‘The future of culture is local,’ RCU’s Vice President of Culture Jason Harborow writes during AlUla Future Culture Summit

Royal Commission for AlUla’s Vice President of Culture Jason Harborow. (Supplied)
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Updated 26 February 2024

‘The future of culture is local,’ RCU’s Vice President of Culture Jason Harborow writes during AlUla Future Culture Summit

  • The AlUla Future Culture Summit from Feb. 25 to 27 is part of attempts to develop an authentic local offering that also contributes to the nation’s economy, writes Jason Harborow, vice president of culture for the Royal Commission for AlUla

ALULA: There is an inherent tension in culture-sector development between global and local dynamics. In Saudi Arabia, we are in the midst of an unprecedented renaissance in the culture sector — with significant investment in arts, music, film, heritage and other areas to showcase the Kingdom’s history and identity to the region and the world. As we develop this culture offer, there is a need to understand global best-practice by engaging with leading cultural institutions with a longer history of this type of development and promotion. Whilst this engagement is important, there can be a temptation to become overly reliant on these leading — and often Western — organizations and to confuse Saudi Arabia’s culture development with importation and/or adopting an external interpretation.

The culture leaders of today must manage external engagement wisely — ensuring that we deliver world-class experiences that are true to local community values, traditions and heritage. At the Royal Commission for AlUla, we have found a way through this challenge by focusing our global culture engagement and partnerships on knowledge exchange and learning. Like others, the RCU is engaged with leading museums, conservation organizations and archives based in China, France, Italy and the UK to help us deliver a world-class culture offer. Our global partners play an important role in sharing learnings and knowledge, serving as a thinking partner and helping us to develop local, distinctive cultural assets that are true to the AlUla community.

Beyond cultural asset development, the RCU also works with international partners to develop our people. Global culture partnerships have helped us to deliver job and skills creation locally — ensuring that Saudi Arabia’s talent has access to the best trainers, accelerator programs and other learning mechanisms to learn about archaeology, exhibition management, acquisition, and other core culture competencies. At the RCU, we are proud to be building a strong, skilled generation of domestic talent that understand the global cultural landscape and is using this knowledge to build a progressive and original local cultural offering.

The Kingdom has welcomed 150 of the world’s cultural leaders, artists, tech entrepreneurs and policymakers for the inaugural AlUla Future Culture Summit that is running from Feb. 25 to 27. Given AlUla’s position as a leading entity driving the Kingdom’s cultural development, it is a great honor for us to host this summit, in partnership with the Kingdom’s Ministry of Culture. The summit aims to convene a high-level conversation about the future of culture in the Kingdom and beyond, looking at trends and opportunities to help the community to drive forward world-class sector development. The AlUla Future Culture Summit has been hosting a series of panel discussions, immersive performances, workshops, and guided explorations of AlUla’s outstanding cultural and natural landscapes.

The discussions will focus on several key themes that are important in the discourse on culture, both within the Kingdom and globally — one of which is the need to balance global and local dynamics. The growth of the culture sector is not just a social opportunity, it is also an economic one. Research shows that Saudi Arabia’s culture and arts sector has the potential to contribute up to 5 percent to the nation’s gross domestic product. In Saudi Arabia, the sector only contributed 1.7 percent to the country’s GDP in 2022, representing substantial opportunity for growth.

The RCU was founded in 2017 to drive the development of AlUla County and we have learned many lessons over the last seven years of operations, development and governance. Whilst the RCU has experimented with different approaches to, and profiles of, cultural activations during this period, we have remained laser-focused in our work to understand, cultivate, and celebrate authentic, local culture and to build the offering and visitor experience around it. Our Winter at Tantora, the AlUla Arts Festival, and the recent launch of Design Space AlUla are just a few examples of how we are delivering a culture sector anchored in our local community.

We are proud of our achievements at the RCU, but we can do more if we collaborate across the culture sector more closely. There is an opportunity for more of the Kingdom’s cultural institutions to work together more closely to share learnings, deliver more training, capacity building and skills to our people; while also thinking about how we can help the Kingdom to be an exporter to the world of the rich cultural assets that we are building.

Johnny Depp appears at UK premiere of Saudi-backed film ‘Jeanne du Barry’

Updated 17 April 2024

Johnny Depp appears at UK premiere of Saudi-backed film ‘Jeanne du Barry’

DUBAI: US actor Johnny Depp said he felt “strangely, oddly, perversely lucky” to have been offered the role of French King Louis XV at the UK premiere of his new film “Jeanne du Barry.”

Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Festival Foundation provided post-production support for the period drama, marking the first time the foundation co-produced a French movie.

Depp was accompanied by the film’s co-star and director Maïwenn on stage at the Curzon theater in Mayfair, where the duo briefly introduced the film.

“I feel very lucky to have been [offered the role] – strangely, oddly, perversely lucky,” he said on stage in London, according to Variety. “Because when Maïwenn and I first actually met and talked about the notion of me doing the film and playing Louis XV, the King of France — see that’s when instantly what happens in your brain is you instantly go back to Kentucky, where, like, everything is fried. So you realise that you’ve come from the bellybutton of nowhere and suddenly you end up playing the King of France.”


Egyptian film ‘East of Noon’ heads to Cannes

Updated 17 April 2024

Egyptian film ‘East of Noon’ heads to Cannes

DUBAI: Egyptian director Hala Elkoussy’s film “East of Noon” has been selected for screening at the Cannes Film Festival Directors’ Fortnight, selected by artistic director Julien Rejl as part of an international line-up of 21 films, putting the spotlight on global directors and their stories.

Rejl revealed the line-up at a press conference in Paris on Tuesday for the Cannes parallel section run by French directors’ guild the SRF.

Elkoussy’s “East of Noon” is one of eight films directed or co-directed by women among the 21 films selected this year.


Saudi Arabia’s Wadi AlFann opens Venice Art Biennale presence with book launch

Updated 17 April 2024

Saudi Arabia’s Wadi AlFann opens Venice Art Biennale presence with book launch

DUBAI: Wadi AlFann, Saudi Arabia’s major new cultural destination for art, design and performance, is presenting a showcase titled “Journeys in Land Art, Towards Wadi AlFann, AlUla” during the 60th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia.

The showcase spotlights the first five artists commissioned for Wadi AlFann: Manal Al-Dowayan, Agnes Denes, Michael Heizer, Ahmed Mater and James Turrell.

On April 19, Wadi AlFann Publications is also launching books by Al-Dowayan and US artist Mark Dion titled “Oasis of Stories” and “The Desert Field Guide.”

The duo will host a panel discussion to delve into their books, exploring how participation is fundamental to their practice as well as delivering insights on the desert.

Wadi AlFann, AlUla. (Supplied)

Meanwhile, a series of renders, drawings, maquettes and interviews, including drawings gathered by Al-Dowayan — the artist representing Saudi Arabia at La Biennale di Venezia 2024 — through her participatory workshops with communities across AlUla, are being displayed at the event in Venice.

A series of studies by Mater revealing the artist’s plans for his Wadi AlFann commission titled “Ashab Al-Lal” are also on display.

The installation, inspired by the scientific and philosophical thinkers of the Islamic Golden Age, aims to explore the mythic space between subjective imagination and objective reality.

Nora Al-Dabal, executive director of arts and creative industries at the Royal Commission for AlUla, said in a statement: “We are delighted to introduce Wadi AlFann to Venice, during the 60th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, through the Wadi AlFann showcase.”

She added: “It provides a glimpse at the journey toward AlUla’s new global destination for land art. Visionary arts initiatives like Wadi AlFann play a crucial role in AlUla’s development strategy, and we cannot wait for you to see it in person.”

Guided tours will be available at the biennale from April 18-20 and from April 25-27.

Wadi AlFann will bring compelling artwork from around the world to AlUla, the desert region of northwest Saudi Arabia steeped in thousands of years of natural, historical and cultural heritage.

‘The Sympathizer’ cast, director discuss new series that shows the Vietnam War through a Vietnamese lens

Updated 17 April 2024

‘The Sympathizer’ cast, director discuss new series that shows the Vietnam War through a Vietnamese lens

DUBAI: “The Sympathizer,” HBO’s latest spy drama streaming in the Middle East on OSN Plus, is based on Vietnamese-US author Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel.

It tells the story of a double agent known to the audience only as the Captain (Hoa Xuande), a North Vietnam operative who is a plant in the South Vietnam army. After he is forced to flee to the US and take up residence in a refugee camp, he continues to spy for the Viet Cong.  


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Speaking to Arab News in a virtual interview, Xuande, an Australian actor of Vietnamese descent, talked about digging into the dual nature of his character and the struggle it creates.

“It is important to remember that the Captain is a human being and he’s trying to play to survive. And, obviously, the struggle of war, and trying to save his people, and trying to find the best outcome for the people that he cares about, and trying to not rock the boat so much.

“And, so, I really tried to dig deep into the facts of the period of the time. And I tried to figure out the psychology of what people were thinking and the ideologies that were spinning around at the time,” he said.


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The show was also an opportunity for Xuande to reconnect with his people’s past.

“I’ve been so used to being told what Vietnamese people are or the stories that even my parents grew up telling me, you know. Their perspectives were always generally lost, right? Depictions of the war were always depicted through the Western perspective,” he said.

“I always knew what the war was about. But I really wanted to get deep into the stories that that we’ve never heard before. And I did a lot of YouTubing and reading of articles. And, so, once you learn those stories, you start to appreciate that Vietnamese people — who bore the brunt of the trauma of this war — have never really had their voices heard. That weighed heavily on me. And so, I tried to carry this throughout much of the show, playing the Captain. And I guess that kind of made me appreciate my own history that I haven’t really learned about before.”


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Veteran Korean director Park Chan-Wook, the name behind cult classics such as “Oldboy” and “The Handmaiden,” oversaw the new adaptation. Park directed the first three parts of the seven-episode series, which premieres weekly on OSN Plus. The show also stars and is executive produced by Robert Downey Jr.

“‘Sympathizer’ is a story about identity and this individual having two kinds of minds and two kinds of identities. I’m drawn to that kind of story because the story is dealing about an individual who wants to be someone else while there is certainly some other identity within him. Or it might be a case of him being forced to become someone else than who he really is,” said Park.

“So, whenever that kind of situation is forced upon him, he has to put on a mask. And then at some point that mask eventually becomes his identity itself. So, the story is dealing with how certain tragedy or comedy happens because of that kind of situation. And I feel like I’m certainly drawn into that kind of story.”


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Sandra Oh, an American Canadian actress born to South Korean immigrants and best known for her roles in shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Killing Eve,” plays the character of Sofia Mori, a liberal feminist who, in the midst of a complicated love triangle, begins to realize her own complicity in the racism suffered by her people.

“From my character’s perspective, to play a character who is representing a very Asian American character, who is a liberal in her own way, and who is a defiant woman in her own way… But throughout the series, I tried to show how through her relationship with the Captain and the love triangle that you’ll see comes about in the series, she starts to question how she has also been complicit in the very thing that she is fighting against, against the patriarchy and against the racism. You see how much she’s internalized and is starting to question the internalization,” said Oh.

Malak Mattar aims to raise Gaza awareness with Venice exhibition

Updated 17 April 2024

Malak Mattar aims to raise Gaza awareness with Venice exhibition

  • The Palestinian artist hopes her show in Venice, coinciding with the biennale, will further raise awareness of the horrors being perpetrated in Gaza 

DUBAI: In the art world this week, all eyes will be on Venice. The Italian city will inaugurate the 60th edition of its namesake biennale, arguably the world’s most prestigious art event, on Apr. 20. Coinciding with the biennale is the opening of an intimate exhibition by the Palestinian painter Malak Mattar, who hopes to shed light on the atrocities unfolding in her native city of Gaza on an international stage.  

Mattar’s parents and two younger siblings were recently safely evacuated from Gaza to Egypt. “A burden has been lifted but I still have family members there,” she tells Arab News from Alexandria, where she has been reunited with her family. “The past six months have been a nightmare, to be honest. The situation has been going on for this long because people have become numb and desensitized.”  

This won’t be the first time that 24-year-old Mattar has shown her work in Italy, but her exhibition at Venice’s Ferruzzi Gallery during the biennale opening is a significant milestone in her career, which is going from strength to strength.  

“Prematurely Stolen,” 2023. (Anthony Dawton)

“This might be the most important exhibition that I’ve ever done in my life,” she says. It all began with a chance encounter at her previous exhibition in London. 

Dyala Nusseibeh, director of Abu Dhabi Art, and a prominent figure in the regional art scene, was in attendance and later approached the young artist with a proposal of setting up an exhibition in Venice. “I told her, ‘Of course, let’s do it.’ I was so happy,” she recalls. “I’m grateful to Dyala for making this happen in a short period of time.” 

Her exhibition, which runs until June 14, is called “The Horse Fell off the Poem.” It features one large-scale painting and seven smaller charcoal drawings, showing harrowing images of victims. The show’s title is based on one of the late Palestinian poet and resistance writer Mahmoud Darwish’s works.  

“Death Road,” 2023. (Anthony Dawton)

“(Darwish) is part of our individual and collective identity,” says Mattar. “We grew up with his poems, his voice and his story. He was so close to us, like a family member. I still remember his death (in 2008) and it was really hard. His poems are timeless and you can always relate to them, especially now.”  

Previously called “Last Breath”, the large-scale painting has been retitled “No Words.” The black-and-white image depicts hellish and disturbing scenes of loss, chaos, deterioration and death. Mattar doesn’t hold back.  

“The horse has a symbolism and a place in the current time of war,” Mattar previously told Arab News. “Its role has changed from carrying fruits and vegetables to being an ambulance. There’s a strength and hardness to a horse, which is how I also see Gaza; I don’t see it as a weak place. In my memory, I think of it as a place that loves life. It always gets back on its feet after every war.”  

“I see Birds,” 2024. (Anthony Dawton)

She is aware that her works could stir controversy. That tends to be the case at the biennale, which is renowned for addressing socio-political issues. This year’s theme is “Foreigners Everywhere.” 

“Any reaction is good, whether negative or positive,” Mattar says. “If the work doesn’t elicit any reaction, then the work is not effective.”  

Mattar believes that her works are being shown at a time when freedom of expression about Palestine is limited. This has affected the art world too. In recent months, a US university exhibition of works by the veteran Palestinian artist Samia Halaby was cancelled, the auction house Christie’s withdrew a couple of paintings by Lebanese painter Ayman Baalbaki from a sale (one of them depicted a man in a red and white keffiyeh), and there were calls from the general public to cancel the Israeli national pavilion at the Venice Biennale.  

“The art world is so black and white,” says Mattar. “There is no freedom to express yourself. There are always restraints. So, for “No Words” to be (shown in the same place and at the same time) of the biennale is important. The genocide is still happening. It’s not ending. (These works) are not a reflection of a time that already happened — it’s happening at the moment. The best time to show them is now.”