Inside Saudi Arabia’s New Andy Warhol Art Exhibit

In the wake of funding LIV Golf and hosting Jake Paul vs. Tommy Fury, Saudi Arabia makes another pop culture play with an expansive new Warhol exhibit.

Andy Warhol Muhammad Ali, 1978 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution DIA Center for the Arts, 1997.1.18.4 © 2023 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London / Muhammad Ali; Rights of Publicity and Persona Rights: Muhammad Ali Enterprises LLC. ali.com

The second edition of Saudi Arabia’s AlUla Arts Festival has wrapped. But some installations remain on view among the Ashvar Valley’s canyons, including Fame, a show of 70 works by famed pop artist Andy Warhol.

The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh curated the exhibition, on display in a mirrored mirage of a concert hall called the Maraya—the world’s largest mirrored building—through May 16. Themed “Living In Color,” this year’s AlUla Arts Festival presented four exhibitions, nine workshops, and three tours, with “film screenings and a lively program of performing arts.” 

Installation Photo © Arts AlUla / © 2023 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London

The annual event is one of many art institutions taking shape in Saudi Arabia as the crown prince notably invests resources to rebrand the nation’s reputation from one of oppression to expression. Recent arrivals include Centre Pompidou and Desert X. Both take place in AlUla. 

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Warhol Museum director Patrick Moore curated FAME. He visited Arts AlUla a year before the first fest took shape in 2022 to probe a show. “I was struck by how quickly the Saudi culture was changing and quite moved by the openness of the young people I met,” he tells Maxim. 

Andy Warhol Jackie, 1964 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. 1998.1.92 © 2023 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London

“I was given no particular parameters, so I thought about what would be most meaningful as an introduction to Warhol, especially with younger audiences,” Moore continued.

“I saw firsthand how young people in Saudi were super interested in social media and creating their own kind of personal brand. They clearly want to be seen, and I related that to the idea of Andy creating his own fame and relating to the fame of others.”

Installation Photo © Arts AlUla / © Christopher Makos / © 2023 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London

Warhol grew up like many working class kids in Pittsburgh—and also grew obsessed with glamor, celebrity. “As Warhol achieved that dream, becoming one of the world’s most famous artists,” the fest writes, “he also came to understand that fame comes with many complications.” 

Silkscreen portraits and screen tests across the show chart Fame’s triumphs and pitfalls without one hair falling out of place, through the pretty faces of Elizabeth Taylor, Muhammad Ali, and Dolly Parton—where subtle expressions belie depths beneath.

Photos of countercultural stars from Warhol’s Factory like Edie Sedgwick retain their beauty, though viewers know now how her story ends. Supplementary ephemera abounds, including wallpaper by the artist and Polaroids.

Meanwhile the Maraya shines on, with its own Michelin chef. Erected after the country legalized concerts in 2017, it’s the world’s largest mirrored building, reflecting Hegra in 9,470 panels. 

Installation Photo © Arts AlUla / © The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved. Film still courtesy The Andy Warhol Museum

“Warhol never traveled to Saudi Arabia but I think he would have been fascinated with a country with such a young population, as he idolized youth,” Moore told Maxim. While painting two walls for the new Shift 22 festival in Riyadh last fall, Dallas-based muralist JM Rizzi also said he saw “a young generation that is very much connected to various artistic movements and dialogues.”

“I met quite a few of them, and the feeling was one of kinship, mixed with gratitude for the international artists,” Rizzi continued. “The impression was certainly one of a people that were moving towards creating an artistic culture that is sure to challenge existing dogmatic history.” 

Installation Photo © Arts AlUla / © 2023 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ Licensed by DACS, London

The fest is doing their part to nourish the next generation of artists from the area by hosting workshops alongside lectures and performances, including a full scale silkscreen studio.

The Warhol exhibit is the latest example of Saudi Arabia’s controversial bid for cultural relevancy, from funding the renegade LIV Golf circuit to hosting the recent Jake Paul vs. Tommy Fury boxing match.

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