Iwona Blazwick, the former longtime director of London’s Whitechapel Gallery, has been appointed chair of the Royal Commission for AlUla’s Public Art Expert Panel. As part of the Saudi government’s Vision 2030 initiative aimed at diversifying the Saudi economy and establishing a more progressive cultural profile for the country, AlUla, a northwestern Saudi desert region along the historic Silk Road and Incense Route and home to the Hegra UNESCO World Heritage Site, is being remade into an arts hub. In her new role, Blazwick will be responsible for overseeing the installation of a series of monumental, site-specific works in the newly mapped-out Wadi AlFann, or “Valley of the Arts,” a 25-square-mile portion of AlUla known for its majestic rock formations and broad sandy expanses.
The five artists contributing to the inaugural Land artworks appearing in Wadi Al Fann are Manal Al Dowayan, Agnes Denes, Michael Heizer, Ahmed Mater, and James Turrell. Al Dowayan will create a mazelike work inspired by the mud walls of AlUla’s Old Town; Denes will place in the valley pyramids that respond to the region’s rock formations; and Heizer will engrave designs directly into the sandstone present in the area. Mater plans to generate a mirage amid the sand dunes, while Turrell will create a series of spaces in the canyon floor, accessible to visitors via tunnels and stairs. The works are expected to be completed by 2024; more artworks and programs are planned for the area.
Of Wadi Al Fann, Blazwick said, “It will set a new global example for experiencing art in dialogue with nature, celebrating the human creativity that unites communities across the world and inspiring current and future generations of artists. A display of such epic scale, set in a terrain as monumental as the AlUla desert, has the potential to shape the course of art history in real time.”
During her tenure at Whitechapel, which began in 2005, Blazwick doubled the institution’s footprint and strengthened its programming with a focus on art by women. Prior to her arrival there, she held top roles at New York’s feminist AIR Gallery and then at the Institute of Contemporary Art London and Tate Modern.
Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 initiative is seen by some as an attempt to “artwash” the country’s abominable human rights record. Addressing this criticism, Blazwick said, “I’d rather be involved where I can help contribute to freedom of expression, to art being nurtured, because I believe art changes society,” she said. “That’s fundamental to who I am. And it’s fundamental to my support for women throughout my career.”