Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Pavilion, Arsenale, Venice, Italy

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Press Release

Abdulaziz Alsebail, Commissioner, is pleased to announce that Shadia and Raja Alem will represent the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its inaugural pavilion at the 54th International Art Exhibition - la Biennale di Venezia, Mona Khazindar1 and Robin Start2 will curate The Black Arch, an installation by the two artists.

The work of Shadia and Raja Alem can be read as a double narrative. Raja the writer, and Shadia the visual artist, have a non-traditional artist’s background. While having had a classical and literary education the sisters acquired knowledge through their encounters with pilgrims visiting Makkah. Their family had welcomed pilgrims into their home during the Hajj 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, and in some way seeking the origins of cultures and civilizations that sparked their imagination through the stories of the visitors to Makkah throughout their childhood.

The Black Arch was 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 - Makkah 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. The narrative is fuelled by the inspirational tales told by their aunts and grandmothers, and is anchored in Makkah, where the sisters grew up in the 1970s. The experience with the physical presence of Black, the first part of the installation, is striking for the artists; 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 Al ka’ba3 and the black stone4 which 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 13th century traveller Ibn Battuta5 - both examples of how to bridge cultures through travel. Shadia explains how she felt a desire to follow Marco Polo’s example and ‘to bring my city of Makkah to Venice, through objects brought from there: a Black Arch; a cubic city, and a handful of Muzdalifah pebbles.6’ 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, however, confronts the day-to-day reality of human behaviour with simplicity.

‘If the doors of perception were cleared, everything would appear to man as it really is, infinite.’ William Blake.

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