Saudi artists gather in al-Ula for live art show inspired by its beauty

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In its latest event focused on art and culture, Saudi Arabia’s al-Ula hosted 20 Saudi artists from seven different regions across the Kingdom to do live paintings inspired by the mesmerizing landscapes of the ancient city.

The three-day event, organized by the Misk Art Institute, is titled ‘Tjallat’, which translates to ‘Manifestation’, where the artists are meant to create artworks inspired by al-Ula’s manifestations of nature, culture and beauty.

One artist, Ola Hejazi, was inspired by local women orange pickers.

“We were driving around al-Ula when I saw a couple of women picking oranges. They were wearing the traditional dress, so we stopped and I tasted the orange, and it was wow! I never tasted anything like it,” Hejazi said.

al-Ula Misk event. (Supplied)
al-Ula Misk event. (Supplied)

Hejazi, an award-winning artist who has had eight solo exhibitions so far, says all of her paintings aim to tell stories.

“Al-Ula is famous for its oranges and I didn’t even know that, so my painting will focus on the women’s hospitality, how they gather oranges and talk amongst each other and gossip… they have their own secrets and stories,” she said.

On the first day of the event on Thursday, the artists were split into three groups, each based in different locations including the famous Elephant Rock, the old town overlooking Castle Musa Bin Naseer, and Jabal al-Hawara.

Al-Ula (RCU)
Al-Ula (RCU)

Each artist set up their canvas, painting tools and colors and began doing live paintings of whatever inspired them from their surroundings. The event’s organizers say that this gives locals and visitors a chance to engage with the artists as they carry out this out-of-the-box freestyling technique.

“The girls used to come behind me while I was painting and say they love the colors. They took lots of Snapchats, live Instagram and posted me while I was working, it was really fun,” Hejazi said.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had launched mega tourism projects in al-Ula earlier in February.

It is also where the Kingdom’s winter festival titled “Winter at Tantora” is being held, which ran from December 2018 until February 2019. The festival offered its visitors a wide range of activities and entertainment performances.

“Winter at Tantora has been going on for a while with a lot of events, but I didn’t see any event for fine arts, until Misk called me. It was a great thing to participate in this unique event including musical, historical, and art cultures so I felt it my duty to participate and I loved being one of the chosen artists,” Najla al-Saleem, one of the participating artists said.

al-Ula Misk event. (Supplied)
al-Ula Misk event. (Supplied)

Al-Saleem is the daughter of renowned Saudi artist Mohammed al-Saleem, who is considered one of the first artists to leave the Kingdom to pursue a formal education in art. Throughout the 1980s, he had been hailed as one of the leading abstract artists of his generation.

After graduating from Eastern Michigan University, Najla became an arts teacher for decades before retiring and completely freeing her time to create artworks.

“It is my first time in al-Ula and I was impressed by the historical stories here, especially the ancient drawings on the mountains, and their unique shapes,” al-Saleem said.

al-Ula Misk event. (Supplied)
al-Ula Misk event. (Supplied)

“But what shocked me and inspired me the most is that al-Ula was actually a seabed. Completely submerged under water thousands of years ago. So I imagined myself living underwater here, which is why the color blue is the most prominent in my painting,” she added.

Al-Ula valley is located 300km north of Medina in northwestern Saudi Arabia. The area is notable for its natural heritage and rich history. It is also home to a series of important historical and archaeological sites such as Mada'in Saleh and al-Khuraybah.

The ancient city of Mada’in Saleh is Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, also known as Al-Hijr. It was the principal southern city of the Nabataean Kingdom and is comprised of more than 100 well-preserved tombs with elaborate facades cut out of sandstone outcrops surrounding the walled urban settlement.

“It is really an inspiring city and I never imagined that we had this kind of nature in Saudi… You see pictures, but it’s never like real life. It’s really amazing,” said artist Ghadi al-Jumah, who was inspired by the city’s historic ruins for her painting.

al-Ula Misk event. (Supplied)
al-Ula Misk event. (Supplied)

The 20 artists, from all ages, backgrounds, and regions, are set to present their artworks at a ceremony on Saturday, where the paintings will be gifted to the Royal Commission for al-Ula.

“It’s a great feeling to see pioneers in Saudi art here whom I can definitely learn from their styles and experience,” said participating artist, Latifah al-Mahmoud, who was located at Elephant Rock where she is bringing a “woman element,” mixed with the unique shape of the rock in her painting.

The event included a series of tours and musical shows by prominent Saudi performers. According to the Royal Commission for al-Ula, the projects are set to rake in a $32 billion increase in GDP, over two million visitors, and 38,000 jobs by 2035.

The Misk institute’s goal is to encourage grassroots artistic production in Saudi Arabia, nurture the appreciation of Saudi and Arab art, and enable international cultural diplomacy and exchange.

al-Ula Misk event. (Supplied)
al-Ula Misk event. (Supplied)

“We chose the name ‘Tjallat’, which means it has strongly surfaced, or manifested, after the Crown Prince announced his vision for the al-Ula commission. So the artists are here to try to reflect how the city has resurfaced,” one organizer from the Misk Art Institute said.

“Through this initiative, we are trying to document the first festival in al-Ula through these paintings. It’s basically a different method of presenting it,” she added.

The unique event, which is one of many that have been going on in the ancient city, gives local artistic talent center stage to express themselves and ‘resurface’ al-Ula, going along with the Crown Prince’s vision for the kingdom’s promising tourism sector.

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