In the heart of the desert, where tradition meets modernity and nature intertwines with technology, Saudi artist Obaid Alsafi crafts a narrative that is as compelling as it is crucial.
His latest installation, “Palms in Eternal Embrace,” unveiled at the prestigious 2024 AlUla Arts Festival, stands as a testament to the power of art in addressing some of the most pressing issues of our time, particularly climate change and environmental preservation.
Alsafi, a visionary with a background in computer science, seamlessly blends his technical acumen with a profound artistic sensibility, creating works that provoke thought, evoke emotion, and inspire action.
In an exclusive interview with Salon Privé Magazine, Alsafi delves into the depths of his inspiration, the intricate process behind his awe-inspiring installation, and the broader implications of his work for society and the environment.
His thoughtful responses offer a glimpse into the mind of an artist who is not only shaping the contemporary art scene in the MENA region but also contributing to a global dialogue on sustainability, heritage, and the future of human interaction with the natural world.
Join us as we explore the journey of an artist who uses his craft to bridge the gap between the ephemeral and the eternal, the local and the global, and the individual and the collective, setting a new standard for what art can achieve in the modern era.
Could you share with us what inspired you to create “Palms in Eternal Embrace”? Was there a specific moment or experience that sparked the idea for this artwork?
While I am deeply passionate about art and human creative output, nothing can compare to the inherent beauty of nature, which was my main source of inspiration for this commission.
The designated site for the installation is AlUla’s Palm Grove, a breathtaking natural spot within the oasis. As an artist, I felt strongly that my proposed artwork should integrate seamlessly within this landscape, rather than disrupt it.
I wanted to articulate the story of the Palm Grove. The more I reflected on this space and the natural life it is home to, the more I felt attuned to the climate change-related issues palm trees face globally. It became imperative for me to convey this narrative in my own words.
Your installation features over 30 wooden trunks interwoven with textiles that resemble palm trees. Is there symbolism behind this choice of materials, and what message do you aim to convey through this juxtaposition?
I intend to utilize real palm trunks that have fallen victim to climate change, creating a kind of memorial for the millions of forgotten, deceased trees worldwide. “Palms in Eternal Embrace” serves as a final tribute to these victims.
The woven textile carries two meanings: Firstly, it draws from a common practice in Saudi Arabia of using netting to shield trees from the sun, which I wanted to revisit poetically.
Secondly, and perhaps more subtly, I aimed to illustrate the natural interdependence between trees and modern technology. We find ourselves at the dawn of a transhumanistic era where agro-biological substrates and technology are merging.
Your work is deeply connected to environmental themes. How do you see your role as an artist in addressing climate change and environmental preservation?
Tackling the challenge of climate change is an imperative that requires a profound societal transformation. The triple bottom line of People, Planet, and Profit holds significant importance for me, as these three facets of our society are intricately interconnected.
As an artist, I aim to demonstrate that an alternative world is achievable by leveraging human wisdom and technology through art. My goal is to enhance people’s awareness, rather than to offer a definitive solution for environmental protection.
There are millions of people actively contributing to environmental efforts, and I am just one among them. However, as artists, we possess a unique ability to raise questions, highlight dilemmas, and express concerns from a shared perspective. I see myself as a catalyst for response, aiming for my work to pose inquiries in all conceivable directions by introducing a new way of experiencing our environment.
How has your Saudi heritage influenced your artistic vision, particularly in the context of “Palms in Eternal Embrace”?
The palm tree holds special significance in Saudi Arabia, as an emblem of national heritage that is deeply rooted in literature, religion, art, and folklore. Having grown up surrounded by these trees in a village, I’ve witnessed how this heritage now faces endangerment due to climate change.
All my artworks, including “Palms in Eternal Embrace,” aim to actively contribute to contemporary conversations and address these issues while celebrating our Saudi heritage. This approach is consistent with my work in “Mirage of Us,” where I employed AI to create a set of rocks, presenting them as an archaeological reference to our culture and creating speculation and discussion.
With a background in computer science, how do you integrate your technical knowledge into your artistic practice? Do you find that it offers a unique perspective in your approach to art?
I’ve always been enthusiastic about new technologies, and how they can be harnessed to support and enhance creative output, which is how I apply the use of the technology in my practice.
Indirectly, technology undoubtedly influences my creative approach but, like most people, I find it challenging to step back and quantify its impact on me. Technology has almost always been an integral part of the creative process for me.
Can you describe your creative process? How do you move from an idea to a fully realized installation?
It’s a back-and-forth iterative process for me. Rarely do I start with a single idea, given the interconnected nature of my various projects at different stages of development. The approach often involves combining several elements that synergize to address the specific challenge or idea.
What were some of the challenges you faced in bringing “Palms in Eternal Embrace” to life, and how did you overcome them?
I wanted to minimize our environmental impact on the soil of AlUla as well as the carbon footprint in producing and transporting the different elements of the installation. I found an interesting solution that allowed the entire installation to be shipped seamlessly.
The installation is still not as sustainable as it should be, however, as an industry, we are collectively on a journey to become more and more sustainable. Every installation provides learning and creates discussion towards improvements for future projects.
Your installation incorporates locally sourced materials. Could you elaborate on your collaboration with local artisans and the importance of this aspect in your work?
I am collaborating with local artisans to blend modern and traditional art. While the details are still being finalized, I am working on five unique designs that will be crafted by traditional artisans using iron instead of the usual materials. This deliberate choice aims to infuse a contemporary touch while honouring the region’s rich heritage of craftsmanship.
As part of the installation, we incorporate several nettings referred to as “sadu” in our culture. These traditional textile compositions are being re-interpreted with contemporary design and materials for our installation.
We are currently in the process of developing scale prototypes to involve local craftsmen. Engaging these craftsmen in the task requires a profound understanding of the essence of the project. I anticipate it to be a beautiful experience, marking a collaborative process that involves the local community in this creative journey.
What kind of reaction do you hope to evoke in the audience who experience your installation? Is there a specific feeling or thought you aim to instil?
This artwork aims to provoke thought, questions and awareness of collective and contemporary issues.
Are there any upcoming projects or themes you are currently exploring that you can share with us?
I am delving into new concepts addressing climate change and other challenges that our society is currently facing today. Additionally, I am exploring the impact of AI and the myriad of socio-cultural questions it introduces into our lives.
How do you see the role of art in fostering cultural dialogue, especially in today’s globalized world?
As an artist, I recognize my responsibility to nurture cultural dialogue and create spaces of connection between people to collaborate on social issues and foster regeneration.
What advice would you give to aspiring artists who wish to use their work to make a statement about important global issues?
I encourage artists to continuously ask questions and avoid presuming or dictating solutions. It’s essential to leverage collective intelligence and consistently pose questions without settling for definite answers.
Looking ahead, what kind of legacy do you hope to create with your art, and what impact do you wish to have on both the art world and wider society?
Cybernetics will undoubtedly play a significant role in my work. With AI, we will have the capability to work in real-time, eliminating any distance between the phases of conception and rendering. Conception and rendering will become simultaneous. We will create forms of art that are instantly responsive to our emotions, establishing a direct connection with us.
I anticipate the same immediacy in my role as a performer. This dynamic is likely to evolve into a form of performance where humans and machines stimulate each other. The experience will be explorative, pervasive, and inclusive, allowing us to navigate within the art ecosystem, forge new paths and welcome new challenges as they arise.
How has winning the Ithra Art Prize impacted your career, and what does this recognition mean to you personally and professionally?
Thank you for asking this question. It holds significant meaning for me. Contemporary art in Saudi Arabia has traditionally been associated with vast philosophical concepts, embodying a form of art that is absolute, meditative, and metaphysical, sometimes even monolithic.
“Palms in Eternal Embrace” represents my active participation in global societal discourse, delving into present questioning without providing definitive answers. I hope more artists will embark on similar paths.
As a prominent artist in the MENA region, how do you envision the future of contemporary art in this area?
Working as an artist in the MENA region presents challenges but also significant opportunities. It is a region that is changing at a pace, with a wealth of ideas and dilemmas to consider.
This blend and sense of opportunity provide a fertile ground for creative expression. I believe that cultural dialogue is a crucial component of the region’s development and future.
As we prepare for Saudi Arabia 2030, I hope that we can rectify some misconceptions about our culture and contribute something new to the world. By fostering understanding and embracing the diversity within our region, we can play a pivotal role in shaping a more interconnected and harmonious global landscape.