Venice Biennale 2011: Saudi Arabia's The Black Arch

Sisters Raja and Shadia Alem created artwork based on the duality between Venice and Mecca for this year's edition of the Italian art festival

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There is something almost alien yet fascinating about the modern polished steel oval structure with a veiled side and a bright side representing Saudi Arabia at this year's Venice Art Biennale. The structure reflects a series of smooth chrome marbles carefully arranged in concentric arcs that, symbolising maritime traffic moving in circular motion, surround a suspended stainless steel cube. The latter represents the cube-shaped Ka’ba, Mount Arafat and the sanctuary of Muzdalifa, while the black veil covering one side of the structure references the Kiswa, the embroidered cloth covering the Ka’ba.      

This composition by sisters Raja and Shadia Alem, a writer and an artist, was inspired by the will to create an invisible bridge between Venice and Mecca. While images of the gilded Oriental mosaics of Venice’s St Mark’s Basilica are projected on the floor and a mix of sounds including pigeons, seagulls and voices of pilgrims and gondolieri can be heard in the background, the two surfaces reflect each other in a symbolic dualism reuniting the East and the West, two cultures engaging in dialogue, while opening up a liminal door to enlightenment or “illumination”, the main theme of this year’s Biennale.

Dazed Digital: When did you first think about reuniting in the same artwork Venice and Mecca?
Shadia Alem:
Everything started at the local Airport while we were waiting for a delayed flight  back home after visiting Venice with other artists who had been invited to see the space before submitting their projects for the Biennale. We were thinking about our concept when we heard on the speakers a voice saying “Marco Polo Airport - Marco Polo Airport”. The name of the famous European voyager brought back memories of an Arab voyager, Ibn Batutah, and we suddenly made the first connection.
Raja Alem:
We were born in Mecca and grew up in a family that used to welcome pilgrims during the Hajj and that day it was also the peak of the pilgrimage season in our hometown and while pilgrims were going to Mecca, bringing their prayers and energy over there, we felt we had come to Venice for an art pilgrimage.

DD: Where does the title of the work come from?
Shadia Alem:
From a story our grandmother used to tell us: once upon a time there was a king who married an ordinary girl and took her on a tour of his palace on the wedding night. He showed her one hundred and one doors and told her: “you can go through any door, but not this one, the black door.” Of course the girl crossed the door and reached the unknown…
Raja Alem:
…a real world where she got exposed to all kind of forces. In a way this piece represents the door, the facade, the barrier, but also what’s behind the barrier, the flat and the depth, the black and the colours, all these different contrasts.

DD: The stainless steel of the structure reflects the visitors turning them into a part of the installation, was this intentional?
Shadia Alem:
Yes, it was. We used these materials because we wanted the work to disappear and the audience to appear in it. I wouldn’t describe it as an installation, but as a theatre in which the audience becomes a part of the work.

DD: There is a lot of attention to Arab art at this year’s Biennale, especially after the revolutions that, erupting in Tunisia and Egypt, spread to many other Arab countries. How do you feel about representing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?
Raja Alem:
While we were building the work we felt a strong energy going through the Arsenale and the Giardini, we felt that ideas were coming to life through our piece and we had the impression that the Arab world was turning into the centre of attention.
Shadia Alem:
I guess we have a lot of responsibility, but we’re very proud of representing Saudi Arabia and we also think that our work is very important since creativity is another face of the revolution.

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