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Riyadh lights up with citywide art festival

Saudi Arabia's first annual Noor Riyadh art festival has brightened Riyadh with light-based installations across the city.
A light installation spelling out "Riyadh" is seen in this undated image from the Noor Riyadh festival.

In JAX, formerly the industrial area of Ad-Diriyah in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, now one of the city’s budding creative districts, is a monumental vessel that appears to have arrived from outer space. It is filled with several large piles of steel wool onto which are placed abstract sculptures made from shredded steel.

At 28 meters in length and 4.5 meters in height, the vessel’s large presence is foreboding. "The Mind Ship Exodus" by Saudi artist Muhannad Shono features black heaps of steel illuminated by projected video, creating playful patterns and movement across the terrifying structure.

“We are lighting up the darkness,” Shono told Al-Monitor. He was commissioned to create the work for the first edition of Noor Riyadh, an annual citywide festival dedicated to art made of light.

“The work is a mindscape, or a landscape of the mind. The vessel is for you to navigate the mind as you navigate ideas,” said Shono, describing it as “the light of the mind in the face of the darkness that is telling you not to create, not to imagine and not to think differently.”

Shono’s awe-inspiring installation is one of 33 artworks that currently illuminate Riyadh’s urban landscape. The light works, created by over 60 artists from 22 countries, play, distort and reflect their surroundings to create new worlds of their own, seeming to transcend the boundaries of time and space.

Saudi Arabia’s borders remain closed to the outside world due to coronavirus precautions. The country of 34 million currently has 3,811 active cases, of which 574 are in critical care.

With the virus relatively contained, on March 7 Saudi Arabia lifted most restrictions. Indoor dining at restaurants is now permitted and gyms and salons have reopened. The festival was put together in just shy of a year and the artworks across the city will be up for just 17 days — from March 18 until April 3.

International visitors and select press, of which Al-Monitor was part, flew in for the opening. We were given special permission to enter in order to view the landmark show.

This first edition of Noor Riyadh is taking place in two main areas: The King Abdulaziz Historical Center and the King Abdullah Financial District, where visitors can also view "Light Upon Light," an exhibition of light art from the 1960s to the present on view until June 12, curated by New York-based Susan Davidson and Saudi Raneem Farsi.

“One of the most important aspects of the exhibition is that it is grounded in a history of light art, meaning the art movement that came forward in Europe and in America in the 1960s,” Davidson told Al-Monitor. It is the largest retrospective of its kind.

Over 60 artworks by leading international artists as well as rising names from the Saudi art scene are on view throughout the city. Pieces are also stationed in other lesser-known areas of Riyadh such as the Diplomatic Quarter, JAX and King Fahad National Library in a bid to attract visitors to new sites.

Art by global stars such as Dan Flavin, Urs Fischer, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov and Yayoi Kusama are displayed next to works by Saudi artists including Rashed AlShashai, Sultan bin Fahad, Dana Awartani, Nasser AlSalem, Manal AlDowayan, Lulwa Al Homoud, Maha Malluh, Ayman Yossri Daydban, Ahmed Mater, Ahmad Angawi, Abdullah AlOthman, Sarah Abu Abdullah and Mohammad AlFaraj.

While the Riyadh art show was in the works before the pandemic began, Davidson was brought in as coronavirus restrictions took hold of the globe. The challenge, she said, wasn’t selecting the artists but convincing people to loan and ship works to the kingdom during the pandemic.

“This exhibition is sure to have a great impact on the people of Saudi Arabia,” she said. “What makes the exhibition extremely dynamic is that we have brought in a number of Saudi artists — many of whom have been commissioned to make pieces especially for the exhibition — and the success of this for a young artist who has never had the opportunity to work with light has been both challenging and rewarding.”

Noor Riyadh, which aims “to spark creative expression and create an inclusive culture,” according to its executive director Miguel Blanco-Carrasco, reflects the kingdom’s ambitious Vision 2030 plan to diversify its economy and wean its reliance on oil.

The establishment of a creative economy, states the plan, is key in ushering in a new chapter of growth for Saudi Arabia. The kingdom’s petroleum sector still accounts for roughly 87% of budget revenues, 42% of GDP and 90% of export earnings.

“One of the most important aspects of Vision 2030 is the flourishing of the kingdom’s creative economy, and this is one of the main highlights of Riyadh Art and Noor Riyadh as a program,” said Anas Najimi, adviser to the Royal Commission for Riyadh City. Riyadh Art is one of four grand projects conceived by the Royal Commission for Riyadh City with the aim to transform the capital into a dynamic and cosmopolitan city.

While the international public can only view the exhibition online, from day one, Riyadh residents flocked to the monumental light artworks in epic numbers, with 15,000 visitors attending in one day, according to the Royal Commission for Riyadh City, which conceived the project. The project has also produced 1,200 jobs, half of which went to Saudi nationals.

“Vision 2030 recognizes the importance of a vibrant society where everyone enjoys a rich, happy and fulfilling life as a strong foundation for economic prosperity,” Blanco-Carrasco told Al-Monitor. “Art adds enormous value to the cultural, aesthetic and economic vitality of a community. As one of 13 programs under an ambitious venture called the Riyadh Art project, Noor Riyadh plays a role in realizing the goals laid out in Vision 2030, in particular in improving quality of life and raising Riyadh’s ranking among the top 100 cities of the world. It is a metaphor for the transformation of Riyadh, illuminating its ambition of becoming one of the world’s most competitive and livable cities by 2030.”

A towering electric blue cylinder placed just a few steps away from the King Abdulaziz Historical Center is Saudi artist Lulwah Al Homoud’s "The Infinite Blue," a work created especially for Noor Riyadh. Inside the cylinder is a series of animated images featuring the artist’s well-known intricate geometric creations inspired by Islamic art.

“'The Infinite Blue' focuses on the relation between the finite and the infinite through abstract lines and shapes expressing growth, movement and what lies between them,” said Al Homoud. “The work is based on language and how it evolved from a dot to infinite meanings and ideas, liberating it from its known forms to a universal visual structure.”

Even as the kingdom’s borders remain closed, Noor Riyadh strives to show — not just to Saudi nationals but to the world — that Saudi Arabia is ready for a new era.

On the ground of the Saudi National Museum, Saudi artist Marwha AlMugait’s multimedia installation "May We Meet Again" similarly exemplifies the kingdom’s forward-looking vision. The work was made in collaboration with artists Christina Poblador and Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai and performers Rahaf Ibrahim and Nora AlSaif, none of whom have ever visited Saudi Arabia. The work consists of a film projected on the roof of the museum featuring different women reciting poetry, largely in Urdu. It explores the possibility of creating an alternate reality through various narratives and a common universal language: art.

The Saudi National Museum is located in Al-Murabba, an area of Riyadh inhabited mostly by non-Saudis with different cultural backgrounds. “A big inspiration for this work is the multinational community that continues to come to the garden of the museum,” said AlMugait, who spoke of visiting the gardens to listen to the multitude of different languages.

“I feel that we are entering the golden age for art and culture in Saudi Arabia,” added Al Homoud. “We as artists are privileged to live during this time. The plans to make Riyadh a cultural hub will put the city on top of the world.”

Shono’s explanation of his usage of light is similarly illuminating: “The idea of light here is the idea of this burning or ignited state of mind that refuses to be extinguished, referencing an end to restrictions of the past, including religious tolerance and fanaticism.”

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