Desert canyons of Saudi Arabia's Al Ula valley turned into tapestry for Wadi AlFann masterplan
The desert canyons of Saudi Arabia’s north-western town Al Ula have weathered for millennia. Once a vast sea, the towering maze of sandstone ridges has been smoothed by the desert wind over thousands of years, leaving a delicate, lace-like patina on the golden rocks.
The area has become a melting pot of natural, cultural and historical tourism, already home to monumental artistic installations and now plays host to the biennial outdoor art fair Desert X Al Ula – a sister event to the biennial in California’s Coachella Valley.
One of the most anticipated additions is the upcoming Wadi AlFann project, a 65-square-kilometre valley in the canyons that will be a permanent, open-air contemporary art museum, featuring site-specific art installations from worldwide talents.
"Wadi AlFann is part of a larger master plan to transform Al Ula into five districts with 15 cultural assets that include museums, galleries and cultural centres, aimed to be finished by 2035"
Headed by the Royal Commission for Al Ula (RCU), the first five artist commissions were recently announced - set to be completed by 2024 – with a total of 20-25 artworks planned for the site, depending on the allowance of the landscape.
“We've announced five artworks by James Terrell, Michael Heizer, Agnes Dennis, Manal AlDowayan and Ahmed Mater, all who we’ve been working with since about 2018,” RCU cultural planning director Annette Gibbons-Warren told The New Arab. “We've done a lot of landscape evaluation and hikes to every canyon and ridge, and worked out the number of sites that are discrete and distinct, to make sure they're not sharing viewsheds.
“It's about an integration, a relationship with the landscape and the artist is animating something in that landscape,” she added. “In Wadi AlFann alone there are over 900 heritage sites, including rock art inscriptions, funerary structures and ancient architecture.”
Al Ula, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to 2000-year-old Nabataean tombs and historic dwellings. The area has already been activated over the last few years to draw people in to see the tombs and stunning geological formations of the canyons, such as with night time, candlelit viewings of Hegra – a group of 110 1st century BC preserved tombs. An old Hajj pilgrimage route cuts through the area, where many have carved ancient travel markers into the rock to note their passage.
Wadi AlFann is part of a larger master plan to transform Al Ula into five districts with 15 cultural assets that include museums, galleries and cultural centres, aimed to be finished by 2035. The sites will be interconnected by hiking and biking trials and aims to leave an as little impact as possible on the natural state of the area.
“We really limit the amount of vehicles and interference, as well as the built environment, which means it will be a slow, immersive experience,” Gibbons-Warren said. “It's really important for the philosophy of the site that it remains open, so we're working with our archaeological team to really make sure that we keep that essence - that sort of cultural and social history of this area, as open and free to roam as possible.
“Wadi AlFann will have three pavilions - an event pavilion, a desert canteen and an orientation pavilion, where you will get your map, design your day, and pick up your horse or bike,” she added. “The whole site will also be administered by a series of Wadi AlFann shuttles and there'll be rest stations around the site, so you can decide to hike from one work to another or to a landscape feature, and then pick up the shuttle and go somewhere else.”
The only other additions to the site will be about 20 rest stops scattered across the valley, offering amenities, shuttles and emergency help if needed.
The artworks commissioned will all take into account the materials, methods and overall environmental impact they leave on the valley. Sustainable materials and low-power needs that can be sourced by renewable energy are favoured, seeking to coexist with the landscape’s ecosystem as much as possible.
AlDowayan, a Saudi artist whose work revolves around themes of collective memory and local heritage, is already seeking sustainable alternatives to concrete for her labyrinthine installation “The Oasis of Stories,” which takes inspiration from the mud wall maze of Al Ula’s old town.
She is partnering with Tokyo University and 2021 Venice Biennale Golden Lion winner Wael Al Awar, whose architectural studio Waiwai Studios created a concrete alternative made from salt from desalination plants, to create her artwork.
“It speaks to a lot of lines that I've been investigating for many years in my practice, and it a labyrinth, a space of discovery and connection, which investigates ideas of invisibility and visibility and absence,” AlDowayan told The New Arab. “I'm not doing the replica of the town, but the artwork is based on the outlines of the streets within the old town. It will be tucked away in a valley, between two huge mountains, so there is always a sense of discovery when you try to find this artwork.
“The elements that go into the details of the artwork are inspired by all the inscriptions, the traces and all the engravings that humans have left in this area,” she added. “Now, we are dealing with a community in Al Ula, who are probably the closest ancestors to the Nabateans and the Dadanites before them, and they are the current custodians of this place - where are their trace, stories and inscriptions?”
AlDowayan will conduct several community participation sessions over the next year with residents of Al Ula, inviting them to draw what they feel should be engraved on the walls of her labyrinth, to carry their stories.
She hopes to bridge the ancient people of the past with the old town’s current custodians, giving them ownership of the historical narrative as well as their own.
“It's about leaving a trace. It's a very human instinct to scratch and imprint,” she said. “I also feel a huge responsibility to the community, as I’m building this work within their home and think about they will respond to it. And I want them to feel it's theirs.”
Mater, a physician-turned-artist and leading creator in the Saudi art scene, will be blending myth and science in his installation “Ashab Al-Lal,” by conjuring mirages in the desert, inspired by the minds of the Islamic Golden Age.
A 40-meter parabolic chamber will be built beneath the sand and through the play of ambient light, geothermal dynamics, precision engineering and “a bit of magic,” it will create a one-to-one scale mirage of the people standing in the chamber underneath, on the surface.
“We've had conversations with the artist about what happens when you're the only one in the desert, so there’s no one to create the mirage in the chamber,” Gibbons-Warren said. “There will likely also be a static version, maybe a statue in place, but he likes the idea of dancers or string quartets so that when you come across the artwork, you see something moving and it has this human dynamic element.”
While it will be two years before the artworks are completed, a program of cultural activations for Wadi AlFann has already begun, seeking to create engagement with the project.
In November, Chinese musician and vocalist Rui Fu performed the premiere of “Nine Songs” in the Wadi AlFann canyon. The RCU commissioned theatrical music performance is inspired by the “Songs of Chu” - an ancient anthology of romantic Chinese poetry from the 1st century BC - while responding to the geological structures of Al Ula.
“We want to build audiences and programs that we then migrate into Wadi AlFann when we open at the end of 2024,” Gibbons-Warren said. “There will be performance, music, poetry, theatre, activations around the artworks, exhibitions, talks and publishing in the lead-up.”
Maghie Ghali is a British-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut. She worked for The Daily Star Lebanon and writes as a freelancer for several publications, including The National, Al Arabiya English, Al Jazeera and Middle East Eye, on arts and culture/design, environment and humanitarian topics.
Follow her on Twitter: @mghali6