One of AlUla's first permanent cultural assets has opened. The Royal Commission for AlUla’s Design Gallery is a handsome, Corten-steel-fronted structure marked with small, geometric incisions that mimic the pattern of the concrete breeze blocks that are commonly used in the area. It also houses Athr Gallery AlUla, an outpost of the Jeddah art space.
The 500-square-metre building was conceptualised by Gioforma, Black Engineering and the RCU Design Team, and sits on the main drag of AlJadidah, the newly refurbished precinct adjacent to the Old Town, a few kilometres from the Hegra heritage site.
AlJadidah’s road, once open to cars, has been pedestrianised, and stalls are now selling thick, copper-coloured fur and embroidered abayas and the ubiquitous evil-eye trinket to a mix of tourists and residents. Restaurants, adorned with strings of jumbo fairy lights, sell shawarmas and fries, and the area has the feel of slight anticipation, awaiting waves of visitors.
Both galleries say their focus is equally on these tourists and the local communities. The Design Gallery offers space in which to lead workshops and classes for residents and visitors, as well as hosting exhibitions.
Athr Gallery AlUla will use its space to showcase its artists and other collaborations. It opened in March with an exhibition of works by Ahaad Alamoudi, Sara Abdu and Mohammad Al Faraj.
“We wanted to be in the city that is leading cultural development in Saudi Arabia,” says Mohammed Hafiz, who co-founded Athr Gallery in 2009. “We see an opportunity to engage with our national and international audiences, and the gallery is going to offer experimental exhibitions that will engage with the public.”
The AlUla outpost is just one of four new spaces for the Jeddah gallery, which plays a major role in the Saudi contemporary art scene. Its owners will be keeping their Jeddah premises, which they have expanded over the years to take in several floors, including a rooftop space for exhibitions and other events.
After Athr Gallery AlUla, the next space to open, in May, will be in Hayy Jameel, the community arts complex in Jeddah that is anchored by the Art Jameel foundation. Titled Athr's Hayy, the site will offer curated, immersive experiences, similar to the immensely popular Rain Room at the Sharjah Art Foundation.
The exhibitions will run for five months and will be ticketed. They will pair local artists with collectives and engineers who specialise in immersive technologies, such as Superblue, James Turrell, Random International (the team behind the Rain Room) and TeamLab, which is also working with the Ministry of Culture on a permanent space in Jeddah. Its opening date has not been announced.
In September, the team behind Athr Gallery will open Athr Bait Shuaib AlBalad, a residency site and project space in AlBalad, Jeddah’s old town, that will house artists, curators and writers, and act as a social space with a cafe.
Finally, they are also opening a permanent space in Riyadh, after hosting a series of pop-up exhibitions last December, to coincide with the opening of the Diriyah Biennale. Athr JAX will occupy one of the warehouses that comprise the JAX district, now being developed as a major arts district for the capital, with exhibition spaces, artists’ studios and galleries. Some stakeholders are already beginning to move in, including the Diriyah Biennale and artist Ahmed Mater, who is opening a studio at the site, but large-scale plans have not yet been released.
Athr Gallery is by far and away the leading gallery in Saudi, representing a substantial proportion of the country’s major artists, such as Mater, Sarah Abu Abdallah, Muhannad Shono, Dana Awartani and Mohammed Al Faraj.
Athr Gallery's Hafiz is also vice chairman of the Saudi Arts Council, which oversees the annual 21, 39 Jeddah Arts exhibition, and has been instrumental in helping his artists make the most of the developing cultural arena in Saudi Arabia.
“It’s a combination of the right place and the right time, combined with passion and commitment, a great team and an amazing group of artists,” says Hafiz. “We believe in the bigger picture and the long-term approach to the current changes. We see galleries around the world becoming international players — why wouldn’t we become one of them?
"The opportunities are unparalleled globally to have a louder voice and make a bigger impact. We seized the opportunity and the moment.”