Maya El Khalil Talks To Leila Lebreton About Desert X And The Venice Biennale

Maya El Khalil, Desert X AlUla 2024 Curator, Courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla_

Maya El Khalil is a highly regarded curator known for her innovative approaches to contemporary art curation and her commitment to promoting emerging artists from the Middle East and beyond. Born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, El Khalil developed a passion for art at a young age, inspired by the vibrant cultural scene of her homeland.

El Khalil’s curatorial work is characterised by its interdisciplinary nature and emphasis on cross-cultural exchange. She has organised numerous exhibitions that explore themes of identity, memory, and social justice, showcasing the work of established and emerging artists from diverse backgrounds.

The National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia at the 60th Venice Biennale in April 2024 will be co-curated by Maya El Khalil, Jessica Cerasi, and assistant curator Shadin AlBulaihed, working with artist Manal AlDowayan on her installation for the event, which begins April 20 under the theme “Stranieri Ovunque — Foreigners Everywhere.” 

Ibrahim Mahama, Dung Bara- The Rider Does Not Know the Ground is Hot
Ibrahim Mahama, Dung Bara- The Rider Does Not Know the Ground is Hot Desert X 2024

You’ve been on the Saudi art scene since before things opened up. How did you get into the arts in Saudi Arabia, especially since you come from an engineering background?

Maya El Khalil: I studied mechanical engineering and always thought I’d be an engineer. I wanted to do aeronautics. I never thought I’d be in the arts, but it happened. I’ve always been fascinated by artists because I’m very scientific, so a world of creativity and potential has always interested me.

Does your interest in engineering inform your curating?

Maya El Khalil: Every experience in life forms you somehow. When you study engineering, you approach things rationally and scientifically; there is a structure. When I started working with artists, accepting different timeframes, deliverables, deadlines, and creativity was challenging. Eventually, you realise that creativity is needed where science stops to discover what you haven’t yet discovered. Art and creativity are the essence of everything we do and a further dimension to everything we do.

You’re originally from Lebanon. How did you end up in Saudi Arabia, and what is the art scene there? 

Maya El Khalil: A family decision brought me to Saudi Arabia. As a female engineer in the 90s, I couldn’t work, so I focused on my M.B.A. and began studying history of art courses. A family friend, a Senior Lecturer at Christie’s Education, started coming to Saudi Arabia to give short courses.

It was phenomenal because we started taking these courses with some close friends, and it got broader and broader over the years to include many people who supported the arts and the nascent scene in Saudi Arabia. I say nascent, but there is a long history of the visual arts in Saudi Arabia. This was the beginning of its becoming more visible, especially on the international scene.

It was the time of the rise of the Edge of Arabia, with its first exhibition at the Brunei Gallery (in London) supported by several Saudi patrons, including Hamza Serafi and Mohammed Hafiz.

The world began looking at the concept of contemporary art in Saudi Arabia. It enticed a particular curiosity; people wanted it.

Do you mean in terms of people from the outside being interested in art from Saudi Arabia?

Maya El Khalil: Yes. Many people needed help understanding how a contemporary art scene could exist in a closed country. This was based on some ignorance and prejudice. But these were fascinating times to enter into these conversations.

Around what year was this?

Maya El Khalil: We’re talking around 2008, 2009, 2011. We already had some exhibitions internationally, and the ATHR Gallery was founded in 2009. Its first participation as an entity that had not officially existed in a permanent space was in March 2009 at Art Dubai.

That’s fascinating. Was this all happening in Jeddah?

Maya El Khalil: It was, yes. However, even before that time, several exhibitions took place. Ayman Yossri did quite groundbreaking exhibitions playing with the idea of what art is and conceptual art. Much earlier, you had Meftaha Village. Also in 2005 and 2006, things were starting. Earlier, even in Riyadh, Mohammed Al-Saleem was coming back from studying in Italy, and there was the first art shop with supplies… These were all independent initiatives.

As you said, art will always exist, even in a more closed-off society… One of the differences now is that there are institutions. Are these initiatives now coming from the top-down rather than grassroots efforts?

Maya El Khalil: There is more support for the scene now. At the time, it was difficult, and there was a lack of public support and a collective base. After all, artists need to sell their work. Most of them had other jobs to sustain themselves. Nowadays, most artists are full-time, which is phenomenal. The amount of support this scene has from the government and from all of the different initiatives taking place is unique. These are different times.

Sara Alissa and Nojoud Alsudairi, Invisible Possibilities: When the Earth Began to Look at Itself
Sara Alissa and Nojoud Alsudairi, Invisible Possibilities: When the Earth Began to Look at Itself Desert X 2024

Do you feel this art scene evolved uniquely as it was closed off from the outside world, particularly from the West? 

Maya El Khalil: These artists were making art for art’s sake, even though no exhibitions existed. It was in their D.N.A., they would get together, and they would create. The framework of Saudi society also allows for that; it is very communal. People get together, they talk, they discuss ideas. For instance, Meftaha Village, which was in Aseer, included artists such as Abdulnasser Gharem, Ahmed Mater and Abdelkarim Qassem.

Other artists like Mahdi Al Jeraibi, Ayman Yossri, and Bakr Sheikhoun were based in Jeddah. In 1999, a key exhibition was held in Jeddah titled Shared Spaces (Masahat Moushtaraka) which included Ayman Yossri, Mehdi Al Jeraibi and Abeer Alfatni. This was a pioneering exhibition format for Saudi Arabia as it presented conceptual works in addition to what can be labelled as the first performance art experience. Both Ayman Yossri and Mahdi Al Jeraibi considered Bakr Sheikhoun a mentor.

It’s a scene that was taking place because it needed to occur.

The same thing happened in the U.A.E. with Hassan Sharif. One day, he opened an exhibition in an alley. He invited the media to cover it without stating who would “open” it and asked a passer-by to cut the ribbon. So there was all this play on being provocative with the concept of art. This exchange of ideas was not limited to Saudi Arabia since Saudi Arabia interacted with the rest of the Gulf and the Arab world.

 Speaking of art scenes evolving in different places in the Gulf and other parts of Saudi Arabia, how do the various cultural initiatives in AlUla fit into the evolution of the Saudi art scene? 

Maya El Khalil: The fact that there are several initiatives taking place across the kingdom is very positive. Artists can exhibit, have the funding to produce work, and have the ability to create an emerging art scene. There are many residencies and grants available at different levels. Therefore, there are opportunities for more established and emerging artists, which develops that grassroots.

I’m looking forward to seeing where this scene will be three or five years from now and at the speed it’s going. Of course, some things will be revisited because it’s a learning process.

We were looking at and learning from the first two editions of Desert X. Now, the next edition will look at us, and so on. You form your vision, learn from each other, and the team becomes more experienced. Having an exhibition at AlUla is not straightforward regarding logistics, but it is a fascinating place. The artists that participated all wanted to be there. I keep saying you do not go to AlUla to see an exhibition; you go to AlUla to experience the monumentality of it, the sublime, and that’s inspiring.

How did you find the artists you featured? Were most of them artists from the region? 

Maya El Khalil: We wanted to have representation from multiple places: to give an opportunity to Saudi artists, to have representation from regional artists, and to have some international/global artists. Primarily, we reached out to artists we felt could respond to the vision for this edition of Desert X. The starting point was looking at the AlUla landscape from the point of view of what cannot be seen. What is imperceptible, inexpressible. It was about realising the complexity of that landscape. We couldn’t approach it from a purely human perspective; it required different sensibilities. So we reached out to artists who we believed, through their practice, had this ability.

 I particularly liked the pieces related to myths. One piece was shaped like a snake, which fascinated me.

Maya El Khalil: Yes, Preserving Shadows by Filwa Nazer. After we selected the works and artists, we realised the responses had three main themes. One of them was very much about the idea of myths. When you don’t comprehend something, you create stories to explain it: for example, the cosmic, the unseen, or time itself. This is how civilisations throughout history have formulated their relationship with the desert. It’s a harsh environment, but it is also giving. Several artists, such as Filwa Nazer, Monira Al Qadiri (W.A.B.A.R.) and Rand Abdul Jabbar (Where Myths Are Born of Mud and Desire), tapped into these stories.

However, Filwa was the only one who approached this landscape from a fearful point of view. For her, it was about encountering this landscape and overcoming her fears in this environment. That snakelike structure was inspired by a story about two brothers who were passing through the desert and lit a fire. But a snake was hiding and bit them, and they were found dead. In her work, there is also the idea of renewal. A snake sheds; it metamorphoses. It’s about how you approach the stages in life and how you metamorphose and go through them. It’s a journey. Climbing that structure, reaching the top and overlooking the valley is a way of facing your fears, anxieties, and life. The desert is all about adaptability.

There’s something about this connection to tradition and these myths in the Arab world. Of course, only some artists will touch on them, but things feel less tethered to the past in the West. What are your thoughts on this?

Maya El Khalil: Well, the desert has always been a stage for the supernatural, for science fiction. It’s a link between the past and the future. You look at the desert and have a sense of deep time and the insignificance of the human timescale. The desert is also a future where your imagination is incredibly fertile. It’s such a complex place.

We were looking at artists who could express ideas and link them to the landscape. It was about articulating complex ideas but also distilling their essence. How do you concentrate and encapsulate the richness of a landscape like this?

I say richness because we started from the premise that deserts are not empty. It’s that post-colonial idea in which we reject the notion that deserts are empty. Anything empty is usually prone to be extracted. Deserts are rich in history, life, and past civilisations. They also have a thriving ecosystem.

Kader Attia, Whistleblower (1)
Kader Attia, Whistleblower Desert X 2024

It’s also a fragile ecosystem.

Maya El Khalil: It is, so we must step out of our ordinary perspective to meet it. However, when discussing encountering it anew, you must recognise how people from the region have seen that landscape, interacted historically with it, and built their lives around it. The exhibition was also about tapping into the knowledge already in AlUla and opening up a dialogue between different points of view.

Did you work with anyone locally while preparing the exhibition?

Maya El Khalil: Throughout the process, the artists had conversations with the communities in AlUla, and many wanted to collaborate with the communities there. It was extremely important for the R.C.U. (Royal Commission for AlUla) for these collaborations to take place, to engage with the community, and to learn from them.

Was there anything complicated about installing it in the landscape?

Maya El Khalil: We worked with experienced teams to assemble the work. There were installation experts, geologists, and even archaeologists. It’s a landscape that needs to be preserved. There is also ancient rock art in this landscape, a lot of which is protected. It wasn’t difficult but inspiring, and we all learned a lot. The official vision of the R.C.U. is to “leave no trace,” so encouraging these reversible interventions rather than permanent ones. If there’s one word I would repeat again and again, it’s respect. It is respecting the environment, respecting histories, respecting communities, and respecting the knowledge that exists.

That’s so important. With things opening up, people coming in and foreigners coming in, is there a danger of losing some of that respect?

Maya El Khalil: What I’ve experienced from every team member is this careful approach to ensure that, first and foremost, the landscape is preserved. Every time we had a challenge to overcome, there was a focus on the impact on the landscape, how reversible it was, and the best way to approach it from a sustainable point of view. 

This was our vision for this edition of Desert X. The focus was on encounters rather than impact. These artists almost had a personal dialogue with the landscape, so at no point was it about imposing a particular narrative or knowledge. It was about these artists grounding their expertise within that which exists in the landscape. And the knowledge of the teams around us.

Art can do that. Artists are generally more sensitive to these issues.

Maya El Khalil: Art in this context acts as a bridge to reconcile these varied perspectives. It enables this collective shift in perception and sensibility to take place. That’s the transformative potential of art. It can enhance our relationship with the world around us.

Participatory workshop for Shifting Sands: A Battle Song (2024), by Manal AlDowayan. Photo by Iman Aldabbagh. Courtesy of the Visual Arts Commission, the Commissioner for the National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia.
Participatory workshop for Shifting Sands: A Battle Song (2024), by Manal AlDowayan. Photo by Iman Aldabbagh. Courtesy of the Visual Arts Commission, the Commissioner for the National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia.

Can you tell me a little about your involvement with the Saudi pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale? What was it like to have co-curated it, and what can we expect to see?

Maya El Khalil: It is quite an honour to be co-curating Manal AlDowayan’s participation at the 60th Venice Biennale for the Saudi pavilion. I have worked with Manal on multiple occasions and have been following and writing about her practice for over 10 years. I feel also quite fortunate to be working alongside the wonderful Jessica Cerasi.  It is actually a much wider curatorial effort which includes the invaluable help of our assistant curator Shadin Albulaihed but also of Manal herself and her phenomenal studio manager Carla Giachello. We all shared ideas and how best to deliver on Manal’s vision. It goes without saying that we did not always agree, which meant ideas were challenged, defended and further developed until we reached decisions we were all comfortable with. It has been quite an inspiring and rewarding process.

Manal AlDowayan is known in Saudi Arabia for her pioneering participatory practice, often involving women in private gatherings that functioned as “counter publics.” A curatorial challenge was how to translate the power of these counter-publics into a very different social context, where viewers would have far less of a grasp on the context of making. It is in these spaces, where women come together that the collective annunciations take place. As such, the collective “making” process is central for Manal, so maintaining these invisible presences was key.

Sound was used significantly to address this. This was particularly significant as Manal had not worked with recordings and voices before: in some ways, the women are more present than ever.

In Venice, there is less familiarity with the Saudi art scene and women’s social context. Given that the theme of the Biennale’s International Art Exhibition ‘Foreigners Everywhere’ curated by Adriano Pedrosa deals with otherness, it seems pertinent that Manal’s work directly confronts external perspectives on Saudi women vs. their own self-conception and agency.

I will not reveal further information about the work as I urge you to come and see it.

Shifting Sands: A Battle Song will be on view from 20 April to 24 November 2024 at the National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia at the Arsenale, Sale d’Armi, Venice, Italy.

Top Photo: Maya El Khalil, Desert X AlUla 2024 Curator, Courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla All other photos Leila Lebreton © Artlyst 2024

Desert X Runs until 24th March 2024

Read More




, , ,