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Qasr al-Farid at the UNESCO World Heritage Site Hegra in Saudi Arabia. Courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.
Qasr al-Farid at the UNESCO World Heritage Site Hegra in Saudi Arabia. Courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

Desert X Loses Donor over Controversial Partnership with Saudi Arabia

Desert X, the site-specific contemporary art biennial that was launched in Coachella Valley in Southern California in 2017, is facing further backlash over its decision to collaborate with Saudi Arabia, where it plans to hold an exhibition in early 2020. The Los Angeles Times reports that the Los Angeles–based MaddocksBrown Foundation has pulled its funding from the biennial. The organization has given Desert X approximately $13,000 since its founding.

When Desert X announced that it was partnering with Saudi Arabia’s Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) on Desert X AlUla last week, three members of its board of directors, Ed Ruscha, Yael Lipschutz, and Tristan Milanovich, resigned in protest. While Lipschutz called the move “completely unethical,” board president Susan Davis defended the initiative saying that it was a chance to generate “a new dialogue, one that reaches across boundaries and borders.” On the decision to withdraw its support from the organization, MaddocksBrown Foundation’s board chair Linda Brown said in a statement that it was “disappointed that Desert X has chosen this path.”

Those in opposition to the event cite human rights abuses committed by the Saudi Arabian government and the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor who was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year. “It’s like inviting Hitler to a tea party in 1943—I see a simile here,” Ruscha told the Los Angeles Times. “I see Saudi Arabia as being in desperate need of cultural legitimacy, and this is a way to move the spotlight away from their other problems.”

While Davis confirmed that no other donors have decided to stop backing the biennial, some have asked for a more detailed explanation about the collaboration. Scheduled to take place from January 31 to March 7, 2020, Desert X AlUla will be cocurated by Desert X artistic director Neville Wakefield and Saudi curators Raneem Farsi and Aya Alireza. The event will take place in the desert region of AlUla.

The AlUla landscape in northwestern Saudi Arabia. Courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla.

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