Manal AlDowayan Unearths Historic and Contemporary Narratives for Wadi AlFann


The artist’s permanent Land Art commission for Wadi AlFann will allow the people of AlUla to leave their trace for future generations

Manal AlDowayan, one of Saudi Arabia’s most significant contemporary artists, is creating an era-defining Land Art commission  for Wadi AlFann, a new destination for contemporary art opening in 2026 in the desert of AlUla, north-west Saudi Arabia. Known for the participatory nature of her work, AlDowayan is unearthing the diverse multitude of narratives, both historic and contemporary, held in AlUla. 

Spanning approximately 65 square kilometres, Wadi AlFann – meaning ‘Valley of the Arts’ – will see new, large-scale, site-specific works by some of the world’s most compelling artists placed permanently in the monumental landscape of AlUla, a region steeped in thousands of years of natural, historical and cultural heritage. Setting contemporary artworks against the stunning sandstone cliffs and canyons of the vast desert terrain, this display will offer an opportunity to experience art in dialogue with nature.

Alongside AlDowayan (b. 1973, Saudi Arabia), the first five commissioned artists includes Agnes Denes (b. 1931, Hungary), Michael Heizer (b. 1944, USA), Ahmed Mater (b. 1979, Saudi Arabia) and James Turrell (b. 1943, USA), marking the start of a continued programme of commissions. Learning from the desert, the artists will respond to AlUla’s landscape, topography, undulating vistas, remarkable geological structures and complex natural ecosystem.

AlDowayan’s practice explores cultural metamorphosis, collective narratives, craft traditions, our relationship with nature and the status and representation of women. Based between London, Dhahran and Dubai, the artist’s work spans mediums including photography, installation, sculpture and sound. In the past year alone, AlDowayan has exhibited in Brazil, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Spain, the UK and the US. 

AlDowayan’s commission for Wadi AlFann, titled Oasis of Stories, will be a labyrinthine installation taking inspiration from the mud walls of AlUla’s Old Town. Viewers will be invited to walk through and get lost in an architectonic sculpture that replicates the ancient spaces of Arabic settlements. The walls of the labyrinth’s passages will be inscribed with personal histories and folklore gathered by the artist from communities of AlUla. 

An exhibition showcasing Manal AlDowayan’s journey towards Oasis of Stories opens in February 2024 as part of AlUla Arts Festival. The artist will display hundreds of drawings from her participatory workshops with communities across AlUla, where over 700 participants – including teachers, farmers, rangers, tour guides, artists, craftspeople, students and more – were asked to draw their personal stories onto paper. 

The depictions in the drawings range from participant’s homes, neighbourhoods, memories and family histories to flora, fauna, culinary customs and abstract creative expressions. Each piece reflects the lives, cultures and identities of the people of AlUla. These drawings and stories will eventually be inscribed into the walls of Oasis of Stories, allowing AlUla’s residents to leave their trace permanently in the Wadi AlFann desert.

Curated by Iwona Blazwick, Lead Curator for Wadi AlFann, the exhibition is part of Wadi AlFann’s pre-opening programme, which also includes symposia, performances, tours through the valley, talks, workshops and masterclasses.

“AlUla is a library of stories,” AlDowayan says. “This land holds an archive of narratives and identities that numerous civilisations engraved into its rocks for centuries, telling us about the tools they used, the animals they farmed and the lives they led. Now, I want to give the contemporary inhabitants of AlUla a space for their narrative, allowing it to live permanently in a public artwork at Wadi AlFann, for future generations to contemplate.”

Juxtaposed with historic traces of ancient desert communities, this unprecedented and ambitious showcase of contemporary artworks will continue growing in years to come, adding to the legacy of this millennia-old location. 

“Wadi AlFann will rekindle the creativity of AlUla and deliver new transformative experiences for locals and visitors alike”, says Nora Aldabal, Executive Director of Arts and Creative Industries at the Royal Commission for AlUla. “As custodians of this land, a crossroad between East and West marked by 200,000 years of natural, human and cultural history, we must continue to harness the unique legacy of AlUla to build its future. This visionary destination will build a vibrant and prosperous local cultural economy, forging pathways for the people of AlUla to unlock creative potential and be architects of the region’s future.” 

Wadi AlFann presents Manal AlDowayan at AlUla Arts Festival, 9 February – 23 March 2024. Wadi AlFann opens in 2026.

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Video Courtesy of The Royal Commission of AlUla

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