Saudi Arabia looks to further boost its soft power with an exhibition on Warhol


RIYADH, Nov 29 — Few countries currently show as much ambition and activity in the cultural sector as Saudi Arabia. Since Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman came to power, the kingdom has looked to art as one means of boosting its international image. In 2023 it will host a major exhibition on Andy Warhol at the AlUla site.

“FAME: Andy Warhol in AlUla” is described as a “one-of-a-kind” exhibition. It focuses on the King of Pop Art’s obsession with celebrity through some of his most iconic paintings, including his brightly coloured, saturated portraits of Elizabeth Taylor, Muhammad Ali and Dolly Parton. The exhibition will also include Screen Tests, a series of short films featuring celebrities and strangers who gravitated towards Warhol, as well as Silver Clouds, an installation composed of silver balloons in the shape of pillows, inflated with helium.

The works on display question the cult of the image through the subversive eyes of an artist for whom “publicity is like eating peanuts. Once you start you can’t stop.” A universal theme particularly relevant to Patrick Moore, director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. “’FAME’ is intended to be an introduction to the aspect of Warhol that I believe is most fascinating to many young people, including Saudi youth, as Andy Warhol’s journey, which started as a child staring at the movie screen and collecting publicity stills, is becoming more common through the rise of social media,” he said in a statement.

The exhibition “FAME: Andy Warhol in AlUla” is organised by the Andy Warhol Museum at the request of the Royal Commission for AlUla. It is part of the project to transform the archaeological site of AlUla, located in the north-west of the kingdom, into a world-class cultural and tourist destination. It is one of the flagship projects of the Saudi economic development plan, Vision 2030, of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

The man nicknamed “MBS” is banking on high-end tourism, and by extension on culture, to improve the image of a country that is regularly criticised for its human rights violations. Because in Saudi Arabia, culture is not taken for granted. A large part of the society, influenced by austere Wahhabism, has grown up with the idea that the arts could be a source of “depravity.”

US$64 billion for culture

Mohammed Bin Salman intends to challenge these preconceived notions by opening 241 public and private museums in the country by 2030, and by organising up to 400 cultural events annually. He is also reportedly ready to invest US$64 billion (RM288 billion) in art and culture over the next ten years. A boon for international museums like the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. “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 exhibition] was a choice that I made,” Patrick Moore told The Art Newspaper.

However, the choice to hold an exhibition on an openly gay artist in a country where homosexuality remains a capital offense may seem surprising. In April, Saudi authorities asked Disney to remove LGBTQ references from the Marvel film Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness in order to release it. A few weeks earlier, they banned Disney’s animated film, Buzz Lightyear, because it contains a scene where two women kiss.

Patrick Moore told The Art Newspaper that the exhibition “FAME: Andy Warhol in AlUla” was not censored in the slightest, even though it was designed not to “push the envelope” in the still ultra-conservative kingdom. “From an institutional perspective if there are people or cultures you don’t agree with, you have 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 [Andy Warhol] museum to do and that’s what I want Warhol’s legacy to do.”

The “FAME: Andy Warhol in AlUla” exhibit will run February 17-May 16,2023 in the ’AlUla region. — ETX Studio



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