Saudi light festival tries to convince the public to push the arts

Riyadh — Dazzling installations have lit up the Saudi capital, giving a taste of the kingdom’s drive to become a global arts destination for ordinary Saudis — and not just museum-goers.

A massive red orb glowing outside the National Library, light rods dotting the riverside at a popular picnic spot, and arabesque patterns projected onto the mudbrick walls of a 130-year-old fort – it’s all part of Noor Riyadh, a big party city.

Saudi curator Jumana Ghouth said she found it “incredible” to see Saudis from different socio-economic backgrounds “interacting with the work”, given that “we are not really a nation that grew up on art “.

Saudi Arabia has generated excitement and some controversy in recent years for attracting big names from the contemporary art world to shows like Desert X, set amid the dramatic Al-Ula Sandstone Mountains, in the sparsely populated north.

Noor Riyadh, on the other hand, brings light installations to more than 40 locations in a rapidly growing city of more than seven million people, many of whom may never consider visiting a gallery.

“Specifically those who can’t even afford to travel – we bring the art to them,” Ghouth said.

The focus on busy public spaces means “these works of art have just appeared in their comfort zone”, said Gaida Almogren, another Saudi curator involved in the festival which opened last week. .

“I think that’s the role of art: come and poke around and see how you react.”

Noor Riyadh’s launch events included a light show in a park involving 2,000 drones and a rave in the desert outside the city, with the DJ set up under a large glowing inverted pyramid.

Most encounters with light installations, however, are much more discreet.

One recent night, Adel Shuker strolled with his wife and sister-in-law through a Noor Riyadh installation by Puerto Rican artist Gisela Colon, marveling at the way the light shimmered on a nearby man-made lake.

“The light, how they put it there, how they distribute the light – it really is like art,” Shuker said.

It was a unique experience for the 52-year-old retired navy analyst, who describes himself as unfamiliar with Riyadh’s museums and art galleries.

“I want to be honest with you: I’m not going there,” he said.

“We don’t have time – Riyadh now it’s very crowded, you can’t get around easily. It’s rush hour anywhere, anytime. So you have to find time for himself. “

– Avoid politics –

More than 130 artists from 40 countries participated in Noor Riyadh, which runs until November 19.

As with other exhibits in the kingdom, the festival raises questions about ‘artwashing’, or the use of the arts to whitewash the image of a country known for silencing dissidents, including murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi .

In recent months, Saudi Arabia has come under fire for decades of prison sentences handed down to two women who tweeted and retweeted posts critical of the government.

The negative headlines resulting from such cases undermine a central goal of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform agenda: softening the kingdom’s tough image.

Noor Riyadh’s installations generally avoid political messages, although several highlight the ravages of climate change.

Festival co-curator Hervé Mikaeloff, who has worked with international artists, admitted some of them may have been apprehensive about coming to Saudi Arabia, but said none had come under pressure from local authorities over the content.

“Of course, if you agree to work here, you have to accept the rules and you have to accept the legal and political situation of it,” Mikaeloff told AFP.

“I think most of the artists I spoke with wanted to emphasize that a festival like this (is) also a political gesture, to open the country to the world.”

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