Saudi artist Obaid Alsafi named winner of MENA’s largest art prize, worth $500,000

The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) announced on Monday that Saudi artist Obaid Alsafi as the winner of the 6th edition of the Ithra Art Prize.

Launched in 2017, the Ithra Art Prize is the largest art grant in the region, offering MENA artists the opportunity to be awarded $100,000, in addition to up to $400,000 in funding to bring their ideas to life.

This year’s edition of the Ithra Art Prize, “Art in the Landscape,’ is in collaboration with Arts AlUla, as part of a wider strategic partnership with the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU). RCU is responsible for preserving and developing the region of AlUla, known for its outstanding natural and cultural significance and Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hegra.

The 6th Ithra Art Prize called for submissions of public artwork proposals that are site-specific to AlUla and that present interpretations of AlUla’s unique landscapes and natural heritage. The entry criteria also specified that the proposed materials to be used for the artwork support local industry and artisans.

Saudi artist Obaid Alsafi, the winner of the 6th edition of the Ithra Art Prize. (Supplied)
Saudi artist Obaid Alsafi, the winner of the 6th edition of the Ithra Art Prize.

With a background in computer science, Alsafi’s scientific approach to his creative process investigates the impacts of the unseen on the visible environment and physical realities. His winning Ithra Art Prize submission ‘Palms in Eternal Embrace’ is a large-scale sculptural installation that posits approaches to protecting the natural world, specifically endangered palm trees – a powerful emblem of Arabian landscapes and heritage.

The installation is made up of over 30 palm trunks that structurally echo the 6,000-year-old Rajajil Columns in the Al Jawf region of Saudi Arabia, an archaeological site that evidences how the changing climate in the Arabian Peninsula led to a transition from nomadism to sedentarism. The trunks are woven together by a rich blend of locally-sourced organic or recycled textiles that draw on the tradition of rope and Leifa making in Saudi Arabia. This roping connecting the trunks comes to symbolize the advanced technologies that could be harnessed to save endangered flora and fauna.

“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 Obaid Al Safi. “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.”

Elephant Rock, AlUla (Courtesy: Royal Commission for AlUla)
Elephant Rock, AlUla (Courtesy: Royal Commission for AlUla)

The winning artwork was selected by a jury of industry experts: Farah Abushullaih, Head of Museum at Ithra, Nora Aldabal, Executive Director of Arts and Creative Industries at the Royal Commission for AlUla, Mohamed Ibrahim, Emirati Artist, Sophie Makariou, Scientific Director for Culture and Heritage, AFALULA and Aric Chen, General and Artistic Director, Het Nieuwe Instituut.

Obaid Alsafi’s ‘Palms in Eternal Embrace’ will be unveiled as a part of the third edition of the Arts AlUla Festival, on February 8, with a live performance art piece centered around the preservation of the palm tree’s biological essence.
The AlUla Arts Festival is an annual multi-arts festival showcasing AlUla’s long-standing legacy as a cultural crossroads and champion of the arts. From cutting-edge exhibitions and street-art tours to cinema screenings and a lively program of performances, AlUla explodes into a city-wide celebration of the arts.

The Ithra Art Prize winning piece will be exhibited in the AlUla Oasis, in and amongst the 2.3 million date palms that are clustered throughout AlUla, for six weeks before joining Ithra’s permanent collection.

“One of Ithra’s core aims is to facilitate deeper conversations surrounding community and culture. 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,” said Farah Abushullaih, Head of Museum at Ithra. She adds: “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.”

Nora Aldabal, Executive Director of Arts and Creative Industries at the Royal Commission for AlUla, said: “We’re excited to announce Obaid Alsafi as the recipient of this year’s Ithra Art Prize. 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 centre of an unfolding visitor destination and as a valued contributor to the region’s character, quality of life and economy.”

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