Saudi Light Festival tries to sell the public an artistic impulse

Saudi Light Festival tries to sell the public an artistic impulse

The dazzling installations have been lighting up the Saudi capital, providing a taste of the kingdom’s drive to become a global arts destination for ordinary Saudis, not just regular museum visitors.

A huge red orb glowing outside the national library, illuminated wands dotting the riverbank at a popular picnic spot, and arabesque designs projected onto the mud-brick walls of a 130-year-old fort – these are all part of Noor Riyadh, a party of the whole city.

Saudi curator Jumana Ghouth said she found it “surprising” to see Saudis from different socioeconomic backgrounds “interact with the work” given that “we are not really a nation that grew up with art.”

Saudi Arabia has generated a stir and some controversy in recent years for attracting big names from the contemporary art world to shows like Desert X, set amid the impressive sandstone mountains of Al-Ula in the sparsely populated north.

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

“Specifically those who can’t even afford to travel, we’re bringing them art,” Ghouth said.

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

“I think that’s the role of art: to come and play, and see how you’re reacting.”

Launch events for Noor Riyadh included a light show in a park with 2,000 drones and a desert rave on the outskirts of the city, with the DJ set up under a large glowing inverted pyramid.

However, most encounters with light fixtures are much more subdued.

On a recent night, Adel Shuker walked with his wife and sister-in-law through a Noor Riyadh installation by Puerto Rican artist Gisela Colon, marveling at how the light reflected off a nearby man-made lake.

“The light, how they put it in there, how they distribute the light, it’s like art, really,” Shuker said.

It was a novel experience for the 52-year-old retired military analyst, who described 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 is very crowded right now, you can’t move easily. It’s rush hour anywhere, anytime. So we have to find time for ourselves.”

– Avoid politics –

More than 130 artists from 40 countries participated in Noor Riyadh, which will run 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, particularly murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In recent months, Saudi Arabia has come under fire for decades in prison imposed on 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 Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform agenda: to soften the kingdom’s harsh image.

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

Festival co-curator Herve Mikaeloff, who has worked with international artists, admitted that some of them may have been concerned about coming to Saudi Arabia, but said none had received pressure from local authorities about 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,” Mikaeloff told AFP.

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

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