October 2, 2023

Why AlUla is set to be 
the arts hub of the 
Arabian Peninsula

© Lance Gerber
Text by The Telegraph From the outside, Madrasat AdDeera in AlUla – what was once the country’s first girls’ school – looks like any regular school building you might find around the world. White stone steps lead up to a glass-panelled double door. Pink pleated drapes, tied back with gold ribbons, have been painted onto the wall either side of it. They reveal bouquets of flowers, tilted towards the door, presented to anyone who walks through it.

While the building may look distinctly unremarkable from the outside, something momentous is taking place within it. Inside, AlUla is reviving its 7,000-year-old artistic heritage. What was once a disused secondary school has now become a creative space where adults are learning the skills of the artisans who carved the tombs in Hegra, created the ceramics excavated in Quhr and sculpted the statues discovered in Dadan.

Using only what is locally available, as their forebears did, a new generation of artisans is reviving expertise that, anywhere else, might have been overlooked in favour of speed and profit. But here in AlUla things unfold differently. Heritage, regeneration and preservation are the cogs that turn the machinery here. Clay, hand-collected from the desert, finds itself shaped into beautiful pottery. Local plants provide dyes for textiles, and geometric patterns of past civilisations are finding new light in regenerated spaces. The products of this labour provide an income for the artisans, the majority of whom are women. It is a circular economy, of sorts, between people and nature. The hub of creativity in this humble building is causing giant waves across the rest of the valley.

Between February and March this year, AlUla’s imperial landscape was host to Desert X. This site-responsive art exhibition in the desert displayed works by 15 international artists, exploring the ideas of mirage and oasis. Jim Denevan’s Angle of Repose showed 365 mounds of sand emanating from a central point and casting shadows as the sun moved over them. Alicja Kwade’s In Blur used double-sided mirrors to reflect naturally paired trees and stones to create surprise and illusion.

For more inspiration, visit experiencealula.com

© Lance Gerber

AlUla’s commitment to artist residency programmes takes steps towards building lasting collaborations between international names in the arts with the local community. The aim is to create a hive of knowledge-sharing which honours the land as well as the brilliance of those who came before.

With such conscientious planning and implementation there is little doubt that AlUla is on its way to becoming the creative hub of the Arabian Peninsula. It would be justly deserved. To experience the beginning of a movement that will undoubtedly reverberate across the world, now is the time to visit AlUla. From the moment you arrive at the airport, where you will find the delicate work of the artisans of Madrasat AdDeera, and all the way out to the desert, where tremendous works of international fame sit, this will be a journey you’ll be hard pressed to forget.

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