|The Black Arch by Shadia & Raja Alem|
Shaida &Raja Alem
Photo: Teresa Sartore
I knew it was the first time that Saudi Arabia was here for La Biennale. I told them I had seen His Royal Highness Prince Turki Al-Faisal when he was in Venice for the Euro-Gulf Forum in October, 2008, and had been impressed by what he said -- he truly seemed to want an international peace based on tolerance, understanding, sound business practices, and the building of bridges between the cultures -- not by imposing one culture upon another, but a creative exchange between cultures. Another member of the royal family, Prince Faisal Bin Salman, had said they were reaching out to the world -- they felt they had been wrongly portrayed and would like to correct the situation -- 'not to please others, but to present ourselves.' He'd also said they realized they had made mistakes when it came to women, and were encouraging female artists to share their perspective with the world.
Now, standing in front of me at the fountain in Santa Maria Formosa, were three women here in Venice on behalf of Saudi Arabia -- the physical manifestation of the princely words spoken nearly three years ago. The synchronicity was magical, and they invited me to see their installation on June 1st.
Shaida and Raja Alem were born in the actual city of Mecca, which, today, is the destiny of the pilgrimage called "Hajj" for Muslim people of all colors and nations. Shaida and Raja's father was a spiritual guide for the Hajj; his work was that of a Moutouef, which is a title inherited by the sons of Judges in Mecca. The role of a Moutoeuf is to host people, and initiate them to the rituals. Shaida and Raja, in turn, inherited that role from their father. It may surprise many of us who are unfamiliar with the Islamic culture, but throughout history, women of Mecca played the role of spiritual guides, side by side with men, receiving the pilgrims in their pavilions and houses.
From the catalogue interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist:
Shadia Alem: Physically it is simple, everyone will see the elliptical wall when they enter, and this wall is the black; the unknown. But if you cross to the other side you will find several universes. We created this elliptical barrier, like an arch, and behind it you find 3457 stainless steel spheres gathered together and going in circle after circle on the ground. One sphere reflects into the other and the other... and they become an endless mutiplying energy field. And there is a cube, which represents our city of Makkah (Mecca), surrounded by the stainless steel spheres reflected on our city.
Here is an exerpt from Commissionaire's note in the press kit on the occasion of Saudi Arabia's inaugural pavilion at the Venice Biennale:
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a modern state with a rich culture, deeply rooted in history. The most monumental event in the history of Arabia was the revelation of Islam, a humanitarian message that is proud and respectful of the conviction of others and seeks to achieve peace in the world.
The Venice Biennale has been, for over a century, the meeting place for artists and the showcase of the best art the world has to offer. It is the largest, most influential and most established art event, and this is why the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has chosen it as a platform to bring forth the message of the Saudi people who are confident of their values, and proud of their authenticity. Through our artists and through our work we are keen to interact with other nations through colour, words, voices and artistic endeavour, which represent the elements of creativity as an ultimate message of communication between peoples.
We proudly support our artists Shadia and Raja Alem, who, in the Black Arch, chose their home city of Makkah, a central point of radiance, to embrace Venice, a city of openness, in a connection between East and West. Two voyagers, an Arab (Ibn Batutah) and a European (Marco Polo) perfectly represent each city and the dialogue we encourage between cultures.
FROM THE KING ABDULAZIZ CENTER FOR WORLD CULTURE TO VENICE
More from Paolo Baratta: "At a time when art has for some time ceased its emphasis on the provocations of anti-art, we are looking means of communication between the artist's work, our look and our spirit; we want to understand and to feel that added extra that art generously gives us and whispers to us, we want illumination as visitors, as lovers of art, as individuals and as members of the human community.
And let there be Illumination!"
Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog
*I had originally written "each to wash an apple. I must have had Adam & Eve on my mind:) Plus, after I originally posted this, I had to clarify genders and nationalities -- one of the beautiful problems of La Biennale is everyone is so international and without borders that it is often not clear.