In a matter of just a few days, Noor Riyadh will light up the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from November 30 – December 16, 2023. And it’s safe to say that excitement levels are growing by the minute.
First established in March 2021, Noor Riyadh is the largest light art festival in the world, spanning across Saudi Arabia’s capital city and bringing together the very best light art from the country and beyond together. Noor Riyadh falls under Riyadh Art, an effort that aims to uplift art in the Kingdom. It will see every corner of the city — from residential neighborhoods, to parks, metro and bus stations, tourist spots, and pedestrian pathways — transformed with quirky, beautiful, thought-provoking pieces. Noor Riyadh will feature the works of 100+ artists (of which more than 35 are from Saudi Arabia) from 35 countries.
This year, Noor Riyadh’s theme is “The Bright Side of the Desert Moon”, and artworks will be displayed to all across five different hubs. Along with luminous art, the festival’s calendar is also brimming with over 500 community engagement programs, including talks, tours, workshops, and special activities involving films and music. A key attraction this year is the “Refracted Identities, Shared Futures” exhibition, curated by Neville Wakefield and Maya Al Athel.
With so much to look forward to, Vogue Arabia decided to sit down for a conversation with Jerome Sans, lead curator of Noor Riyadh. Below, excerpts from an insightful interview.
Congratulations on the upcoming edition of Noor Riyadh. Can you tell us the story behind Noor Riyadh? How did it come to be?
As one of the most ambitious festivals of its kind, Noor Riyadh is a citywide celebration of light and art, transforming the urban landscape into an open-air museum for the span of 17 days. For its third edition this year, I was invited to participate as the lead curator, alongside three curators, Pedro Alonzo, Alaa Tarabzouni and Fahad Bin Naif. With the rare opportunity of being granted the keys to a city, Noor Riyadh is about thrusting art out into the public sphere and making artworks vibrate to the rhythm of real life. While being an annual festival, it has the extraordinary scale of a biennale and the feel of what we call in France a Nuit Blanche, an annual all-night arts festival. For me, Noor Riyadh represents a continuation of my own long-lasting curatorial ambitions to design projects that are rooted in reality, in the everyday.
As the lead curator for Noor Riyadh, what were the factors you kept in mind while piecing together the artists and artworks that would feature this year?
An essential element for me was to approach the building of this festival as a collective project. In our era where co-construction is the way forward, this exhibition is collaborative, like a circle, a “moon”. With Mexican-American curator Pedro Alonzo, and Saudi curators Alaa Tarabzouni and Fahad Bin Naif, we have come together to envision this same story and to unite international and local artists. Different voices, territories, cultures and generations meet to write one joint story. We are living the time of the “we”, and leave the time of the “I” behind us. We belong together.
Noor Riyadh will reach a global audience with its beautiful works. What is the message you hope to share with the world through the festival?
Noor Riyadh is about spreading a positive message for the future. The sky being what reunites us all, this mostly open-air festival is an ode to living together. Light is the giver of life and hope. Entitled this year “The Bright Side of the Desert Moon”, the festival is a platform to take a moment to reflect, encouraging to take a beat from the daily sprint of modernity. It is like a manifesto to slow down the ineluctable flux of cities by writing contemplation, poetry, slowness inside the urban fabric. The desert here is also the metaphor for today’s Meta cities in which one easily gets lost in the mass. In this extremely connected world, humans can paradoxically find themselves isolated. Through a shared experience of art, this festival considers the desert as a place of reconnection where differences dissipate.
Can you tell us in particular about the female artists participating this year? What sets them apart from all the others in the industry?
We have a large array of fantastic female artists in this festival. I try not to think about female and male artists as two different, distinct categories. There has been an undeniable history of pushing women away from the artistic industry and it has definitely been a necessity in the recent past to separate the two in order to reinstate balance. My hope is that today this balance is being reached within the contemporary art scene and I try to think accordingly. I choose an artist because they are in line with the curatorial narrative of a project, for their artistic sensitivity. Naturally, I end up with many women artists who fit these criteria. The selection within Noor Riyadh is excellent proof of the wide range of talents that exist at a local and international scale.
What inspired you personally to enter the world of art?
I was driven by a desire to bring art into places which were not traditionally destined for such activities. I have always wanted to make art spaces into areas of real life, places for the everyday. Art needs to exist outside the boundaries and confines of most institutions and be spread throughout the public sphere, the city. This is what drives me to create new models for institutions that are connected to today’s world and to conceive projects that confront art with reality.
What’s one common misconception you believe people have when they think of art and the Middle East?
I cannot speak to how people at large conceive art and the Middle East. What I can say is that the Middle East has gone through a huge artistic boom over the last 20 years. In the case of Riyadh in particular, it is a city which is entirely reinventing itself in a fast track with its urban landscape constantly changing from one day to the next. This rush of innovation also applies to the cultural and artistic scene. In the midst of the unprecedented speed at which the artistic landscape is building itself in this region, I am honored to be able to contribute in some way to this co-construction in order to define together the paths it will take. The Middle East is opening a new page in its artistic history and is currently a cultural territory of infinite possibilities.
Noor Riyadh will comprise several different sections, from the festival itself to smaller exhibits. Which part of Noor Riyadh are you most excited about, and why?
Noor Riyadh is unique precisely because of its unparalleled scale. For that reason, I am most excited about seeing the whole festival pieced together. Spread out in all these locations disseminated throughout the entire city, this showcase goes from the ultra-contemporary setting of the financial district, to the artistic district of Jax, to the artificial flourishing nature of Salam Park, to the waterfalls of Wadi Namar, to the desertic landscapes of Wadi Hanifa. It is a story that becomes one by joining all of these elements together.
Of all the artists whose light art we will soon get to enjoy, do you have any favorites? Could you highlight them for us if possible?
It is impossible for me to choose a favorite or highlight one in particular within the story of the festival. To me, they are all as important, as crucial as the next. Following Umberto Eco’s view on the Poetics of the Open Work, the project’s scope cannot be reduced to one interpretation; it refuses any hegemony between the artworks or any overriding directive in the story that binds all of them together. This is why we conceived this exhibition as a platform with no preconceived path, like a flux with no beginning nor end, in which each visitor has the freedom to define their own route, to adopt their idiosyncratic ways of connecting the artworks together and to write their own narrative.
Noor Riyadh uses light installations to give us a fresh perspective on art — this medium is still a novelty to many of us. Moving forward, what do you think is the future of art, both in the region and globally?
The future of art is to always reinvent itself, to never stop moving forward, including new artists, new voices, new territories, new media. Art needs to be at the forefront of all the new technologies and at the center of contemporary debates. The future of the art in the region is just at its beginning. The future for the art is big. The world needs more culture.
What has been the best part about curating for Noor Riyadh, and what are you most excited about once the festival kicks off?
The challenge to build such a big exhibition within six months. It has been an amazing adventure, discovering the art and cultural scene, and the country.
To me, every element to curate it was as exciting as the next. From the first steps of choosing the artists to seeing their pieces installed. I am excited now to see the festival live its 17 nights under the moon.