by Jerry ElengicalJul 31, 2021
“If you take the moment, of today being Wednesday, March 12 in the year 2020, and then you locate that moment: so, I am in Los Angeles, California, United States of America, Northern Hemisphere, planet Earth, in the Solar System that exists in the Orion Arm of the Milky Way galaxy, that is next to the Virgo cluster which is next to few other galaxies… and then you go back… it places us in the planet, in the cosmos… and that is what is happening,” says Lita Albuquerque.
Elyseria is an astronaut from the 25th century who has travelled back in time to disseminate awareness about the stars and mankind’s relationship with the cosmos. She arrived on this planet in the year 6000 BCE and mysteriously lost her sense of purpose, and has been seeking to understand it since then. Today she sits in AlUla, whose walls go back to the dawn of history, meditating above traces of what were once pools of pigment, as ultramarine as her own body, aligned to the stars that graced the desert on the January 31, 2020, for the inauguration of Saudi Arabia’s first site-specific exhibition – Desert X AlUla.
Lita Albuquerque’s installation, titled NAJMA (She Placed One Thousand Suns Over the Transparent Overlays of Space),at Desert X AlUla is but an episode in a narrative that the California-based artist has been constructing for several years. While Elyseria’s awakening has been chronicled through Albuquerque’s video installation 20/20: Accelerando, the time-traveller has reappeared in many forms and media across the years, including Particle Horizon (2014) at Laguna Art Museum and hEARTH (2017) at DesertX, both in California, along with Transparent Earth I (2018) at the Biennale Safiental Valley in Switzerland.
For Albuquerque, the core of her practice is exploring the positionality of her body with respect to the universe and a corporeal form of astronomy guides her aesthetics. A lot of her initial work was influenced by Islamic wisdom of the ninth to 11th centuries CE, constructing a practice that promotes a sense of unity with the cosmos. By the late 70s it developed into an exploration of man’s location on the planet with respect to the stars and vice versa. A meticulous process of mapping the night sky formally informed her land art which had red, yellow, black and blue pigment trailed across the ground to create giant shapes and pattern. While these works are created by mark making, an act which traditionally seeks to assert permanence, their ephemerality, in that they cannot but embrace the wind, acknowledges the constant state of motion that all beings are subject to. “The planet itself is in continual movement. Not only rotation but (also) all these other (physical) movements,” says Albuquerque.
Her journey has taken her to the Pyramids of Giza, for the 1996 Cairo Biennale, where she created 99 pools of blue pigment whose relative diameter varied proportionally to the brightness of the stars they were aligned to in the work titled Sol Star,and the two poles, with the trip to Antarctica being aided by the National Science Foundation grant in 2006. At the latter site she created Stellar Axis, which was followed up with a companion project in the Arctic the next year, where 99 blue orbs were placed in alignment to 99 stars in the Antarctic sky. The significance of 99 is that it connotes to the 99 names of God in Islamic cosmology. In both these projects, as with others, this calculated positionality would be displaced with the movement of the spheres and other natural forces.
For Albuquerque, the choice of ultramarine blue in these works signifies the connection between the earth and the sky. Her use of other colours is also guided by a similarly elemental compass. “The red is very much about the interior of the Earth and that kind of energy that’s in the Earth and that’s also our own energy. Yellow really has a lot to do with the Sun… and in my paintings I use a lot of gold leaf and it has to do with light,” she adds.
Albuquerque’s sculpture, which is modelled after her daughter, the dancer and choreographer Jasmine Albuquerque, at AlUla is probably the first figurative artwork to be displayed publically in the desert country since the coming of Islam some 13 centuries ago. While many have questioned the participation of artists in an event sponsored by a government agency in a state, which has been known to be one of the most oppressive in the world, a sentiment echoed by Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times last October, Albuquerque argues that being able to create, and take part, in the historic moment could be celebrated as a beacon for a brighter future. Besides her, other participating artists included Manal Aldowayan, Rashed Alshashai, Nadim Karam, Wael Shawky, Superflex, Gisela Colon and El Seed among others.
Desert X AlUla was co-curated by Aya Alireza and Raneem Farsi along with the artistic director of Desert X, Neville Wakefield. The event concluded on March 7, 2020.