Andy Warhol exhibition heading to Saudi Arabia

A large Andy Warhol exhibition is heading to Saudi Arabia this winter, as the conservative Middle Eastern kingdom welcomes the work of the late, great, gay artist for the fist time.

Andy Warhol Saudi Arabia black and white

The exhibition will be called Fame: Andy Warhol in AlUla and will run from 17 February until 16 May. It will be on display at the Mayara, a venue in the north-western AlUla region that the Saudi government is trying to turn into a new tourist destination. 

Bringing Warhol – an openly gay man – to the region is a surprising move, which has been described as an “introduction” to the artist in Saudi Arabia and the broader middle east region.

Same-sex conduct remains punishable by death or flogging in Saudi Arabia.

The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh is organising the exhibition. Its director, Patrick Moore, said: “As this is an introduction for many people in both Saudi Arabia and the region to Warhol, I think the aspect they would find most interesting would be around fame, perhaps as a precursor to social media.”

The museum will receive a loan fee for the exhibition, Moore disclosed, while also revealing that he was invited to stage the new exhibition by Arts AlUla, part of the Royal Commission for AlUla, the Saudi governmental body led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“I visited AlUla last year and was very impressed with what I found,” Moore continued. “The culture is evolving rapidly and much of the transformation that is taking place seems to be driven by youth. I found that energy very engaging.”

Andy Warhol

“I was given complete freedom; this is the checklist I developed with no revision [from the Arts AlUla team]. I thought that a portrait show may be a boundary pusher – considering that at one point the human figure was not allowed to be shown in art there – but there was not a word of resistance to it.”

The portrait show Moore mentions is set to be just one component of Fame: Andy Warhol in AlUla. As well as portraits of western celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor and Dolly Parton, it will include Warhol-designed wallpaper, archival photographs, some of his Polaroid portraits, and Silver Clouds (1966), one of Warhol’s most famous interactive works.

On the exhibition’s opening night, Warhol’s film collection 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, will be shown in Maraya’s concert hall.

Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Nora Aldabal, executive director for arts and creative industries at Arts AlUla, said: “Fame is part of a long-term vision of spectacular and multicultural arts initiatives in AlUla to drive a new era of cultural exchange. We believe the Arts AlUla programme will be effective in driving new creative practices and initiating positive and productive dialogues through daring exhibition-making that will challenge norms and engage and inspire audiences from the region and beyond.”

Elephant Rock in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia

Elephant Rock in Saudi Arabia’s AlUla is one of the region’s main tourist attractions

Aldabal said that the show would attract visitors from across Saudi Arabia and internationally, but one Middle Eastern curator, also speaking to The Art Newspaper and who wished to remain anonymous, queried this accessibility: “AlUla has no natural audiences. It is a cultural destination which is not accessible to all. It’s expensive to travel and stay there, so it does make me question, who is this exhibition for? Secondly it will be interesting to see whose portraits are selected and how they will be contextualised. I doubt Warhol’s portrait of [the transgender activist] Marsha P. Johnson will be selected.”

This is on top of the persistent accusations of ‘art-washing’ that dog Saudi Arabia, as it tries to expand its global cultural influence.

According to Moore: “From an institutional perspective, if there are people or cultures you don’t agree with, you have one of two choices. You can isolate and ignore them, and see which direction the culture evolves. Or you can participate, in the hope that you’ll have a positive effect, at least from a Western perspective—that’s what I want the museum to do and that’s what I want Warhol’s legacy to do. As a gay man also, I was treated with the greatest respect and openness.

“There are many opportunities for Warhol shows in the world, and I’m not at a loss for other places to do exhibitions; this [the AlUla show] was a choice that I made.”

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