Two sisters give the Venice Biennale its first taste of Saudi art

Ahram Online, Thursday 9 Jun 2011

The Black Arch, an installation by Shadia and Raja Alem, represents the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in its independent pavilion during the 54th International Art Exhibition, the Venice Biennale

Raja and Shadia Alem

The installationsof Shadia and Raja Alem can be read as a double narrative. Raja, the writer, and Shadia, the visual artist, have a unique and non-traditional artistic background. While having had a classical and literary education, the sisters acquired knowledge through their encounters with pilgrims visiting Mecca. Their family has welcomed pilgrims into their home during the Hadj for generations. Since the mid 1980s, the sisters have travelled the world for exhibitions, lectures and for the general exploration and appreciation of art and literature, seeking the origins of cultures and civilisations -- the roots of the pilgrims’ stories which sparked their youthful imaginations.

The Black Arch has been created through a profound collaboration between Shadia and Raja Alem. It is very much about a meeting point of the two artists, of two visions of the world -- from darkness to light -- and of two cities, Mecca and Venice. The work is a stage, set to project the artists’ collective memory of Black - the monumental absence of colour - and physical representation of Black, referring to their past. Anchored in Mecca, where the sisters grew up in the 1970s, the narrative is fuelled by the inspirational tales told by their aunts and grandmothers.

The experience with the physical presence of Black is striking for the artists as Raja explains: “I grew up aware of the physical presence of Black all around, the black silhouettes of Saudi women, the black cloth of the Kaaba and the black stone which supposedly is said to have enhanced our knowledge.” As a counter point, the second part of the installation is a mirror image, reflecting the present. These are the aesthetic parameters of the work.

The Black Arch is also about a journey, about transition: inspired by Marco Polo and fellow thirteenth-century traveller Ibn Battuta – both of whom are examples of how cultures were bridged together through travel. Shadia explains how she felt a desire to follow Marco Polo’s example and “bring my city of Mecca to Venice, through objects brought from there: a Black Arch, a cubic city and a handful of Muzdalifah pebbles.” The artists focus on the similarities between the two cosmopolitan cities and their inspirational powers.The double vision of two women, two sisters, two artists unfolds in a world of ritual and tradition which confronts the day-to-day reality of human behaviour and simplicity.

Exhibition curators: Mona Khazindar and Robin Start
Commissioner: Dr Abdulaziz Alsebail, Commissioner and Deputy Ministry of Culture for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia 

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