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Noor Riyadh turns Saudi city into gallery without walls

Giving the green light: Saudi festival of light 'Noor Riyadh' turns the city into a gallery without walls
6 min read
05 December, 2022
Last month, the sky and surroundings of the Saudi capital Riyadh were lit up with a myriad of colours as part of the light festival Noor Riyadh. The event exhibited a host of eminent international artists and was as forward-thinking as it looked.

Saudi Arabia’s City of Light Riyadh lit up again for the second edition of Noor Riyadh, the annual light art festival displaying over 190 installations by 130 artists from more than 40 countries.

Spread over 40 public locations, the festival – which has this year tripled in size – ran this November and showcased immersive site-specific installations, public artworks, art trails and virtual reality experiences created by both international and local talents.

Under the theme We Dream of New Horizons, the festival took over remote desert spots, urban business districts and family parks to stage artworks that look to the future, through the lens of hope, renewal and transformation.

Co-curated by Hervé Mikaeloff, Dorothy Di Stefano and Jumana Ghouth, the festival brought local communities and international art enthusiasts out in droves around the illuminations, with works from the likes of Alicija Kwade, Daniel Buren and Muhannad Shono.

In Wadi Hanifa – a public park where locals picnic in the evenings – Saudi artist Ahaad Alamoudi’s installation Ghosts of Today and Tomorrow, combined local heritage and live performance to stunning effect.

Thinking of light and sound as natural carriers of information, she worked with local craftsmen to build two traditional pigeon towers facing each other – alluding to the historical use of pigeons as message carriers.

Ahaad Alamoudi's 'Ghosts of Today and Tomorrow' in Wadi Hanifa [photo credit by Maghie Ghali]

From each tower, a majes singer – similar to a town crier who would dispense village news, announcements of weddings, births and other important events via song – performed a mawwal vocal piece, specific to the Hijaz and Tihama region styles. The towers alternately light up as each majes sings their pieces.

“It's about the relationship between light and darkness; the pressures and the tensions that exist between both. The main aim was to give voice to both darkness and light,” Alamoudi told The New Arab.

“There’s a majes performer in each tower – one represents light while the other represents darkness – and together they have this back and forth debate about their strength and their power, and in the end, they realise that, that they’re one and they coexist and you can't have one without the other.

“[The towers] are done traditionally because I wanted it to be as much as part of the ecosystem as possible, but also to create some sort of conversation between the location, the installation, the light and the sound,” she added.

“I didn't really get to experience how tough it is to exhibit or be a part of the art scene as a Saudi female, but I think Noor Riyadh gives me a platform to create my own narrative about this ever-changing space that's moving at such a high speed.”

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Saudi artist Obaid Al Safi took a slightly more contemporary approach, with his desert installation Carving the Future, in which he questioned the relationship between the desert and the civilisation that emerged from it, looking to trace the links between Saudi Arabia’s past and present.

Using artificial intelligence, Safi has formed a collective memory by gathering thousands of photos of the Saudi desert. Onto large crystalline structures lit from within, he projects a video that moves between these images of undulating dunes and images of the city of Riyadh.   

“The study of the desert is a large part of my existence as an artist who lives in the Middle East, because a desert is the storehouse of spiritual treasures and it is not a void as many believe,” Safi told The New Arab. “I was collecting data on the city of Riyadh, the desert with its various shapes and colours, photos of buildings related to modern urban heritage moving to tall and contemporary skyscrapers, and training the algorithm to produce a film that searches for the intersection of the city with the desert.

“The installation drew inspiration from natural crystals, showing how Riyadh crystalised into existence from the desert over time," he added.

“As an artist majoring in computer science, I always wonder how all this data can shape our future. More precisely, how data can be a vessel for a narrative that forms the identity of the future.”

His piece aimed to show the desert as a place of new beginnings, where even some of our most advanced technology stems from, as silica, an integral part of building electronic chips, comes from sand. His installations ponder what other dreams or inventions could be realised from the dunes.

Alongside these more conceptual installations are works that are purely entertainment or to bring cheer, such as Marc Brickman’s world-premiere aerial light show The Order of Chaos: Chaos in Order, featuring a swarm of 2,000 drones in the skies over King Abdullah Park daily.

Marc Brickman’s 'The Order of Chaos Chaos in Order,' featuring 2,000 drones [photo credit: Maghie Ghali]

At Salam Park, Cupid’s Koi Garden by art company Eness featured the world’s first inflatable fountains; a charming collection of blighting coloured, glowing koi with digital eyes that spurt water into pools – a more playful approach to formal civic fountains that children were mesmerised by.

'Cupid’s Koi Garden' by art company Eness [photo credit: Maghie Ghali]

Accompanying the festival was also a light art exhibition titled From Spark to Spirit, staged at JAX 03. Curated by Neville Wakefield and Gaida AlMogren, the exhibition traced the role light plays in shaping our relationship with a world in which light itself has become a signal of change and explored themes of technology and spirituality.

Just as the Light and Space Movement, which began in California in the 1960s, reflected changes in the established order, this exhibition explored a landscape of light inflected by the rapid cultural transformations shaping the Middle East.

Refik Anadol's 'Machine Dreams' at JAX in the 'From Spart to Spirit' exhibition [photo credit: Maghie Ghali]

Turkish-American artist Refik Anadol’s Machine Dreams: Space was a highlight of the exhibition, offering an immersive, mirrored room that plays dream-like images and shapes in thousands of colours and textures, like walking through an ever-changing nebula cloud.

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The installation was part of an ongoing data aesthetics project in which Anadol uses AI to scrape the web for publicly available photographs of space taken by satellites and spacecraft deployed by NASA, including the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the International Space Station and the Hubble Telescope.  

“The algorithms have been working for the last seven years, with nine million images and we download more than three billion images in the last six years,” Anadol told The New Arab.

"It's about the idea that one day machines might dream, and what that would look like – a question science fiction media has asked. Each chapter is constructed from the images of the telescopes into dream states.”

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