by Sukanya DebSep 23, 2022
Amidst the striking landscape of the Arabian desert in AI-‘Ula in the Medina Region, Desert X and the Royal Commission for Al-‘Ula collaborated to present a profound experience of art in conversation with nature. The art festival brought together 15 artists from across the world to create large scale installations, curated to bring the viewer in close proximity with the expansive and majestic forms of the desert. The second edition of this festival ended recently. The exhibition took on magical qualities, encouraged by its location and curation, and feels to the viewer as if they were sucked into a fairytale. We spoke to Reema Fadda, co-curator, alongside Raneem Farsi and Neville Wakefield, as well as Shezad Dawood, one of the 15 exhibiting visual artists, to learn more about the festival.
The curatorial theme of this edition of Desert X Al-Ula was Sarab, which encourages an exploration of connections which are intrinsic to the experience of the desert itself. Fadda tells us, “Sarab is the Arabic word for ‘mirage’. This was one of the main anchors of the exhibition, as well as the idea of ‘oasis’. Both these ideas have long been tied to ideas of survival, perseverance, desire and wealth, and both are universal concepts. They also speak of man’s relationship with nature, as well as man’s desire to control and possess nature; however, nature is elusive and can regain its control over us. The artists represented this dynamic in a striking, aesthetic way; their works address issues emerging from the local context but also resonate with other parts of the world, which makes the whole exhibition highly compelling for audiences everywhere”. Sarab also honours the culture of the desert, inviting you to consider the ancient wisdom and concepts it presents. The festival draws attention to the dramatic vistas of the desert, calling upon us to take note of the magnificence of our natural world, and its interwoven relationship with us as humans.
Fadda is a practicing art curator and art historian who has previously worked at the Guggenheim Museum, and is a 2019 Fellow of the Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum. She tells us about the practicalities of curating in a space which is vulnerable to the elements, saying, “The unique weather and environmental conditions of the desert are indeed challenging, as works exhibited here must be harmonious with the effects of wind, sand and temperature - but the artists have responded to this challenge beautifully. The environment itself has also given way to fascinating explorations in the works, with installations mimicking the shapes and colours of the desert surroundings, exploring themes like water shortage, and even changing colour in response to the temperature”. UK-born artist Shezad Dawood works with sculpture, textile, film and digital media in his practice, and shares a unique, site-responsive artwork for this festival. Dawood presents Coral Alchemy, a pointed reference to the mass bleaching and depletion of coral reefs across the planet’s oceans. In dialogue with geologist Chris Collins, Dawood learned that the Al-Ula canyon used for this edition of DesertX would have 10 million years ago been the delta for what became the Red Sea.
The coral forms in the art installation Coral Alchemy – inspired by two species endemic to the region, change colour over the course of the day, their surfaces transforming in tandem with the desert’s shifting temperatures. Dawood shares his faith in the prowess of art to transform our minds, and influence our emotions. He says, “I think art can help make processes, particularly those that take place beneath the surface of the ocean, both visible and palpable to audiences. I also think there's a very strong link between art and empathy and of course, art's ability to transform complex scientific ideas into more easily understood visual forms. For example, with the Coral Alchemy project, we spent a long time experimenting with thermochromatic paint so you could actually see the corals change before your eyes according to the ambient temperature in the desert. So that first thing in the morning they start off carbon black, and then move through their natural fluorescence and end up fully bleached at the hottest point in the day.”
Dawood sets strong intention for his work, and puts money where his mouth is (unlike many artists who tout the eco-friendly trumpet), by embedding a donation to frontline coral preservation as part of the work's budget, and is currently developing a scholarship programme for early career researchers in partnership with ecological geneticist Madeleine van Oppen, one of Dawood's long-term scientific collaborators. The artist tells us how he is working to develop a mindful and environmentally-conscious creative practice. He says, “We are currently engaged in a climate audit of our studio in partnership with the Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC) to measure our footprint and see what steps we can take to further reduce it. Through lockdowns and the experience of COVID-19, we have had to try to find a silver lining and adapt to the remote directing some of my films, and porting a lot of my public facing engagements online, as well as reducing travel to a degree I was aiming to achieve in any case. COVID-19 has made many of these options a lot more acceptable to many of the partners that we work with, so we plan to continue a hybrid working methodology”.
Desert X Al-Ula 2022 also featured Shadia Alem, Zeinab Alhashemi, Serge Attukwei Clottey, Dana Awartani, Jim Denevan, Abdullah AlOthman, Alicja Kwade, Ayman Zedani, Claudia Comte, Khalil Rabah, Monika Sosnowska, Shaikha AlMazrou, Stephanie Deumer, and Sultan bin Fahad.