The Black Arch – Saudi Arabia at the Venice Biennale 2011

Posted May 30th, 2011

Saudi Arabia, Shows

The 54th Venice Biennale will officially start on 4th of June and run through 27th of November, 2011.

Participants from the Middle East, Northern Africa and South Asia (Menasa) include: Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria, United Arab Emirates, India, Israel, Turkey and introducing first time participant Saudi Arabia, the first country we will have a closer look at.

(Image above: “Jinniyat Lar” by Shadia and Raja Alem)

The Saudi exhibition “The Black Arch”, commissioned by Deputy Minister of Culture Abdulaziz Alsebail and curated by Mona Khazindar and Robin Start, presents a work by the sisters Shadia and Raja Alem, two sisters who offer two different visions of “tradition, memory and contemporary issues” (

A rather unusual choice since the sisters Alem don’t have “a traditional artist background” like most artists showing in Venice. Then again arab art never had what western critics would call “a traditional artist background” because it doesn’t follow the same tradition. So, in a region where poetry and calligraphy has always been more important than paintings, Shadia and Raja Alem do actually follow a traditional artist background. As ambassadors for Saudi Arabia they were not the most obvious choice.

Image of Raja Alem from the Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute

Raja Alem is a novelist and has just won the Arabic Booker Prize in Dubai a week ago, a book about old traditions fading away. She must have impressed The Guardian very much : ” Alem’s The Doves’ Necklace explores the “secret life” of the holy city of Mecca. It presents a world of crime, corruption, prostitution and the exploitation of foreign workers by a mafia of building contractors bent on destroying the historic areas of the city.

Alem is the first female winner of the prize, which was established in 2007 to promote international recognition of the best Arabic literary writing, with funding from the Booker Foundation, as well as the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy.”

Shadia Alem is a visual artist who said she wanted 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.”

Work by Shadia Alem. Image from the Greenbox dictionary of Saudi Arabian artists where you find more information.

The Black Arch – Official Info
Shadia and Raja grew up in Makkah and studied classical literature, but it is their everyday experiences in this city (that hosts millions of people every year from all over the world) that is dominating their work at the pavilion. Muslim pilgrimage and Saudi traditions are the backdrop of the exhibition, entitled “The Black Arch.”

The work of 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 artist’s 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, and in some way seeking the origins of cultures and civilizations that sparked their imagination through the stories of the visitors to Mecca throughout their childhood.

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. The narrative is fueled by the inspirational tales told by their aunts and grandmothers, and are anchored in Mecca, where the sisters grew up in the 1970s. The experience with the physical presence of Black is striking for the artists asRaja 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’ba 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 traveler Ibn Battuta – both examples of how cultures were bridged together through travel.

More to read and click on:
- Saudi Pavilion Venice
- Edge of Arabia – Artist info
- Albareh Gallery
- Al Mansouria’s contemporary art collection is the first of its kind in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
- Saudi Aramco World Magazine
- Greenbox dictionary of Saudi Arabian artists
- Arabnews: Saudis spotlight Makkah at 54th Venice Biennale
- Official Page at Venetia Biennale

On View in Venice