AlUla exhibition celebrates local life in the Saudi oasis

A French-Saudi cultural partnership grew organically into a show that is on display until the end of March

Muhannad Shono's On This Sacred Day (2022) releases the scent of burnt palm leaves into the air. Photo by Artur Weber - Courtesy of the artist and the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU)
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It is easy to think of the sandy, windswept canyons of Saudi Arabia’s AlUla, dotted with empty, ancient tombs, as long since abandoned to the elements. Once criss-crossed by ancient civilisations, now it is quiet and spectacular.

But the AlUla oasis also contains a string of small towns, from the heritage sites at Hegra to Al Jadidah, just north of the medieval AlUla old town. About 50,000 people live in the valley, and the population is growing as AlUla becomes a major development site.

And while Desert X AlUla, the flagship exhibition of the 2022 AlUla Season, leans into the extraordinary character of the landscape, a more modest show runs concurrently, with works by Rashed AlShashai and Muhannad Shono from Saudi Arabia; Sara Favriau and Laura Sellies from France; and Talin Hazbar and Sofiane Si Merabet, who both live in the UAE.

Titled The Oasis Reborn, the show focuses on the community life in the AlUla valley, among its long-term residents and newly arrived experts.

“The oasis is the heart of AlUla,” says Nora Aldabal, the arts and creative planning director at the Royal Commission of AlUla. “It’s where the locals settled and remain.”

A group photo with the members of The Oasis Reborn art residency. Photo: Royal Commission for AlUla

The exhibition was itself organic. It began as a pilot programme for a residency, organised by French group Manifesto alongside the Royal Commission for AlUla and the French Agency for AlUla development, or Afalula. The artists were invited to stay for 11 weeks at the Mabiti AlUla hotel and were part of a roster of regular meetings and workshops that fall under the ungainly technical term “knowledge transfer”.

Locals taught the artists traditional palm weaving and dyeing techniques, while a French botanist from Afalula lectured on the vegetation in the valley. In return, the artists gave lectures on their practices. Favriau taught anthotype methods of printing and Hazbar on working with mudbricks. AlShashai gave an introduction to contemporary art, focusing on its psychology.

French artist Sara Favriau conducts a workshop on anthotype methods of printing. Photo: Royal Commission for AlUla

Producing an artwork was not a stated goal of the residency. But by the end of the six weeks the artists all had an idea in mind of what they wanted to do — and wanted to show their work back to the community. In February, three weeks after the residency ended, they returned to launch the exhibition.

The show is situated in the palm groves surrounding the small, family-run Mabiti hotel. Rows of tall trees provide near-total shade and roosters crow in the background; at one point, a flock of goats passed desultorily by the circular audio installation set up by Sellies, without even a second glance at the congregation of loudspeakers. At the end of the rocky drive to the main road lies the commercial life of AlUla; garages, cafes and open-front shops, whose stories and items wound their way into the artists’ works themselves.

Talin Hazbar conducting a workshop in mudbrick construction methods. Photo: Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU)

For her work Earth Readings, Hazbar asked local residents about their most special, intimate, or favourite space in the valley. She was taken to dozens of nooks and crevices and heard stories of nostalgia, loss and peace.

“One person took me to a place where he and his brother used to play when they were children,” she says. “The brother has now moved away, but he goes there because the rock there reminds him of their childhood together.”

Another local took Hazbar to a sheltered site where he would find the headspace to read books that he could not otherwise concentrate on, amid his busy home life.

Hazbar, who was born in Aleppo and was trained at the American University of Sharjah in architecture, took earth from the sites she was taken to. Using techniques she honed on the residency, she created small mudbricks, some of them marked by the co-ordinates of the site (in other cases, she was asked to leave the location anonymous), and created a structure of two walls that narrow towards a thin aperture, just wide enough for visitors to pass through.

She also recorded the memories she heard, and the audio of these memories can be heard as visitors approach the artwork or move through it. The smell of the earth — the dry, dusty smell of the mountains, mixed with the sweeter scent of the farmyard — immediately evokes the landscape the locals took inspiration from.

Talin Hazbar's' Earth Readings' plays audio recordings of people's favourite sites in the valley. Photo: Royal Commission for AlUla

Shono, who lives in Riyadh, also used smell to evoke the lived experience of life in the valley. Inside the four-metre-long slanted trough On This Sacred Day, painted in Shono’s signature jet-black colour, the artist burns palm tree leaves, their vapour releasing a musky scent into the air. Shono has been fascinated by fire before; in his installation for Noor Riyadh, The Mind Ship Exodus (2021), he created the illusion of fire and movement by projecting a film of the churning sea and burning wires onto a heap of twisted, tangled steel.

The destructive possibilities of fire fit into Shono’s examination of violence, real or metaphorical, while also revealing the artist’s deft handling of entropy as an uncontrollable force. In Mabiti, the thick smoke filtered up through the palm-tree canopy; burning plant material is common practice in farms, but it was here sequestered in its deep-black container, apart from and belonging to local life at the same time.

Si Merabet, whose work often deals with Arab identity, researched local wedding rites in his three-channel video It’s Not Early Anymore. The work centres on Nujud bint Mohammed, the valley’s tagaga, or wedding singer, who is contracted for most of the nuptials in the area. Her singing and tapping of her drum, in her thin black gloves, provides the rhythm for the work, which also shows the changing standards for weddings. The events used to take place in farms, and then moved to local halls — a step up though with still a rundown municipal feel. The video ends with the opulent, cream-coloured surroundings of the dedicated wedding venues where brides and grooms now celebrate their vows.

Rashed AlShaishai's 'Thuruya' refers to the longstanding local practice of looking to the stars as a guide for the agricultural calendar. Photo: Royal Commission for AlUla

The most striking work belonged to AlShashai, who pictured an intricately constructed thuraya, or star, that had fallen to earth. AlShaishai is a master of colour; here the ornate structure, made of dried palm leaves, was draped in bright pink, and illuminated and mirrored in a small body of water that had been enlarged to enhance the artwork. Though beautiful, Thuraya suffered from a mismatch between its spectacular nature and the more down-to-earth inspiration for the piece. AlShaishai was interested in how local farmers looked to the stars to orient their calendar, helping them know when to plant and when to harvest. But the artwork feels far removed from these earthy origins; its vivid magenta feels neither of the sky nor the ground itself.

French artists Sellies and Favriau likewise responded to the stories of the valley. Sellies in her audio installation Populated by Moving Leaves that played the sounds of the oasis, from women and men speaking to the calls of birds and camels and even the wind as it rushed across the sand. Meanwhile, Favriau’s installation Trifles and Trinkets called to mind the best of the Swiss duo Fischli & Weiss. She created a diminutive exhibition of small sculptures made from bones, plants, stones and other tiny material that she found in the valley. Each was so precise and so precariously balanced that the entire work seemed ready at any point to tumble noiselessly into the ground — perhaps a fitting end for an exhibition that seemed to come together by chance and to belong, above all else, to the Earth below.

The Oasis Reborn is on show until March 31

Updated: February 28, 2022, 3:33 PM