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AlUla landscape Hegra

Saudi Artist Obaid Alsafi is Awarded the Ithra Art Prize

Erica Silverman

16 November 2023

The Ithra Art Prize Artist’s Winning Proposal will Debut at the AlUla Arts Festival in February 2024

This month in Saudi Arabia, The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) revealed Riyadh-based visionary Obaid Alsafi as the winner of the sixth edition of the Ithra Art Prize: “Art in the Landscape.” Alsafi’s captivating installation, Palms in Eternal Embrace, is a soulful meditation on our planet’s current climate crisis as well as an urgent call for action. 

On February 8, 2024, the immersive presentation, in collaboration with the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), will debut along with a poetic live performance at the upcoming third edition of the AlUla Arts Festival. At AlUla Oasis the artwork will be exhibited within the mesmeric 2.3 million date palms for six weeks before becoming a major element of Ithra’s permanent collection. 

Ithra (The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture)

Photo by Ahmad Alnaji, courtesy of Ithra.

“We’re excited to announce Obaid Alsafi as the recipient of this year’s Ithra Art Prize,” said Nora Aldabal, Executive Director of Arts and Creative Industries at the RCU. “His winning submission brings to light the vital importance of preserving AlUla’s unique desert and oasis landscape. RCU has a longstanding commitment to nurturing Arab artists, fostering the vibrant creative scene in the Kingdom and the broader MENA region. Through our partnership with Ithra, we aim to further enrich AlUla’s rich legacy to place art and creativity at the center of an unfolding visitor destination and as a valued contributor to the region’s character, quality of life and economy.”

The Ithra Art Prize Empowers MENA’s Contemporary Visionaries and Embraces the AlUla Landscape

The most significant art grant in the MENA region, the Ithra Art Prize awards up to $500,000 to its rigorously selected creatives. Inaugurated in 2017, the Art Prize has partnered with Art Dubai and the Diriyah Biennale Foundation in order to empower the region’s contemporary artists. This year, Ithra’s call for submissions centered on the extraordinary heritage and organic landscape of AlUla, inviting dynamic proposals for site-specific public works that would utilize the skills of local artisans. 

Obaid Alsafi Winner of Ithra Art Prize 2023

Portrait of Obaid Alsafi; courtesy of the artist and Ithra.

Alsafi’s inspired creation was selected by a distinguished jury including Aldabal; Farah Abushullaih, Head of Museum at Ithra; Sophie Makariou, Scientific Director for Culture and Heritage at Afalula; Aric Chen, General and Artistic Director at Het Nieuwe Instituut; and Mohamed Ibrahim, Emirati Artist. 

“One of Ithra’s core aims is to facilitate deeper conversations surrounding community and culture,” explained Abushullaih. “This year’s Ithra Art Prize theme encouraged Arab and international artists to engage with Saudi Arabia’s natural heritage in order to further develop the meaningful cross-cultural exchange of ideas that lies at the heart of Ithra’s values and at the heart of our wider partnership with RCU. Obaid Alsafi’s piece was selected for its poignant encapsulation of some of the most significant challenges the world is universally facing, presented through a lens of specificity related to AlUla’s natural landscape.”

AlUla landscape oasis

Courtesy Royal Commission for AlUla.

Alsafi Celebrates the Rich Heritage of AlUla and Prompts Environmental Action

With a deft practice concentrated in new media and data-generated artworks, Alsafi draws from his education in computer science in order to unearth revelatory connections between data and our contemporary environment. The artist’s mesmeric submission, Palms in Eternal Embrace, is a sweeping installation and celebration of the historic Arabian landscape; more than 30 palm trunks, intertwined by a myriad of recycled and locally sourced textiles—echoing the region’s rich tradition of rope making—unite in a symphony of connection and communication in the support of the endangered natural world. Focusing on palm trees critically facing extinction, the artwork also nimbly reflects the Rajajil Columns of Al Jawf, a 6,000-year-old archaeological site that speaks to climate change and its monumental impact on society. 

AlUla landscape Hegra

Courtesy Royal Commission for AlUla.

“I am honored to be awarded this year’s Ithra Art Prize and to have the opportunity to cast a spotlight on the importance of safeguarding the natural world in the astounding setting of AlUla’s natural heritage and oasis landscape,” said Alsafi. “Challenging the boundaries between the organic and the synthetic, the natural and the cultural, and the human and the non-human, it is my hope that ‘Palms in Eternal Embrace’ will inspire audiences to reflect on the extinction of a plant group that is so characteristic of our region and foundational to our identity, and to consider innovative solutions to address such pressing environmental concerns.”

Ithra (The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture)

Photo by Ahmad Alnaji, courtesy of Ithra.

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