BY Chloe Stead in Opinion | 20 MAY 24

The Diriyah Biennale Indexes the Transformation of Saudi Arabia

Despite a vague curatorial approach, ‘After Rain’ offers visitors and locals alike a chance to reflect on the Kingdom’s big plans for the region

BY Chloe Stead in Opinion | 20 MAY 24

Much like Los Angeles, Riyadh is one big sprawl. During my trip to the Saudi capital, I seemed to spend more time travelling between my hotel in the city centre and the neighbouring suburb of At-Dir’iyah – home of the Diriyah Biennale – than I did actually looking at art. It couldn’t be helped. For now, the hospitality and accommodation options beyond the centre are limited, but it won’t stay this way for long. The Saudi government has big plans for the self-styled ‘City of Earth’.

Salwa Palace, Ad Diriyah, At-Turaif District, 2019
Salwa Palace, Ad Diriyah, At-Turaif District, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 2019. Courtesy: mtcurado / Getty Images

Known as the birthplace of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Diriyah is of great historical significance for Saudis, not least because it’s the location of the ancient capital, At-Turaif, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In a master plan that began in 2016, an eye-watering US$63.2 billion has been earmarked to develop Diriyah as part of Vision 2030 – the Kingdom’s ambitious scheme to attract 150 million tourists a year and diversify its economy away from oil. The goal is that 50 million of these tourists will be lured to Diriyah through a mix of historical, cultural and gastronomic offerings.

‘After Rain’, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: the artists and Diriyah Biennale Foundation; photograph: Marco Cappelletti

While the Diriyah Biennale is just one small aspect of this flagship project, it is an important one. Inaugurated in 2021, the biennial is the jewel in the crown of JAX District, a former industrial complex, opened in the same year, which has been repurposed as a hub for artists and creatives. The closest comparison, and a clear inspiration for the project, is Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue, which is fitting considering the country’s economic diversification has become a blueprint for Saudi Arabia’s more recent excursions into tourism.

In their 2023 publication Art in Saudi Arabia: A New Creative Economy?, Alia Al-Senussi and Rebecca Anne Proctor write of the ‘euphoric, vibrant and hopeful mood’ at the opening night of the first Diriyah Biennale, which they say was reflective of ‘a steadfast belief that times had changed for the conservative Kingdom’. The mood was similarly jubilant at the opening of the second edition, titled ‘After Rain’, with hundreds of guests packed into the JAX courtyard sipping coffee and listening to speeches by artistic director Ute Meta Bauer and representatives of the Diriyah Biennale Foundation and The Ministry of Culture.

‘After Rain’, 2024, opening event. Courtesy: Diriyah Biennale Foundation; photograph: Marco Cappellletti

Indeed, almost every single person I spoke to during my time in Saudi – from local curators and writers living in the wider gulf region to the charismatic owner of a company organizing hikes in the desert – spoke of the breakneck speed of change in the Kingdom. It might sound like spin, and to a certain extent it is, but the more people I talked to, the clearer it became that the recent reforms in Saudi have had a real and tangible effect on people’s lives. This is especially the case for women who, in recent years, have seen their personal freedoms expand significantly – although it should not be forgotten that a number of women’s rights activists, including Manahel al-Otaibi, are still languishing in jail.

Armin Linke and Ahmed Mater, Saudi Futurism, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: the artists and Diriyah Biennale Foundation

One of the best works in ‘After Rain’ spoke to the rapid transformation of the country’s urban landscape since oil money began to flow. Saudi Futurism (2024), a first-time collaboration between Armin Linke and Ahmed Mater, is the result of a trip across the country that the two artists – the former Italian and the latter Saudi – took in the lead up to the biennial. The resulting photographs – of dairy farms, archives and landmark buildings – are installed in different sizes back-to-back on steel frames, encouraging visitors to draw their own associations between them. I was left with the feeling that there must be context, and therefore connections, which, as an outsider, I couldn’t make, but it was refreshing to see the artists approach this oft-cited topic with a critical yet non-judgmental gaze.

‘After Rain’, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: the artists and Diriyah Biennale Foundation; photograph: Marco Cappelletti

More direct and therefore, for me, less successful, is the series ‘Women of Diryiah’ (2023) by German photographer Christine Fenzl. Domestic portraits of Saudi females, the photographs aim to reflect ‘a new kind of visibility of women in all aspects of life’, according to the exhibition wall text, but appear to be made for the Western gaze, given that Saudis know how they look and act in the privacy of their own homes. This identity-based project, alongside a series of fabric portraits of Roma people by Małgorzata Mirga-Tas (‘Siukar Manusia’, 2022), felt a little out of place within a space dedicated to ‘environment and ecologies’ and spoke more widely to the grab-bag approach of the curators. The tantalizingly vague title of the biennial, ‘After Rain’, might be part of the problem: it hints at the exhibition’s loose climate focus while still being poetic enough to encompass a myriad of art practices.

‘After Rain’, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: the artists and Diriyah Biennale Foundation; photograph: Marco Cappelletti

Where the exhibition does hold together is when a section – of which there are six in total, featuring works by more than 100 artists and collectives, that bleed out into surrounding terraces and courtyards – really drills into a specific theme. One example, dedicated to ‘Water and Inhabitants’, is also the most visually stunning space in the biennial. Spotlit in a room painted entirely black, large-scale installations such as Alia Farid’s In Lieu of What Was (2019) – five bombastic fiberglass sculptures of different types of drinking vessels – give the appearance of floating in space. Mimicking the shape of Kuwaiti drinking fountains, they hint at the high water demands of Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Nearby, Dala Nasser’s Mineral Lick (2019) – a creased length of fabric hung from the ceiling and trailing on the floor – reflects the varying levels of toxicity in Beirut drinking water. To create it, the artist dipped discarded fabric into a concoction of dye, rock salt and drinking water from each of the 60 sections of the Lebanese city. While I’ve lost count of the number of exhibitions in recent years themed around oceans and rivers, this focus on water infrastructure in the Gulf felt new to me – a welcome experience in a biennial that otherwise tended to tread familiar ground.

‘After Rain’, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: the artists and Diriyah Biennale Foundation; photograph: Alessandro Brasile

Towards the end of my stay in Diriyah, I spoke to a European museum director working in the region who told me that she thought ‘After Rain’ functioned as a decent museum survey show. The implication was that the biennial featured some good works nicely threaded together, but that it didn’t offer the kind of bold curatorial vision or treaty on the world that we have come to expect from large-scale projects of this kind. While I agreed with her take, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, for a general public potentially less familiar with contemporary art, an exhibition that traces out a number of current themes – from the climate crisis to the evolution of traditional lifestyles to the artist as scientist – might be exactly what’s needed or desired. A projected 234,000 people will visit this year’s biennial: more than double the number that attended its first edition. It’ll be interesting to see whether, two years from now, the number of visitors increases still further, drawn by the biennial and the Kingdom’s promised transformation.

'After Rain' is on view at JAX District, Diriyah, until 24 May

Main image: JAX District, Diriyah Biennale Foundation Exterior, 2024. Courtesy: Diriyah Biennale Foundation

Chloe Stead is assistant editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.