The mirror-clad façade of the Maraya Concert Hall in AlUla, Saudi Arabia’s ancient desert region, glitters just like the disco ball found in New York’s notorious Studio 54 club where the likes of Diana Ross, Truman Capote, Cher, and Jackie Kennedy, spent late nights partying in the 1970s. Fittingly, inside this shiny edifice is now the kingdom’s first ever exhibition of iconic works by another Studio 54 regular—Andy Warhol.
Titled “FAME: Andy Warhol in AlUla,” the exhibition (on view through May 16), is part of the second edition of the AlUla Arts Festival, itself among the region’s ongoing efforts to become a global destination for art and culture.
Curated by Patrick Moore, director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburg, it is being staged at a time of great change for the kingdom under an ambitious reform agenda dubbed “Vision 2030,” which has been spurred by the country’s crown prince and prime minister, Mohammed Bin Salman. The agenda is rapidly pushing forward a complete transformation of the kingdom’s economy through top-down investment in all sectors with a particular focus on art, culture, and entertainment in order to grow a creative economy and wean the country off a dependence on oil and gas.
In many ways, the 70 iconic works exhibited at the glistening venue are symbolic of the kingdom’s change. The works chosen for display reflect Warhol’s own fascination with fame, glamor and Hollywood, and include portraits of Dolly Parton, Muhammad Ali, Salvador Dalí, Bob Dylan and Elizabeth Taylor.
“Warhol is so omnipresent in the world, but there’s never been really a proper exhibition in the Middle East and certainly not in Saudi Arabia,” Moore told Artnet News, adding that the exhibition was conceived in 2021 after he had been invited to AlUla to experience the region and its burgeoning arts scene for himself.
Staged concisely within an erected series of gallery rooms, the works present a clean and playful look into Warhol’s artistic legacy and genius. The first room showcases the artist’s “screen tests,” filmed black and white portraits of visitors to Warhol’s studio, The Factory, created between 1964 and 1966. Think personalities like Lou Reed, a founding member of the influential band The Velvet Underground slowly drinking a glass of coca cola while nonchalantly donning black sunglasses; Paul Johnson and the American actor known as “Paul America” after regularly staying at Hotel America in New York City. In another gallery, more playful, is Silver Clouds (1965), a room filled with floating metallic balloons prompting visitors to stop and play.
Less lofty and playful, however, were the international political tensions that still hang in the air. Media reports roundly criticized the Warhol Museum’s decision to co-operate on the exhibition prior to the show’s opening, largely written by reporters who had yet to venture to the kingdom. They focused on the fact that Warhol was homosexual and Saudi Arabia criminalizes homosexuality, the maximum sentence for which is the death penalty. While this soured the air for some, Moore, like the Saudis who mounted the show, urged a focus on Warhol as an artist rather than on his personal life.
“Andy was a lot of things; he was an artist, he was a businessman, he was an entrepreneur, he was a media mogul, and he was also a gay man, but that’s not all he was,” Moore told Artnet News. “So not every exhibition should or needs to focus on that aspect of Warhol’s life because Warhol was an artist, not a gay artist.”
There were no homosexual or otherwise controversial themes present in the works displayed. The works on display were carefully selected to focus on the themes of celebrity, status, and fame.
Amid the crowd of guests attending the opening, including notable members of the Middle Eastern art scene and regional and international press, praise was heard as was disappointment.
“The show is more concise, smaller than I had imagined,” quipped one journalist, expecting a grander affair for Warhol’s first Middle Eastern showing. Saudis, on the other hand, could be seen entering the exhibition with interest and excitement while local guides gave in depth tours of artwork in each room.
Of note was a seeming increase of international and American art journalists covering the event—many journeying to Saudi Arabia for the first time.
“Several of my art world friends were apprehensive about my traveling to see the show,” said one American curator who was among the first timers. “But coming here and seeing the work on show and the quality of local Saudi artists has offered an eye-opening experience—it’s important to see the art here firsthand and give the artists a chance.” (Still, the curator only agreed to speak on condition of anonymity).
AlUla continues to grow its local art scene, investing into local and international exhibitions, education programs, like the Madrasat Addeera, a former girls’ school in AlUla that offers around 70 local Saudi women free training in traditional arts and crafts by the Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts, and artist residencies, such as the second edition of the AlUla Artist Residency Program that opened this week during the festival showcasing works by local Saudi and international artists within a lush desert oasis.
Local artistic growth has been done in tandem with large-scale blockbuster exhibitions in AlUla like Desert X, which has staged two editions, and now the Andy Warhol show. There’s also the upcoming Wadi Al Fann, meaning “Valley of the Arts” set to be completed by 2024, and which will exhibit local and international monumental artists by the likes of Ahmed Mater, James Turrell, and Agnes Denes in one of AlUla’s desert valleys. Iwona Blazwick, appointed chair of the Royal Commission for AlUla’s public art expert panel, will oversee Wadi Al Fann.
“A lot of the young Saudi artists aren’t known globally, and so by exposing them to artists of the magnitude that we’re bringing in and shows like ‘Fame,’ gives them the opportunity to be exposed to something they may not have ever had the opportunity to experience before as part of our strategy,” Philip Jones, chief tourism officer for the Royal Commission for AlUla told Artnet News. “We want to be known globally as one of the top arts and cultural destinations in the world. There’s tremendous arts and creativity in Saudi Arabia, but very few people around the world know about it.”
Nora Aldabal, arts and creative planning director at the Royal Commission of AlUla, the government body responsible for staging the exhibition in partnership with the Andy Warhol Museum, also emphasized that the show is also about forging cross cultural dialogue.
“For thousands of years AlUla was a place where civilization and diverse cultures came together through trade,” Aldabal told Artnet News. “We are continuing this today.”