Desert X 2021: Photo Guide to the Powerful Art Exhibition

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indianland art instillation

Hello, it’s me again, back bi-annually with another photo guide to my absolute FAVORITE outdoor art exhibition, taking place in one of my favorite parts of California – Coachella Valley. Desert X 2021 was their third exhibition from when they first started in 2017. Desert X 2021 was also MY third time attending since the first time I stumbled upon that mirrored house and thought it would be fun to pop over and see what was going on.

2021 seems…literally like two whole personalities ago, but as we are on the dawn of the next Desert X (2023 – and YES, I’m going haha), I realized that I hadn’t shared any pictures from the last exhibition. This post won’t be long…err, hopefully…since I have all of my tips and whatnot in my Desert X 2019 Photo Guide post. So if you have no idea what Desert X is or how to plan for it, I suggest you pause for a sec, open that one up in another tab to read first, then come back to this one!

Quick Desert X 2021 Overview

Okay, I lied, I’ll do a biiiit of backstory, but no long tips or anything! Desert X takes place in California’s Coachella Valley, sprinkled throughout the desert cities of Palm Springs to Coachella, and everywhere in between.

Desert X 2021 started a few weeks later than normal, likely because February is still in the flashflood weather zone and caused some exhibits to temporarily closed due to flooding. Thankfully they were open when I visited, but still sucked for those who weren’t able to see all of the pieces.

The Desert X 2021 dates ranged from March 12 – May 16, and I visited right smack in the middle April 3rd through April 7th. The most important thing is to just AVOID COACHELLA WEEKENDS AT ALL COST. Unless of course you are in the area to attend Coachella Music Festival, then…by all means check out the Desert X pieces. It’s one of my top out-of-the-box Coachella Music Festival tips.

By the way, is Desert X free? ABSOLUTELY! There is no cost or tickets needed to see the art pieces displayed for Desert X.

Right in the middle is typically my favorite time to visit, because the weather is comfortable and there are usually some wildflowers, but because of that, you’ll also share the exhibits with more people. Towards the end, weather a bit hotter, but that also means less crowds – so pick your poison.

In 2019, we stayed in Palm Springs at the Saguaro Hotel, but in 2021 we went more inland in Coachella Valley and stayed at a pretty basic (which unfortunately does not also mean cheap) Hampton Inn in the city of Palm Desert. It’ isn’t the most boisterous of the desert cities in Coachella Valley, but it did have its perks like being more central in the valley with a lot less traffic.

I visited with my favorite travel partner, my boyfriend, and this time my friends joined for one of the days, Amanda from PT Passages and her husband Julian <3

Desert X 2021 Instillations

Curated by Desert X Artistic Director Neville Wakefield and Co-curator César García-Alvarez, this year followed the vast theme of exploring the desert as both a place and idea, acknowledging the realities of people who reside here and the political, social, and cultural contexts that shape our stories – their words not mine, I could never be that insightful haha.

Now why didn’t I wear some lipstick?? smh

Desert X 2021 was one of the first art exhibitions of its size to open to the public after only a year of pandemic uncertainty. One – it is an outdoor based art show, meaning it could offer a (free!) safe experience to a region where most of the residents are above the age of fifty and/or do not have accessible healthcare.

Desert X 2021 included 13-ish instillations and this time around, and the Desert X 2021 artists represented countries from all over the world, even during a pandemic. I managed to see all* of the pieces for once – a very big deal for me since I usually miss the whatever is on display at Sunnylands because their hours are outside of my usually 4-day weekends (Sun-Wednesday). That said, I do not have pictures of all of them, either due to coming upon them too late in the day and the lighting was not clear, or seeing them in passing from the road and not having the ability to stop for a proper photo.

For this Desert X 2021 photoguide, I’ll brieflyyy touch on each one and my lil humble thoughts on it. As always, we picked up the Desert X 2021 booklet, available in English and Spanish, from Ace Hotel, a partner hotel and information hub. One day, maybe I’ll have enough on my credit limit to stay there haha, but I digress.

In no particular order, let’s begin!

What Lies Behind the Walls – Zahrah Alghamdi

Photo from Desert X 2021 website

Zahrah Alghamdi (Al Bahah, Saudi Arabia, 1977) explores memory and history through traditional architecture in both medium and assemblage. Her medium and process draw on the notion of “embodied memory” to translate and delineate themes of cultural identity, memory, and loss.

Alghamdi visited Palm Springs and was struck by the connection between the desert landscapes of her home in Saudi Arabia and the desert cities. For Desert X 2021, she created a sculpture that echoes and synthesizes the traditionally built forms from her country with the architectural organization she found throughout Coachella Valley. The monolithic wall, comprised of stacked forms of soils, dyes, and cements, specific to each region, is an expression of emotions and memories associated with place and time.

However, to the untrained eye, like mine, it just looked like stacked pieces of fabric or clothing. Without context, and because we had visited this one at the hottest part of the day, I didn’t dwell too much on its meaning at the time. But after reading it, I completely understand the feeling Alghamdi because I feel the same way whenever I visit the Middle East.

Not quite like home, but familiar enough to feel like it.

Women’s Qualities – Ghada Amer

Photo from Desert X 2021 website

New York-based Ghada Amer (Cairo, Egypt, 1963) explores the complicated nature of identity as it is developed through cultural and religious norms, as well as personal longings and understandings of the self. Recognizing that women are taught to model behaviors and traits shaped by others, and that art history is largely shaped by expressions of masculinity, Amer subverts these frameworks through aesthetics and content.

Like her paintings, which integrate sewing and embroidery, Amer’s gardens combine monolithic sculptures with sowing and nurturing. The installation forms a meeting place where artist and community, aesthetics and ideology, nature and culture come together for reflection and contemplation.

For me though…I didn’t think too much of it. It was lovely, and nicely oriented in the garden. But it could’ve just been that I prefer larger scale pieces in the y-axis direction haha.

Located in Sunnylands, a gated art museum and garden that closes early and isn’t open Monday and Tuesdays (when I usually visit), I actually had the pleasure of seeing this piece on two separate occassions. Once, when I visited originally for Desert X 2021. The second, however, is when I visited Palm Springs for a bachelorette party in May and we strolled through! I didn’t get pictures the first time, but thankfully we were all dressed up during the bach party so we stopped for photos!

Thanks Michael for being photogenic with me! P.S – if you don’t already follow him, he’s my favorite Portland foodie, so definitely give him a follow at @micbanh on Instagram!

Finding Home in My Own Flesh – Felipe Baeza

Photo from Desert X 2021 website

Felipe Baeza’s (Guanajuato, Mexico, 1987) practice is equal parts confrontation of violent pasts and a tribute to people whose sense of personhood is litigated and defined by those in power. These works bear witness to the lives of racialized, queer, migrant, and otherly abled subjects whose existence transgresses the limitations of identity.

The mural acknowledges the Coachella Valley as both a border region and a queered space, and honors immigrants and queer people of color who have been an integral part of the region’s story. Finding Home in My Own Flesh, depicts two hands enveloping a cloud of vines and flowers, speaks to the erasure of marginalized peoples from both official narratives and our collective imaginaries. The “fugitive body” is abstracted almost point of invisibility, but shows the process of becoming. It is a memorial to non-conforming bodies and their movement across spaces— both past and present—that nurture and uplift them.

It was very dark when I made it to this Desert X 2021 installation, so I don’t have any good pictures of it. At first glance, I did get the sense of something not quite whole, though I wasn’t sure if it was in the process of undoing or emerging. The optimist in me wanted to assume the latter, but after reading the concept over it now presents to me as a veil finally being lifted to show the person who was always whole to begin with.

This piece is now a PERMANENT installation so you can see it on your next trip!

The Wishing Well – Serge Attukwei Clottey

Serge Attukwei Clottey (Accra, Ghana, 1985) explores the sociopolitical, economic, environmental, and cultural legacies of the colonial project in Africa. Using yellow plastic jerrycans known as Kufuor gallons, he creates sculptures, installations, and performances that speak to histories of colonial pillaging and its effects on trade and migration.

Europeans introduced Kufuor gallons to the people of Ghana to transport cooking oil. As repurposed relics of the colonial project, they serve as a constant reminder of the legacies of empire and of global movements for environmental justice. With Desert X 2021 being located in the Coachella Valley, whose future is deeply dependent on water, The Wishing Well creates a dialogue about our shared tomorrow.

This instillation had a docent on site when the four of us visited, so the second he explained the concept behind the piece, it was easy to imagine carrying gallons of these jugs, which would amount to the size of the giant cubes, just to get enough water to survive. Life in the desert isn’t easy, maybe it’s not supposed to be, but colonization made it so intentionally unsustainable.

Never Forget – Nicholas Galanin

Photo from Desert X 2021 website

Nicholas Galanin (Sitka, Alaska, 1979), a Tlingit and Unangax̂ artist, offers a perspective rooted in his connection to the land and intentionally broad engagement with contemporary culture. His works are vessels of knowledge, culture, and technology — inherently political, generous, unflinching, and poetic.

First and foremost, Coachella Valley is the ancestral land of the Cahuilla People – past, present, and emerging – who have been here since time immemorial.

This 45-foot piece references the famous Hollywood sign, which initially spelled out Hollywood Land and was erected as a beacon to promote a whites-only development. Its timing coincided with a development in Palm Springs that also connected to the film industry: Studio contracts limited actors’ travel, contributing to the city’s rise as a playground and refuge of the stars. Both developments displaced the Black neighborhoods that were living there at the time.

But before all of that, Indigenous peoples stewarded Turtle Island, what is now called the Americas.

White settler mythology considers America the land of the free, home of the brave – and it was their GOD-GIVEN RIGHT to own all of it, from sea to shining sea. By any means necessary. Never Forget asks settler landowners to participate in the work by transferring land titles and management to local Indigenous communities. The work is a call to action and a reminder that land acknowledgments become only performative when they do not explicitly support the land back movement.

My hat: ThunderVoice Hat Co, a Native-owned business

This was understandably the busiest installation of Desert X 2021. And for good reason, even without the backstory – the message is clear, raw, and powerful. You can see it from the freeway, and it had gained quite a bit of traction on social media as well; it resulted in more than a few internet discussions.

Which, in the end, is what art is supposed to evoke.

Even as the four of us approached, we had to stop right at the parking lot, just to get a full view of it. Pristine mountains behind it, the neon city of Palm Springs to the front. It was almost as though it was the dividing line.

A barrier.

A defense.

While at this Desert X 2021 instillation, we found a very energetic docent (someone volunteering with Desert X 2021 to give context to the works) that there were business plans to develop resorts on those very mountains – currently stewarded and under the protection of the Agua Caliente Band of the Cahuilla people. But when has the USA ever respected its own violently forced boundaries?

The PBS Kids

The guide talked us through the evolution of Palm Springs as a city, and what that meant for the Cahuilla people. Like the multiple leasing laws that kept the Agua Caliente band from developing on their own land until the 1950s. And, due to discriminatory housing practices keeping Black, Latino, and other Indigenous neighbors from living in more resourced areas of Palm Springs, Agua Caliente landowners rented land to families of color and finally gave the city’s blue-collar workforce a place to live.

But…this is America after all. In 1954, the city removed trailers and “abandoned” cars from what they considered the unsightly “slums” of Palm Springs. Then in 1956, the city fire department burned down the rest of the homes in just seven minutes.

After telling us the story, then the very energetic docent had us film an impromptu movie??? It was…a trip, but they don’t call the four of us the PBS Kids for nothing haha.

The concept of this piece was not complex. In fact, it is the most straightforward someone can get. #LandBack.

ParaPivot (sempiternal clouds) – Alicja Kwade

metal poles coming together at different angles with differently shaped rocks balanced atop and in-between them

Alicja Kwade (Katowice, Poland, 1979), who lives and works in Berlin, investigates and questions the structures of reality and society and reflects on the perception of time in our everyday life. She grounds her practice around concepts of space, time, science, and philosophy and her work takes shape in sculptural objects, video, and photography.

This piece, titled ParaPivot (sempiternal clouds), consists of interlocking metal frames that support large blocks of marble that appear as if they were ice or icebergs calved from a distant glacier. Depending on where you stand and as you move through the different frames, the awareness can be compared to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, an effect whereby your interaction with the piece actually changes its form. The illusion – instability and the wobbling perception of size – lies at the heart of the piece.

I aint know nothin about all that though. To me, I was reminded of climate change and the fragility of our polar regions…and what an immense impact that shift will have on the rest of the planet. If the frames were once mighty glaciers, then the marble is what they are now from corrosion and melting. The instable balancing act, in this sense, felt like more of a threat.

A threat that the world needs to take more seriously.

Frequencies – Oscar Murillo

Photo from Desert X 2021 website

Oscar Murillo (Valle del Cauca, Colombia, 1986) works across painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, performance, and video. His practice is rooted in an investigation of globalization’s networked society and the ways the circulation of ideas, bodies, materials, and capital shape the lives of people across cultures.

This piece was actually not on view during my visit, unfortunately, so technically I didn’t see it. But imma still say I saw all the ones from Desert X 2021 that were permanent!

Frequencies is a long-term collaborative project with students and schools from around the world. Desks in participating classrooms are covered with a blank canvas that students are encouraged to intervene in as they wish. For this iteration, Oscar Murillo adapts Frequencies for students learning from home. Hundreds of students from Coachella Valley schools received a canvas and art supplies to participate.

The resulting canvases were on display on Saturday May 15th, 2021, from 9am-1pm at the Coachella Valley Art Center in Indio. Super short window. But I’m sure it was a great unveiling for those who were able to attend!

The Art Of Taming Horses – Christopher Myers

Photo from Desert X 2021 website

Christopher Myers (New York, New York, 1974) is a multidisciplinary artist who works in visual art, theater, and literature. Through a practice rooted in collaboration, Myers mines the intimate dimensions of the global, creating works that unveil relationships between distinct peoples and places.

These sculptures and their accompanying banners tell the story of two ranchers — one Mexican and one African-American — whose personal adversities and love for raising horses led them to create a welcoming community in the place that eventually would become Palm Springs. While never perfect, this story of acceptance echoes among many communities that have found a welcoming home in this place.

This was actually the last installation I saw on my way to the airport, so we didn’t have time to get out and take pictures. While I’m SURE our slow driving annoyed the other drivers in Palm Springs (well, maybe not, there was no one else out and about), it was nice to piece together the story, even if just from the car.

And! This Desert X 2021 is still on display!

The Passenger – Eduardo Sarabia

Photo from Desert X 2021 website

Eduardo Sarabia (Los Angeles, California, 1976), who lives and works in Guadalajara, Mexico, explores the complex cultural exchanges between Mexico and the United States and the multiple economies, formal and informal, that emerge from the encounters between two nations. Using materials that bridge tradition and popular culture, his works tell stories about the pasts and futures of people with two homelands.

This piece is, in short, a maze, made up of woven palm fibers. The maze itself represents the journeys endured by individuals from around the world across desert landscapes. From biblical narratives of exodus, to the treks of immigrants searching for better tomorrows, the necessity to move from one place to another has shaped a shared experience across cultures. While you navigate the maze, visitors are offered time to contemplate their own journey through both literal and figurative deserts.

When the four of us were approaching this installation, we ran into a man who was on his way out of it. He had a simple trucker hat, and a long black braid that laid flat down his back. His t-shirt was…some kind of vintage band or concert perhaps, but somehow the outfit all made sense. As an overly nervous person, I mentally went over the “hi how are you” greeting you do in passing, just in case I forgot what it was, but instead as we passed, he stopped us.

I thought he was going to comment on the…unusual props I had in my hand, that I now tried hiding behind my back, but instead he said, “Do you know what that is made of?”

Blankly, the four of us stared at each other. “Uh…cotton?” I tried, suddenly the only material I ever knew to ever exist.

He laughed, but warmly. “Petates. Do you know what that is?”

“Petates,” we repeated, in varying degrees of correct pronunciation.

When we still drew blanks, the man smiled. “They are traditional rugs, made from palm trees – palm fibers.” Then, his eyes grew distance, and that smile was no longer for us. “I don’t have the one my great grandmother made anymore. But here it is. Waiting for me in California, of all places.”

Because You Know Ultimately We Will Band A Militia – Xaviera Simmons

Photo from Desert X 2021 website

Xaviera Simmons’ (New York, New York, 1974) work spans photography, performance, video, sound, sculpture, and installation. She defines her studio practice — rooted in an ongoing investigation of experience, memory, abstraction, and present and future histories specifically shifting notions surrounding landscape — as cyclical rather than linear.

“It is not that Indigenous or First Nations people or the Black descendants of American chattel slavery have never had the imagination for monuments,” Xaviera Simmons says. “It’s that white America, particularly as represented and enforced by local, state, and federal governments, has consistently attempted and often succeeded to terrorize the impulse of self-defining monumentality out of those groups — groups which my own ancestry rests.”

For Desert X 2021, Simmons created a series of billboards founded on resistance, reverence, and the redistribution of tangible resources. The billboards puts American mythmaking to the forefront, on the biggest ad space on the roads, challenging the country’s cherry-picking of history through radical truths that do not shy away from the demand for reparations.

Since it was pretty windy and bordering on sandstorm levels, we didn’t stop to get out, but instead drove the Gene Autry Trail in both directions. The photos above are from the Desert X 2021 website.

Jackrabbit Homestead – Kim Stringfellow

Kim Stringfellow (San Mateo, California, 1963) is an artist, educator, writer, curator, environmentalist, and desert anthropologist based in Joshua Tree, California. For the past 20 years, her practice has focused on the human-driven transformation of some of the American West’s most arid regions through multi-year, research-based projects merging cultural geography, public practice, and experimental documentary into socially engaged transmedia experiences.

Her piece for Desert X 2021, Jackrabbit Homestead, is an ode to her book by the same name, Jackrabbit Homestead: Tracing the Small Tract Act in the Southern Californian Landscape 1938-2008. The book dives into the public land policy that made the desert of Southern California, previously under federal jurisdiction, accessible to landowners wanting to move out of the city. The 112-square-foot cabin created for Desert X trades the stark solitary romanticism of sand and sky for a small patch of sprawl nestled between the Palm Desert Chamber of Commerce and a CVS Pharmacy.

We were unable to go into the cabin, but you could hear the faint audio of a woman’s voice, Catherine Venn Peterson, detailing her homesteading experience in the 1950s. Often, these small unplumbed cabins were the only shelter homesteaders had in an otherwise unserviced (by the government) area. The windows had too much glare to get my own photos peaking in, but above are from the Desert X 2021 website of what the inside would look like.

Tamanrasset – Vivian Suter

Vivian Suter’s (Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1949) paintings are extensions of the environments in which they come into being. Informed by the landscape, but not aiming to represent it, Suter’s work straddles multiple histories of painting.

This piece is an installation of large-scale abstract paintings inspired by the Coachella Valley landscape. Since Suter was unable to visit in person due to travel restrictions, she explored the regions through photographs instead of a traditional site visit. Using colors to create moods, shapes to reference natural formations and landmarks, and exposing the canvases to the elements to generate textures, her paintings speak to the embodied and emotional dimensions of the desert landscape — to the ways deserts provoke personal associations and trigger memories that are not always resolved.

I’m not sure if the building ever opened, I don’t think it did, so Desert X 2021 visitors observed the work through the glass, which…sometimes was hard due to glare so I don’t have any particularly good pictures aside from this one. I am also not an abstract girly, so I didn’t have any thoughts on this one, however I did love the light and colors.

But then again, I love the desert, so that’s not surprising.

The North Face x Gucci Pit Stop

a color dome with metal casing with a cube that says the north face gucci. mountains and palm trees are in the background

Okay, this one technicallyyyy isn’t a Desert X 2021 installation, but The North Face x Gucci collab was still one of my favorites. I honestly…don’t know what it’s supposed to be or represent, there wasn’t info on it in the booklet and just listed as a “pit stop” whatever that means. Honestly, I think it was just a bit of promo for their clothing capsule collection, which is cute and all, but…dang like maybe a booth to see the clothing would have made it more engaging?

Or maybe there WAS a booth and I just showed up late and missed it.

Who knows.

I guess this isn’t their first collaboration collection, but I don’t think I could afford it anyway haha. Regardless of the backstory, I did think it was a fun backdrop for a lil photoshoot with my jacket! No thoughts, just poses.

Desert X 2021 Conclusion

If you can’t tell, Desert X 2021 was a ball – it always is. The exhibition is one of my favorite travel traditions, and I hope I am always in a position to attend for as long as it is held. In fact, at the time of writing this, I am packing my bags to leave for Desert X 2023 in just four short days.

I will be there the first weekend, which will be a new experience for me, but at the same time it will be exciting to experience the exhibition with no knowledge of the works or what to expect.

So what do you think of the exhibition? Which of the pieces from Desert X 2021 would you want to see in person the most? Let me know in the comments below, and who knows, maybe I’ll see ya out there in the desert next time!

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photo of kay walking towards the camera in a ribbon-y jacket. text: photo travel guide to desert x 2021

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14 thoughts on “Desert X 2021: Photo Guide to the Powerful Art Exhibition

  1. What a great experience and I hope you enjoy 2023 Desert X. I have a country show I have attended for about 10 years – until covid interrupted it – but its great to have these kind of traditions.

  2. I have never heard of Desert X and I live in AZ and work in the arts. How have I never heard of this before?? Thank you so much for putting this on my radar! The art is STUNNING! – WOW! I am tempted to pack up and take a quick road trip to the CA deserts to see this year’s event. Thanks for the inspiration!

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