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Oct 11 2019

Desert X Board Members Resign Over Saudi Arabia Launch

by Michael Rasnic

Desert X board members ED RUSCHA, YAEL LIPSCHUTZ, and TRISTAN MILANOVICH have resigned in protest against the biennial’s plans to launch a new edition in Al-Ula (pictured), Saudi Arabia. Image by Flickr user Sammy Six.

Three board members of the California biennial Desert X have resigned in protest against the decision to launch a Saudi Arabia edition in 2020. Pop artist Ed Ruscha, art historian and curator Yael Lipschutz, and philanthropist Tristan Milanovich cited Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses as the reason for vacating their posts. 

Helmed by Desert X artistic director Neville Wakefield and Saudi curators Aya Alireza and Raneem Farsi, the new edition will bring installations by Saudi and international artists to the northwestern region of Al-Ula. Desert X Al-Ula is funded by the Saudi government’s Royal Commission for Al-Ula, and is part of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s (MBS) Vision 2030 initiative, aimed at diversifying the country’s petrodependent economy through bolstering international partnerships and industries such as tourism.

Desert X organizers revealed plans for the Saudi collaboration on October 7, almost exactly a year since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Reports conducted by the United Nations and the United States Central Intelligence Agency have held the prince responsible for the killing—accusations that he and the Saudi state deny. Human rights organizations have also condemned Saudi Arabia for its military involvement in the ongoing Yemeni civil conflict, as well as domestic crackdowns on dissidents.

Lipschutz told Artnet News: “I resigned because I felt like Desert X no longer reflected my humanitarian values. I don’t want to aid in rebranding Saudi Arabia as a somehow enlightened, credible government.”

Desert X Founder and board president Susan Davis defended the new edition, remarking, “No country is homogeneous today, and we were very interested in engaging artist-to-artist conversations.”

A finalized lineup has yet to be released, but a number of artists, including American multi-media artist Lita Albuquerque and the Danish collective Superflex, have visited the upcoming exhibition’s location to discuss their involvement. Speaking to the LA Times about Desert X Al-Ula, Albuquerque commented, “I think art transcends a lot of political issues.” Kade L. Twist of the collective Postcommodity, which participated in Desert X this year, had a different reaction to the Saudi collaboration, telling Artnet News, “We would never exhibit with any form of Desert X again.” 

Engaging with Saudi-government-backed organizations has been a thorny issue for cultural institutions in the West, particularly after the Khashoggi killing. Shortly after news of the journalist’s suspicious disappearance broke last year, a number of institutions distanced themselves from the New York Arab World Art and Education Initiative (AAEI), which had received financial support from the MBS-founded Misk Art Institute. The Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art rejected funding from Misk for the exhibition “Syria, Then and Now: Stories from Refugees a Century Apart” and the seminar “Collecting and Exhibiting The Middle East,” respectively. Columbia University also canceled a talk by Misk director Ahmed Mater, while the DC-based Middle East Institute withdrew completely from AAEI.

Michael Rasnic is an editorial intern of ArtAsiaPacific.

To read more of ArtAsiaPacific’s articles, visit our Digital Library.

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