A Desert Canvas

Seeing grand oil paintings in a beautiful city gallery with polished parquet flooring is one thing, but seeing art in the mesmerising sands of AlUla is an entirely different experience. 

Using its infinite desert panoramas as a backdrop, AlUla invites international and local contemporary artists to open up a dialogue with the stunning natural landscapes of the ancient oasis. To make their mark, tell a story, and make a statement using the canyons, valleys, plateaus and oasis of AlUla as their canvas.

At the bi-annual Desert X AlUla, visitors may see installations from a plethora of talented artists. Still, they also simultaneously feel the landscape, which adds resonance and elevates the visual and emotive response. 

The 2024 edition of Desert X AlUla was titled In the Presence of Absence. The exhibition invited artists to explore ideas of the unseen and the inexpressible by intertwining their artwork with three outdoor locations at AlUla. 

While AlUla has now become synonymous with this form of art-in-the-landscape, Desert X AlUla is only the beginning. In 2026, art aficionados around the world will be flocking to be among the first to see a world-first unique new cultural destination. Wadi AlFann, currently a  65 sq km other-worldly canyon in the desert of AlUla, will be a permanent valley of art.

Iwona Blazwick, Chair of the Royal Commission for AlUla’s Public Art Expert Panel, has chosen five contemporary artists – Manal AlDowayan, Agnes Denes, Michael Heizer, Ahmed Mater and James Turrell – to install site-specific pieces across the area. She said, “The experience of being in Wadi AlFann will be extraordinary, not only because of the vast monumental landscape but also because the artists will take us on an epic journey into the sublime.”

Translating as Valley of the Arts, Wadi AlFann has been established to explore how the landscape can affect both the creative process and the viewer’s perception of the art. Inspired by the imposing scenery at AlUla, artists from around the world will make art that connects to the dunes, rocks and mountains harmoniously. One of the artists showing at Wadi AlFann is Ahmed Mater, a Saudi creative whose work draws together human, social and sacred elements. Acknowledging the enormous presence of the terrain at AlUla, Mater admitted, “I don’t want to compete with nature.” 

While the purpose of art is to give pleasure, it can also be a powerful tool in provoking ideas, and the installations at AlUla will inevitably act as social commentary on topics such as the environment, climate change and sustainability. Social commentary has been part of AlUla life for centuries, especially at Jabal Ikmah. Called the ‘open-air library of AlUla’, the cliffs and rocks at this iconic place have been etched with hundreds of pieces of art, comments and observations from passing traders and travellers throughout ancient history. 

So just as Jabal Ikmah with its petroglyphs, Hegra with its intricately-carved tomb facades and Dadan with its colossal statues have left their artistic legacy for us to enjoy, Desert X AlUla and Wadi AlFann will do the same for generations to come.