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Desert X Saudi Arabia franchise prompts three board members to resign

Desert X Suadi

Desert X, the biennial of public art taking place in Coachella Valley has announced its first international franchise. Desert X AlUla will take place in the landscape of the extraordinary and historically significant desert region of AlUla, northwest Saudi Arabia, which is home to the country’s first UNESCO world heritage site. Organized collaboratively by Desert X and the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) in Saudi Arabia, the exhibition will be on view from January 31–March 7, 2020 as part of AlUla’s annual cultural festival Winter at Tantora.

Co-curated by Desert X Artistic Director Neville Wakefield and Saudi curators Raneem Farsi and Aya Alireza, Desert X AlUla will bring together artists from Saudi Arabia and the surrounding region with artists from around the world presenting large-scale installations, including site-specific works and commissions that respond to the landscape and specific conditions of the desert.

The interest of the government of Saudi Arabia in the US biennial can be seen as a sign of its growing notoriety. At the same time the decision to franchise the show might have created a fault line in the existing governance of Desert X. According to the Los Angeles Times report, three of 14 members on the organization’s board of directors resigned over the decision to work with a government responsible for human rights abuses. The three board members who resigned are artists Ed Ruscha, art historian and curator Yael Lipschutz and philanthropist and former fashion stylist Tristan Milanovich.

Desert X board President Susan Davis defended the collaboration as an opportunity to generate “a new dialogue, one that reaches across boundaries and borders.” But Lipschutz, who like Ruscha was a founding member of the board, called the Saudi project “completely unethical,” reports Los Angeles Times. “To pretend it’s about some sort of dialogue when you’re receiving money from the Saudi royal family — this isn’t about dialogue among artists, it’s about striking a deal with a national government that has committed a horrific genocide in Yemen, that is completely undemocratic and that has an appalling record of discrimination against the LGBTQ community,” Lipschutz said.

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