Three members of Desert X’s board resigned in protest of the exhibition’s expansion to Saudi Arabia.
Mada’in Saleh in the Al-Ula region of northwestern Saudi Arabia. Photo by Sammy Six, via Wikimedia Commons.
Following a decision to launch a new version of the Desert X sculpture biennial in Saudi Arabia next year, three members of Desert X’s board of directors have resigned. Artist Ed Ruscha, art historian Yael Lipschutz, and stylist Tristan Milanovich all stepped down, citing concerns over human rights abuses committed by the country.
Desert X was originally launched in California in 2017, and has hosted two iterations in the Coachella Valley. Desert X AlUla, to be held in Al-Ula in northwest Saudi Arabia, is scheduled to take place from January 31 to March 7, 2020, and is being organized in collaboration with the Royal Commission for AlUla, which is led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). The CIA has concluded that MbS ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year, though the Crown Prince has disputed this claim. In the aftermath of Khashoggi’s killing, many cultural institutions and nonprofits reexamined their partnerships with the Saudi government and cultural agencies it funds.
Desert X founder and board president Susan Davis told the Los Angeles Times the collaboration was an opportunity to generate “a new dialogue, one that reaches across boundaries and borders,” and that a “large majority” of the board voted to pursue the project.
Lipschutz told the L.A. Times that the agreement was “about striking a deal with a national government that has committed a horrific genocide in Yemen, that is completely undemocratic and that has an appalling record of discrimination against the LGBTQ community.” Both Ruscha and Lipschutz helped found Desert X.
Participating artists for Desert X AlUla have not yet been revealed, though the lineup will include both Saudi artists and artists from around the world. Desert X director Neville Wakefield and Saudi curators Raneem Farsi and Aya Alireza will curate the show.
Last year, France signed a 10-year agreement to help develop the Al-Ula region into a cultural destination. Under the contract, France will help develop plans for museums, archaeological digs, and conservation efforts, as well as the necessary infrastructure to sustain increased tourism.