Ithra or the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture with lights on.
Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer
Saudi artist Obaid Alsafi has been named the winner of the 6th edition of the Ithra Art Prize, the largest art grant in the MENA region (worth up to $500,000), dedicated to supporting artists and the growth of creative output in the Arab world.
The announcement was made by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra), Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and Alsafi’s winning public artwork submission, Palms in Eternal Embrace, will be unveiled at the opening of the 2024 AlUla Arts Festival on February 8, in collaboration with the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), Saudi Arabia.
A live performance art piece centered round the preservation of the palm tree’s biological essence, will also be hosted. Palms in Eternal Embrace will be exhibited in the AlUla Oasis, among the 2.3 million date palms that are clustered throughout AlUla, for six weeks before joining Ithra’s permanent collection.
Alsafi’s large-scale installation is made up of over 30 palm trunks made from metal, inspired by the 6,000-year-old Rajajil Columns in the Al Jawf region of Saudi Arabia. It is an archaeological site that evidences how the changing climate in the Arabian Peninsula led to a transition from nomadism to sedentarism. The trunks are woven together by a blend of locally-sourced organic or recycled textiles that draw on the tradition of rope and Leifa making in Saudi Arabia. The roping connecting the trunks symbolises the advanced technologies that could be harnessed to save endangered flora and fauna. They are showcased in the context of AlUla’s natural heritage and oasis landscape, amidst the region’s characteristic date palms.
Alsafi said that “challenging the boundaries between the organic and the synthetic, the natural and the cultural, and the human and the non-human, it is my hope that ‘Palms in Eternal Embrace’ will inspire audiences to reflect on the extinction of a plant group that is so characteristic of our region and foundational to our identity, and to consider innovative solutions to address such pressing environmental concerns.” His winning large-scale sculptural installation is one that posits approaches to protecting the natural world, specifically endangered palm trees – a powerful emblem of Arabian landscapes and heritage.
Elephant Rock is a prominent landmark of AlUla landscape.
Born in 1991 in Wadi ad-Dawasir and now based in Riyadh, Alsafi works in new media installations, video, and data-generated projects. He takes a systematic approach to his creative process, supported by his training in computer science, investigating the unseen or invisible aspects of life, tracing the impact of data on the visible environment, physical reality, and collective memory. He also draws on photography, poetry, and Arabic literature. His artworks are formed from his research in artificial intelligence and software, through which he draws attention to the way in which data constitutes a large part of our contemporary world. By visualising this material, he creates an altered perception of the future of data and draws the link between the contemporary computational environment and its everyday physicality. Alsafi has previously been awarded SDAIA’s International AI Art Competition Ai Artathon and has completed residencies at The Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol, UK, and the Art Center Nabi in Seoul, Korea. He has also exhibited at Athr Gallery in Jeddah, Misk Art Institute in Riyadh, 369 Art Gallery in Venice and at Ithra in Dhahran, KSA.
Obaid Alsafi is the winner of the Ithra Art Prize.
For his prize, he was selected by a jury of industry experts, with representatives from both Ithra and RCU, including Farah Abushullaih (Head of Ithra Museum), Nora Aldabal (Executive Director of Arts and Creative Industries at the Royal Commission for AlUla), Mohamed Ibrahim, Emirati artist, Sophie Makariou, Scientific Director for Culture and Heritage, AFALULA and Aric Chen, General and Artistic Director, Het Nieuwe Instituut. This year’s edition of the Ithra Art Prize, Art in the Landscape, is in collaboration with Arts AlUla, as part of a wider strategic partnership with the RCU. RCU is responsible for preserving and developing the region of AlUla in north-west Saudi Arabia, which, besides its landscape, is known for its natural and cultural significance and Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hegra.
Abushullaih said that “Obaid Alsafi’s piece was selected for its poignant encapsulation of some of the most significant challenges the world is universally facing, presented through a lens of specificity related to AlUla’s natural landscape.” Aldabal said that “Obaid Alsafi’s winning submission brings to light the vital importance of preserving AlUla’s unique desert and oasis landscape.” Launched in 2017, the Ithra Art Prize is the largest art grant in the region, offering MENA artists the opportunity to be awarded $100,000, in addition to up to $400,000 in funding, to bring their ideas to life. It celebrates contemporary art and artists and aims to fund and promote them, and offer them a global platform. The AlUla Arts Festival is an annual multi-arts festival showcasing AlUla’s long-standing legacy as a cultural crossroads and champion of the arts.
Ithra is considered a beacon of change in Saudi Arabia, and symbolic of the Kingdom’s shift towards human energy based in culture, creativity and innovation. Saudi at heart and multicultural by nature, it aims to be a gateway to the country and provide a connection to the world. It prepares the next generation of original thinkers to lead in the creative and cultural industries.
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