The Nabataeans are arguably one of the most intriguing civilizations that many have never heard of before. The last of the desert-dwelling nomads, who inhabited the archeological site of Hegra (also known as Mada’in Saleh) in northwest Saudi Arabia around the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, have vanished a long time ago but their legacy remains in the carved eagles, mythological figures, sphinxes, inscriptions, and tombs etched into the towering honey-colored rocks pockmarked by centuries of rainfall that surround the ancient Arabic oasis city that now stands as an open-air living gallery with the rock art they left behind.
Several thousand years after the Nabatean Kingdom disappeared, and roughly 11,000 km away from the ancient city the Arabian tribe once traversed, a baby boy named Andrew Warhola was born to Slovakian immigrants in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia. The boy discovered an interest in art, aged eight, after he contracted Sydenham chorea that left him bedridden and in his mother’s care for months. He would go on to pursue a career as a commercial artist, dropping the “a” at the end of his last name to become simply known as Andy Warhol. Today, Warhol is often referred to as the pioneering figure in the visual art movement known as pop art.
Now, you may be asking what does Andy Warhol have to do with the ancient Nabateans? Their art is both currently on display in AlUla.
“FAME: Andy Warhol in AlUla” is an exhibition curated by Patrick Moore, director of The Andy Warhol Museum— the US institution that holds the world’s largest collection of the artist’s work— that got underway in AlUla on Feb. 17 at Maraya, the world’s largest mirror structure, just a few miles away from the centuries-old rock art and preserved tombs in the UNESCO heritage site that served as home to one of the world’s most ancient civilizations. The exhibition marks the first time that Warhol’s work is featured in Saudi Arabia, and the second time in the region (note: Warhol visited Kuwait in the late 70s and his work was exhibited at the Dhaiat Abdullah Al Salem Gallery).
“AlUla has been always a place for creative inspiration and creative production throughout the centuries. When we started really working on this exhibition, it was important for us to speak about what is happening today in the region, but also introducing this artist that captured a lot through a very short transformational period. And so we started discussions with the Andy Warhol Museum as an opportunity to really explore that,” said Nora Aldabal, Arts and Creative Planning Director at the Royal Commission of AlUla (RCU).
Bringing together some of Warhol’s most iconic artworks, on loan from The Andy Warhol Museum, as well as rarely seen archival photographs and ephemera, the three-month-long exhibition focuses on the concept of fame as a key component of the artist’s life and career. Prints depicting Jackie Kennedy, Dolly Parton, Judy Garland, and Elizabeth Taylor are displayed alongside black-and-white polaroids of Muhammed Ali, Princess Caroline de Monaco, and Debbie Harry, only a 15-minute drive away from 3000-year-old rock art and preserved tombs, offering an unparalleled experience where history and modernity coalesce.
In another room, walls are occupied by projections of short film portraits, made between 1964 and 1966 in The Factory (also known as Warhol’s studio), showing Edie Sedgwick, Paul America, Lou Reed, and Nico against plain backdrops. The third and final room features a collection of Warhol’s Silver Clouds, an immersive installation comprised of metallic balloons, initially conceived for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1966, that invites visitors to let out their inner child.
The exhibition is part of the second edition of the AlUla Arts Festival, which kicked off in the northwestern city last year. Running until Feb. 28, the unique event is part of AlUla Moments, and features three other exciting exhibitions. They are “100 Best Arabic Posters,” a selection of graphic posters from the region made between 2020 to 2022; the AlUla Artist Residency “Palimpsest of Time” exhibition, which features visual art, installation, photography, poetry, and film created by thirteen artists from the current and previous AlUla Artists Residency programme who were invited to immerse themselves in AlUla for 11-weeks and collaborate with the local community and their surroundings; and the AlUla Canon YPP Showcase Exhibition giving a voice to the young people of AlUla to talk about global issues that affect their futures.”
There’s also nine workshops led by the likes of Hassan Hajjaj and Rana Salem, film screenings at Cinema AlJadidah, curated by Dubai’s Cinema Akil, and a jam-packed programme of performing arts, as well as guided tours that will introduce art enthusiasts to the Wadi AlFann landscapes, which will be the site of art commissions by the likes of world-renowned artists James Turrell, Agnes Denes, and Michael Heizer in addition to revered regional artists Manal Al Dowayan and Ahmed Mater, nestled between the valley’s remarkable canyons.
A little art fair that packs a big punch, the AlUla Arts Festival is part of thriving cultural scene that has emerged in AlUla and Saudi Arabia as a whole over the past couple of years after, determined to diversify its economy away from oil, the Kingdom has began banking on tourism as a new source of income. There’s the Islamic Biennale taking place in Jeddah; Riyadh’s MDLBeast SOUNDSTORM festival, that invites the world’s top electronic music DJs to perform for audiences across three nights; Desert X in AlUla; and Maraya Concerts, a series of musical performances in the desert canyon of the Ashar Valley that will see Alicia Keys hit the stage this Friday. That’s not to mention major sporting events such as the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, which took place for the first time in Jeddah in 2021, and the Diriyah E-Prix, an all-electric street race, with a 2.495km circuit that runs around historic town walls.
Referred to by some as Saudi’s Cultural Renaissance, these events are also incubated by a generation of emerging talent redefining what it means to be Saudi in the global imagination— 70% of Saudi Arabia’s population is under the age of 35, making it one of the youngest countries in the world. But how do you navigate positioning the country, more specifically, an ancient and historic town that remained unexplored and untouched for more than 2000-years, as a premiere tourist destination without tiptoeing into the territory of commercialization? Madrasat Addeera is a marvelous example of the leaps that Saudi is taking to promote its heritage, while not giving in to mass-tourism plot holes that can lead to locals feeling that their culture and beliefs are being minimized.
The school was established by the RCU, which is responsible for the development and preservation of the historic region, in 2019. A former girls-only school, the space was transformed into a thriving arts hub that equips local female students with skills in various crafts, including ceramic, palm frond weaving, pottery, stone carving, and more, while promoting and preserving the traditional crafts of the region and giving women artisans the opportunity to gain financial independence and provide for their families by selling their crafts or starting their own brands. “It’s great to see a lot of the artisans really developing works of quality so you’re no longer just having mass production of items that can then lose their value,” explained Aldabal.
In addition to the arts and crafts institute, RCU has made major strides in ensuring that AlUla’s locals aren’t being swept to the side, giving them hundreds of thousands of opportunities for employment, as the city welcomes more visitors each year. The RCU forecasts that the population of the area will triple to 130,000 by 2035, generating about 38,000 new jobs.
And plans to further expand the arts and culture sector are currently underway in AlUla. Kandahar, an upcoming American action thriller film directed by Ric Roman Waugh, written by Mitchell LaFortune, and produced by Gerard Butler was shot entirely in the Northwest’s lush green oases and undulating sand dunes. Meanwhile, the city is set to welcome a contemporary arts museum soon, and the aforementioned Wadi AlFann permanent art initiative is expected to be completed in the coming years, with the first five large-scale, site-specific works of art installed and unveiled by 2024.
“It is important that whenever we are working on something, it is very much of AlUla and from AlUla,” said Aldabal. “So whether it’s an artist, a designer, or a creative, it’s important that they spend time here, understand the land itself, understand the botanical life, the flora and fauna, and then work within what is here.”