Ithra Art Award 2023

Saudi artist Obaid Alsafi wins Ithra Art Prize, largest in Middle East/North Africa region

His work “Palms in Eternal Embrace” will be unveiled at the opening of the 2024 AlUla Arts Festival in February.

Saudi artist Obaid Alsafi wins Ithra Art Prize, largest in Middle East/North Africa region

The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) this week announced Saudi artist Obaid Alsafi as the winner of the sixth edition of the Ithra Art Prize.


Launched in 2017, the Ithra Art Prize is the largest art grant in the region, offering Middle East and North Africa (MENA) artists the opportunity to be awarded $100,000, in addition to up to $400,000 in funding to bring their ideas to life. 


This year’s edition of the Ithra Art Prize, Art in the Landscape, is in collaboration with Arts AlUla, as part of a wider strategic partnership with the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU). RCU is responsible for preserving and developing the region of AlUla, known for its outstanding natural and cultural significance and Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hegra. 


The Sixth Ithra Art Prize called for submissions of public artwork proposals that are site-specific to AlUla and present 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. 


‘Palms in Eternal Embrace’

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 Ithra Art Prize submission Palms in Eternal Embrace 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 sedentarism. 


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. 


“I am honored to be awarded this year’s Ithra Art Prize and to have the opportunity to cast a spotlight on the importance of safeguarding the natural world in the astounding setting of AlUla’s natural heritage and oasis landscape,” Alsafi said.


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.
— Obaid Alsafi


The winning artwork was selected by a jury of industry experts, including: 


  • Farah Abushullaih, head of Museum at Ithra
  • Nora Aldabal, executive director of Arts and Creative Industries at the Royal Commission for AlUla 
  • Mohamed Ibrahim, Emirati artist
  • Sophie Makariou, scientific director for Culture and Heritage, AFALULA
  • Aric Chen, general and artistic director, Het Nieuwe Instituut.

Unveiling and showing

Palms in Eternal Embrace will be unveiled on Feb. 8, 2024, as a part of the third edition of the Arts AlUla Festival, with a live performance art piece centered around the preservation of the palm tree's biological essence. 


The AlUla Arts Festival is an annual multi-arts festival showcasing AlUla's long-standing legacy as a cultural crossroads and champion of the arts. From cutting-edge exhibitions and street-art tours to cinema screenings and a lively program of performances, AlUla explodes into a citywide celebration of the arts. 


The Ithra Art Prize winning piece will exhibit in the AlUla Oasis, in and among the 2.3 million date palms that are clustered throughout AlUla, for six weeks before joining Ithra’s permanent collection.


“One of Ithra’s core aims is to facilitate deeper conversations surrounding community and culture. This year’s Ithra Art Prize theme encouraged Arab and international artists to engage with Saudi Arabia’s natural heritage in order to further develop the meaningful cross-cultural exchange of ideas that lies at the heart of Ithra’s values and at the heart of our wider partnership with RCU.
— Farah Abushullaih 


“Obaid 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," Abushullaih said.


Aldabal added: "We're excited to announce Obaid Alsafi as the recipient of this year's Ithra Art Prize. His winning submission brings to light the vital importance of preserving AlUla's unique desert and oasis landscape. 


“RCU has a longstanding commitment to nurturing Arab artists, fostering the vibrant creative scene in the Kingdom and the broader MENA region. Through our partnership with Ithra, we aim to further enrich AlUla's rich legacy to place art and creativity at the centre of an unfolding visitor destination and as a valued contributor to the region's character, quality of life and economy," she added.


For more information on the Ithra Art Prize, please visit Ithra’s website.


About the Ithra Art Prize

Ithra is committed to igniting cultural curiosity, stimulating knowledge exploration and inspiring creativity, while encouraging and supporting the development of original content. The Ithra Art Prize is proof of this undertaking to empower the creative landscape in the Kingdom and beyond.


The Ithra Art Prize celebrates contemporary art and artists and aims to fund and promote them, and to offer them a global platform. Launched in 2017, the Art Prize was awarded to Saudi and Saudi-based contemporary artists in collaboration with Art Dubai for its first three editions. In its fourth edition, the prize was unveiled with the Diriyah Biennale Foundation at the Kingdom’s inaugural biennale, and featured an expanded geographical footprint that included established contemporary artists from or based in one of the 22 Arab countries. 


The Ithra Art Prize is one of the most prominent art grants in the world, with the winner receiving $100,000, in addition to up to $400,000 in funding to bring their proposal to life. 


The prize invites artists either from or based in the MENA region to submit proposals via an annual open call, and a global panel of experts – including artists, curators, academics and art historians — selects the winning proposal. 


About Obaid Alsafi

Born in 1991 in Wadi ad-Dawasir and now based in Riyadh, artist Obaid Alsafi works in new media installations, video, and data-generated projects. He takes a systematic approach to his creative process, informed by his training in computer science. He investigates the unseen or invisible aspects of life, tracing the profound impacts of data on the visible environment, physical reality, and collective memory, while also drawing on photography, poetry, and Arabic literature.


His precise artworks are generated by these invisible processes. They are formed from his research in artificial intelligence and software, through which he draws attention to the way in which data constitutes a large part of our contemporary world. By visualizing this material, he creates an altered perception of the future of data and helps draw the link between the contemporary computational environment and its everyday physicality.

Alsafi has previously been awarded SDAIA’s International AI Art Competition Ai Artathon and has completed residencies at The Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol, UK and the Art Center Nabi in Seoul, Korea. He has also exhibited at Athr Gallery in Jeddah, Misk Art Institute in Riyadh, 369 Art Gallery in Venice and at Ithra in Dhahran.


About AlUla Arts Festival

The AlUla Arts Festival was inaugurated in 2022 under the banner of AlUla Moments’ calendar of events and festivals and is set to become a must-do annual event on the global arts scene.


The two-week long festival offers visitors curated arts experiences, bringing together exhibitions and encounters created by a diverse array of artistic talents under the direction of Arts AlUla and in celebration of AlUla’s legacy as a cultural crossroads. 


AlUla Arts Festival showcases a program of art, culture, history and landscapes as well as exclusive performances and immersive experiences spread across AlUla’s ancient sites and modern-day arts precincts and venues. 


Featuring an exciting mix of talent including local, regional, and international artists, performers, curators, collectors and more – AlUla Arts Festival is a revival of AlUla’s creative legacy.


At the crossroads of time, space and civilization, AlUla is at the eye of this perfect storm, with art and creativity central to an unfolding visitor destination and valued as a key contributor to the AlUla’s character, quality of life and economy.


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