 53-day siege of 1453 he is referred to without exception as “The Conqueror of Constantinople.”


ALSO READ: Book by Saudi author unravels Ottoman atrocities in Madinah


The unnamed owner is now parting with the medal after the successful completion of two decades of research into its history.

“It’s been his baby for 25 years,” said White, “and I think he feels, ‘we know what it is now, and it's time for the public to enjoy it’.”

There is, of course, no guarantee that the medal will be purchased by an institution, said White. But the expected price and the historical significance of the piece in the story of Islam suggests at least “the possibility” that bidders will include some of the great museums of the Middle East.

Tipu Sultan's fabled bedchamber sword sold for £14 million at Bonhams Islamic and Indian Art sale in London on May 23, 2023. (Photo credit: Bonhams)

Bidding will have to be furious to beat the world record for an Islamic and Indian object, set by the sale in London last year of the sword of Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in southern India between 1782 and 1799, for £14 million.

The Mehmed medallion, estimated at between £1.5-2 million, will be the star lot at the Bonhams Islamic and Indian Art Sale on May 21 at Bonhams New Bond Street, London.

 


Cinema for Gaza auction raises over $300,000 with the aid of Annie Lennox, Jonathan Glazer, Ramy Youssef and more

Cinema for Gaza auction raises over $300,000 with the aid of Annie Lennox, Jonathan Glazer, Ramy Youssef and more
Updated 13 April 2024
Follow

Cinema for Gaza auction raises over $300,000 with the aid of Annie Lennox, Jonathan Glazer, Ramy Youssef and more

Cinema for Gaza auction raises over $300,000 with the aid of Annie Lennox, Jonathan Glazer, Ramy Youssef and more

DUBAI: Cinema for Gaza, which was launched by a group of female filmmakers and film journalists, has raised $316,778 to support the UK charity Medical Aid for Palestinians through a celebrity auction, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The auction featured donations from Tilda Swinton, Annie Lennox, Joaquin Phoenix, Spike Lee and Guillermo del Toro among others. 

Lennox’s handwritten lyrics to her Eurythmics hit “Sweet Dreams” was the top seller, with a bidder paying $26,222 for the item.

Meanwhile, “The Zone of Interest” director Jonathan Glazer, who received criticism online for referencing the Gaza conflict in his 2024 Oscars acceptance speech, donated seven posters from the film, signed by himself, composer Mica Levi and producer James Wilson, as well as a selection of posters for his 2014 feature “Under the Skin,” which collectively raised $13,702. 

US-Egyptian comedian and creator Ramy Youssef donated tickets to his live show as well as to the afterparty and a meet-and-greet. Oscar-winner Phoenix donated a signed “Joker” poster. Del Toro contributed six signed books. Lee contributed a signed, framed poster of Malcolm X.

“We thought we might raise maybe £20,000 ($25,000),” said London-based film journalist and critic Hanna Flint to The Hollywood Reporter.

Flint set up Cinema for Gaza together with her film-industry friends Hannah Farr, Julia Jackman, Leila Latif, Sophie Monks Kaufman, and Helen Simmons a few months after the start of Israel’s ongoing military assault on Gaza.

“We’re a very diverse group of women, we’ve got women of color, we’ve got Jewish women, Muslim women, Christians, atheists, who all came together out of this need to do something tangible to show our support and activism for the humanitarian crisis that’s going on (in Gaza),” said Flint.

“We really believe that cinema can be a powerful tool, a political tool, to speak about the world, to reflect and engage with what’s going on, and, we thought, what better way (to get) people in our industry to come together to try and help people who are not doing that well?”
 


Palestinian American comedian Amer Zahr all set to speak ‘the truth’ at Dubai show

Palestinian American comedian Amer Zahr all set to speak ‘the truth’ at Dubai show
Updated 13 April 2024
Follow

Palestinian American comedian Amer Zahr all set to speak ‘the truth’ at Dubai show

Palestinian American comedian Amer Zahr all set to speak ‘the truth’ at Dubai show

DUBAI: Palestinian American comedian Amer Zahr, who is set to perform at the Dubai Comedy Festival on April 17, says he is an activist who “likes to use comedy as his tool.”

In an interview with Arab News ahead of his show at the Dubai Opera, Zahr said: “Activism is about telling the truth. Being Palestinian is about telling the truth. And comedy is about telling the truth. People sometimes say to me, ‘Hey, I never know when you’re joking.’ I tell them, ‘Look, I’m always being serious. I’m always telling the truth.’ But a comedian uses humor to tell the truth.

“Because if you can make someone laugh, they listen to you and they let down their guard.

“And we Palestinians have been trying to tell our story for 75 years. And we’ve been using art, music, poetry … but for me, I found that comedy is a very effective way. So, I’m a Palestinian first who is trying to tell our stories, and comedy is my tool,” he added.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Amer Zahr (@amerzahr)

Zahr, who is also a law professor and political activist, said he got hooked to stand-up comedy while in law school.

“I had thought about comedy and then in law school, the opportunity presented itself where there was a show going on, and they kind of asked if anyone wants to do some comedy before the main comedian comes on. And so, I said ‘let me try it.’ I got up there. I told a couple stories about my dad. Everybody laughed, and I got kind of hooked to the idea of being on a stage and being able to make people laugh and connect with people in that way,” said Zahr.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Amer Zahr (@amerzahr)

For Zahr, the allure of stand-up comes from the fact that it involves “speaking truth to power.”

He said: “Comedy is one of the purest art forms. When somebody sings, we’re okay with it if we learned later on that they didn’t write the song. We’re just happy they have a great voice. But when you hear a comedian, you assume that everything that that person is saying is genuine and coming from them. And if you learned later that it wasn’t, you might feel cheated.

“Comedy is a very personal art form between the audience and the comedian. And, so, that’s something that you that you grow into. And then comedy, in its purest form, is a form of protest, speaking truth to power. And, so, it kind of fits the Palestinian story perfectly,” he added.

Asked about what audiences can expect from his Dubai show, Zahr said: “It’s going to be me telling the Palestinian story from before Oct. 7, and after Oct. 7, with love, laughter and the truth. And maybe during the show, I’ll make people laugh until they cry. And sometimes I’ll make them cry until they laugh.”