Desert X announces return to Saudi Arabia for second exhibition

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Desert X, which produces a biennial art exhibit in the Coachella Valley, will return to AlUla, Saudi Arabia for a second exhibit from February 11 to March 30.

The exhibition will be curated by Desert X Artistic Director Neville Wakefield, art historian Reem Fadda and AR Art Advisory co-founder Raneem Farsi, and the theme of the exhibition is “Sarab,” which means “to sink” in Arabic. Desert X AlUla will take place in a different part of the city than the 2020 edition.

Participating artists will be announced in January.

Lita Albuquerque installation

Desert X AlUla is a collaboration between Desert X and the Royal Commission for AlUla. Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, is listed as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

The AlUla Desert in northwest Saudi Arabia is home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Hegra (Mada’in Saleh), an archaeological site dating back thousands of years in the Lihyan and Nabatean Kingdoms.

Desert X has received reviews for its AlUla 2020 exhibition. Los Angeles-based contemporary artist Ed Ruscha said collaboration with a Saudi government initiative led him to resign from Desert X’s board of directors, given the country’s human rights record and its implication in the murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Ruscha said at the time that accepting funds to bring Desert X to northwestern Saudi Arabia risked sending the wrong message and “it’s like inviting Hitler to a tea party.”

Saudi Arabia has been condemned in recent years by international organizations, including the United Nations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, for allegations of human rights violations and war crimes in Yemen.

A Saudi family walks past a giant poster of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at a shopping mall in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Sunday, September 15, 2019.

Desert X founder and president Susan Davis told the Desert Sun in an email that her exhibits in Saudi Arabia “can be easily dismissed and distorted,” but should also be considered by “the scale of their importance” .

“In a desert across the world, forged in a place that has long fought against freedom of expression and intolerance, artists are invited to stage projects that courageously take this context to the test and open up new avenues for future debate, ”Davis said.

Desert X said it received 9,000 visitors to its AlUla 2020 exhibition during its five weeks with 14 artists from Saudi Arabia, the Middle East, Europe and North America. The “Najma” sculpture was the first human sculpture on public display in the kingdom since the rise of Islam, according to Saudi curators at Desert X Al Ula.

For the third exhibition in Coachella Valley last spring, Desert X included “What Lies Beyond the Walls” by Saudi artist Zahrah Alghamdi at Desert Hot Springs, which organizers say was one of the most popular installations. visited in the 2021 edition.

Desert Hot Springs board member Gary Gardner told the Desert Sun on Wednesday that he supports Desert X’s return to AlUla and its future facilities in the city.

“I 100% support that they go back to Saudi Arabia because the more we can broaden people’s horizons by exposing them to the culture, here and there, we can seek to understand them better and they can seek to better us. understand, ”Gardner said.

But Palm Springs and Palm Desert city council members have expressed concern about the 2020 Desert X exhibit at AlUla during city council meetings while considering sponsoring the 2021 exhibit in Coachella Valley.

Palm Desert Board Member Has ‘Same Concerns’ As Last Time

In 2019, the Palm Desert City Council considered a draft letter to Desert Biennial, the non-profit organization behind Desert X, expressing concerns about the partnership. The letter was prepared by city staff at the request of Councilor Sabby Jonathan.

The draft letter cited the history of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and noted that “such a partnership could cause the city to reconsider future funding for the Desert Biennale.”

The board did not vote on the letter.

The installation of Rashed Al Shashai

Jonathan again touched on Desert X’s partnership with Saudi Arabia at a 2020 board meeting before voting on granting $ 20,000 in sponsorship for the 2021 Biennial Exhibition in Coachella Valley. He reiterated comments he has made in the past that by supporting Desert X, “we are condoning the actions of Saudi Arabia, which practices Sharia law. Where homosexuality is illegal. Where women are whipped for being raped; where non-Muslims, especially Jews, are routinely abused, ”Jonathan said.

The divided city council decided to sponsor the exhibit in a 3-2 vote in which Jonathan and Susan Marie Weber cast the opposite votes, seeking more financial information from Desert X – particularly how much money the artistic organization received from Saudi Arabia.

Jonathan told the Desert Sun on Wednesday that he was “very disappointed” with Desert X’s decision to return to AlUla, adding that he believed there was a constructive speech when they made the 2020 exhibition and hoped they would have “learned from what I consider to be their mistake.”

He said that would influence any future considerations Desert X brings to the board.

“I’m going to keep an open mind, but I have the same concerns as last time around,” said Jonathan. “I think they are being used as a puppet, and I think by their affiliation with Saudi Arabia, they show their acceptance of extreme human rights violations.”

Palm Springs board member expresses disappointment at new exhibit

The city of Palm Springs also raised objections to Desert X’s partnership with Saudi Arabia in January when considering a $ 30,000 sponsorship. The board members chose to make a deal with artist Christopher Myers directly instead of going through Desert X.

But the organizers of Desert X said that while the city could have decided not to associate its own name with the art exhibit, bypassing Desert X to install the piece was not an option.

Palm Springs residents and council members also voiced concerns about the partnership during the meeting.

“I support the belief that art transcends many political issues,” said Ron deHarte, president of Palm Springs Pride. “However, when art supports and attempts to bring credibility to an entity widely condemned for human rights violations in a country where 50% of our own residents are said to be on death row, it is not fair.

“Married men and interfaith sex carry the death penalty. We do not support the City of Palm Springs in endorsing or funding practices that enable Desert X’s efforts.”

The installation of Manal Al Dowayan

At the time, board member Geoff Kors was worried about the Desert Biennial’s refusal to share its financial information and what happened in Saudi Arabia.

Desert X announced they were going to Saudi Arabia for a sum of money they do not share six months after Saudi Arabia executed 37 people in public executions, the majority of whom were from the Shiite minority , five would be gay men, and they beheaded those people in public … and executed 184 people that year. And six months later, Desert X took money from them to go, “Kors said.

“I just think that, given our stance on human rights, for us to support an organization that does this is not much different from supporting an organization that went to Nazi Germany to do an exhibition of art at this time or in South Africa during apartheid. “

Kors told the Desert Sun on Wednesday that he was also disappointed with Desert X’s decision.

“After the conversations that have taken place and the continued gruesome treatment of religious minorities, LGBT people and women in Saudi Arabia, this is where they choose to go to help Saudi Arabia tourism and its vision of the world, ”Kors said. “They are listed as one of the most dangerous places for so many minorities and for public executions of people simply because of their sexual orientation or different political views.”

“Art has the potential to challenge the divisions that separate our world”

In response to what Davis called “inaccurate attacks” on Desert X by elected officials, they are “reassured that continuing to face difficult contexts everywhere is necessary if we are to ever live up to the ideals by which we are pretend to be led ”.

“We deeply believe that art has the potential to challenge the divisions that separate our world and that engagement, no matter how difficult or controversial it is, will always be a better strategy than an isolationist approach rooted in moral motives. selective, ”Davis said.

Sandie Newton interviews Desert X founder Susan Davis.

Palm Desert Mayor Pro-Tem Jan Harnik told the Desert Sun on Wednesday that the 2020 AlUla exhibit was “impactful and state-of-the-art.”

“It addressed a lot of issues that are so objectionable by our standards in America,” Harnik said. “If we can make the changes, help people move forward and treat people the way they should be treated, I think we need to support that.”

Organizers said in an email to The Desert Sun that the upcoming AlUla exhibition will expand the public and community programming offered at the first exhibition including an artist residency program, arts mediator training programs, arts mediator training programs, artist-led education, an art movie theater and more for teachers, visitors and communities.

Coachella Valley’s fourth exhibition runs from March 4 to May 7, 2023 and will be co-curated by Desert X Artistic Director Neville Wakefield and Diana Campbell, Founding Artistic Director of the Samdani Art Foundation in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Curator in chief of Dhaka Art. Mountain peak.

Desert X is also adding three new members to its board of directors: Jarvis Crawford, director of the community center at the James O. Jessie Desert Highland Unity Center in Palm Springs, Desert X 2021 artist Nicholas Galanin and chairman of the committee of Riverside County planning Guillermo “Bill” Sanchez.

A previous report by Desert Sun reporters Sherry Barkas and Erin Rode was used for this report.

Desert Sun reporter Brian Blueskye covers the arts and entertainment. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @bblueskye. Support local news, subscribe to The Desert Sun.


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