Obaid Alsafi named winner of Ithra Art Prize

The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra)

The sixth edition of the Ithra Art Prize, the region’s most valuable competitive art award, has gone to the Saudi Artist Obaid Alsafi (right) for an installation that reflects on climate change and how to preserve natural diversity.

The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) has said the winning artwork, Palms in Eternal Embrace, will be unveiled at the opening of the 2024 AlUla Arts Festival on 8 February.

Launched in 2017, the Ithra Art Prize is worth $100,000 to the winner plus up to $400,000 in funding to bring their ideas to life. This year’s edition, under the theme Art in the Landscape, called for submissions that were site-specific to AlUla and presented 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.

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 submission 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 a more sedentary lifestyle.

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 symbolise the advanced technologies that could be harnessed to save endangered flora and fauna.

Obaid Alsafi said he was honoured to have the opportunity to cast a spotlight on the importance of safeguarding the natural world. “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.”

Born in 1991 in Wadi ad-Dawasir and now based in Riyadh, Alsafi typically works in new media installations, video, and data-generated projects, using AI and software to draw attention to the way in which data constitutes a large part of our contemporary world. Alsafi has previously won SDAIA’s AI Artathon international AI art competition and has completed residencies at The Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol and the Art Center Nabi in Seoul; he has exhibited at Athr Gallery in Jeddah, Misk Art Institute in Riyadh, 369 Art Gallery in Venice and at Ithra in Dhahran.

The winning artwork was selected by a jury comprising Farah Abushullaih, Head of Museum at Ithra; Nora Aldabal, Executive Director of Arts and Creative Industries at the Royal Commission for AlUla; the noted Emirati artist Mohamed Ibrahim; Sophie Makariou, Scientific Director for Culture and Heritage, AFALULA; and Aric Chen, General and Artistic Director at Rotterdam’s Het Nieuwe Instituut for architecture, design and digital culture.

When complete, Obaid Alsafi’s Palms in Eternal Embrace will be unveiled as a part of the third edition of the Arts AlUla Festival with a live performance centred around the preservation of the palm’s biological essence. Thereafter it 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.

Farah Abushullaih said 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 also commented that the winning submission ”brings to light the vital importance of preserving AlUla’s unique desert and oasis landscape”.

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