By Reagan Carraway
Andy Warhol continues to travel the world. Wherever he goes, he brings the inspiration that artists everywhere will use to plant the seeds of new ideas, new art, and the beginnings of the next generation of famous artists.
Famous in AlUla is Andy Warhol’s very first exhibition in Saudi Arabia and the theme is none other than the pop artist’s favorite subject: stars. Not stars in the celestial sense, although the exhibition’s setting of the Maraya Concert Hall (which holds the record for being the largest mirrored building in the world) certainly gives off an ethereal magnificence. FAME: Andy Warhol in AlUla showcases 70 Warhols that reflect society’s appetite for glamor, an appetite that the man himself never could satiate.
The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania co-hosts this exhibition, renting out works from their vast collection consisting of iconic portraits, screen tests of Hollywood VIPs reminiscent of The Silver Factory, and Silver Clouds, a 1966 silver balloon installation that resembles the exterior of the Maraya. FAME has been incorporated as a second edition of the AlUla Arts Festival and follows an initiative known as Vision 2030—a “unique transformative economic and social reform blueprint that is opening Saudi Arabia up to the world.” It projects a diversification of the economy that has heavily relied on oil through the infusion of scientific, infrastructural, and artistic projects by 2030.
Philip Jones, the chief tourism officer for the Royal Commision for AlUla, commented on the importance of bringing an artist of Warhol’s recognition into Saudi Arabia in an interview for Artnet News. “A lot of the young Saudi artists aren’t known globally, and so by exposing them to artists of the magnitude that we’re bringing in and shows like FAME, gives them the opportunity to be exposed to something they may not have ever had the opportunity to experience before as part of our strategy… There’s tremendous arts and creativity in Saudi Arabia, but very few people around the world know about it.”
Patrick Moore, director of The Andy Warhol Museum and curator of FAME, echoes Jones’s sentiments. “FAME is intended to be an introduction to the aspect of Warhol that I believe is most fascinating to many young people, including Saudi youth, as Andy Warhol’s journey, which started as a child staring at the movie screen and collecting publicity stills, is becoming more common through the rise of social media. FAME is an opportunity to further extend Warhol’s legacy by reaching new audiences.”
While the “vision” in VISION 2030 symbolizes a modern art Renaissance for Saudi Arabia, the FAME collaboration has raised a moral dilemma for many. Saudi Arabia, while violating many basic human rights with an oppressive authoritarian regime, still criminalizes queer sexual acts and relationships. The most severe of punishments for such activity? Death. Warhol was a gay man, and some journalists are raising questions as to what message is being sent with this partnership.
Andy Warhol in Iran, a new play written by Ben Askari that has grabbed attention this past year, reminds us that this is not the first time that Warhol has stirred controversy due to business in the Middle East. In 1976, Warhol met the Shahanshah and Shahbanou of Iran at a state dinner honoring the Shah and began a brief professional relationship with the political figures that included a commission for a portrait of the Empress. Due to the dynasty’s reputation for quelling the innate rights of its people, the artist’s association with the regime was highly criticized, particularly after his attendance at several lavish events while he worked on the portrait in Iran.
Prior to the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Iranian economy’s success in oil fueled an abundant world of arts. A “geo-political thriller” as chronicled by Chicago Sun Times, the glowingly reviewed Andy Warhol in Iran sets the stage in 1976 after Warhol arrives in Tehran. The play blends the true circumstances of the trip and a fictionalized encounter with an Iranian revolutionary, Fahrad, who intends to abduct and use Warhol to draw attention to the Pahlavi Dynasty and the systematic violation of human rights. As the play unfolds, both Farhad and Warhol’s perspectives highlight a critical conversation that is not unlike the one surrounding the FAME exhibition.
Hamid Dehghani, an immigrant from Iran and recent Northwestern graduate plays Fahrad and sheds some light on the difference between the two men’s understanding of the significance of the collaboration. “Farhad is similar to myself in some ways—he was raised in Iran, studied literature in the U.S., but instead of using art, Farhad is drawn to something that he sees as a more immediate, more practical way of changing things. He decides to draw attention to what is happening in Iran—the torture, the oppression, the repression—all the things Andy says are ‘just politics’—in a way that won’t be denied. He wants to use Andy’s fame to make people see what’s happening in Iran” (Chicago Sun Times).
Rob Lindley and Hamid Dehghani in Andy Warhol in Iran. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Since the revolution, Iran’s collections of Western art have largely remained stored. However, like Saudi Arabia, it has more recently begun to open up avenues for exhibitions, albeit censored. As the artistic scene continues to grow in Middle Eastern countries and Warhol posthumously continues to explore our world through traveling exhibitions, there is much anticipation to unlock great potential for unprecedented collaborations and new works. Indubitably, debates as to the ethics of certain partnerships will not soon pass nor will they likely come to a single solution. But hope lies in the fact that as a society, we are having these discussions at all. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do? Make you think?