Interview: Shadia and Raja Alem
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: The Black Arch
Shadia Alem and Raja Alem
Emily Burke in conversation with Shadia and Raja Alem:
Emily Burke: How long have you been working together? How do each of your practices influence your work collaboratively and individually?
Shadia: If you mean art, we are not working together, Raja is the writer and I am the artist, but, there is always this open arch separating our working spaces, we work with our backs to each other, we never discuss our works while producing them, but when the work is done, I am her first critic and she is my first spectator.
Raja: We feed on each other’s energy, when I am tired and run out of inspiration there is Shadia always charging our imagination with her discoveries, and when I am in trance following the plot of a book Shadia connects to my energy and collects signals from that world, then she invents new projects of art.
It is like having someone always ahead of you on the road, and that keeps you going, sometimes this figure in the dark takes a sudden turn and opens you up onto a completely new sphere. We depend on our sudden shifts of imagination or destinations or missions.
Shadia: but, notice, we are a total different people - we share a similar taste, but after all each has her special personality. Our nearness doesn’t makes one disappears in the other; I am the relaxed one, and Raja is always tense, maybe because she always carries the difficult responsibilities. I owe her this, her advanced planning, and manoeuvring engineering skills always save us! Why to worry?! I let things happen, and it happens good and smooth. Numbers, mathematics, time and appointments are not on my schedule, Raja deals with them all.
Raja: She doesn’t follow directions, maps or restrictions, while I carry an inner navigation system, a mathematical organized mind, which do all the measurements and plans. That’s why we drive each other crazy
EB: As an artist and writer, individually you must see the world in two very different lights. How have you brought these different vantage points together in your work?
Raja: You can see that when we come into a place, in a flash Shadia scans it, and picks what she wants.
Shadia: While Raja perceives a wider range of surrounding directions and locations, she pays a look back, to map where from we came, and how we return safely back. As if we are walking each in a totally different scene while we are walking on the same pavement.
Raja: Therefore, when we reach a new city I just let Shadia lead, she wanders aimlessly while I switch off all my manoeuvring systems, and we inevitably get lost, and consequently discover unexpected wonders. Then when we get tired and want to go back home, I turn on my sense of direction and lead back. I am so much more interested in nature and insects and the discoveries in space, while she loves music and visual art, fashion and … shopping! She laughs at me: when we go out she says ‘Raja, no more nature idolizing, look in people’s faces…’
Shadia: And all that was channelled in the ‘Black Arch’. We were fuelled and did great research, we crossed challenging disagreements and agreements, and came out with this Black Arch,
Raja: It has the physical and metaphysical, the calculation of my mind and the wildness of Shadia’s instinct of joy and the abundance. I helped build the concept and she brought it to life physically in a concrete artwork and then she added the audio visual part which turned the work into an experience like those of the 0 art, to reflect sounds and light of mosaic images from the two cities Mecca and Venice.
Shadia: I remember the moment when this piece came to full despair, and then existence.
Raja: It was at dawn, we were working for days and nights, the spheres where there, the whole concept was there, but there was something missing,
Shadia: the X factor .. the leap ..
Raja: it was a moment where we reached a dead end. I remember turning to Shadia, and without saying, she heard it “I think it is useless, no way .” She looked at me, with large eyes, and turned to the computer,
Shadia: and suddenly, easily - as usual - all fragments came together, the puzzle pieces fell into their unique places.
Raja: the cube emerged and stands on its axle, the smaller cube cut its dark cavity within the larger one. Shadia, to finalize the plot, held up the coaster from under her cup and said:“This is the vertical sphere”. I pushed it back a couple of degrees and added: “It must stands straight, a 90 degree.”
Shadia: It was a unique moment of creation, an arrival of real inspiration, which happened in a matter of seconds.
EB: As sisters there must be a spiritual link or bond between you. How do you represent your family link in your work?
Shadia: It’s rather a spiritual link, developed through years of searching together.
Raja: I used to believe that I write to connect with my universal tribe, and this is our case in general; we believe that cultures and the creative works in general links you to those who have the same positive energy. And it happened that we came from an ancient spiritual city, Mecca, which along the ages attracted the scholars who came seeking the energy of the place. We call them neighbours of God. It is this nearness to the absolute, the centre which sucks 1/5 of the world’s population to face it and pray for it, aiming their purest energy, five times a day. Prayer is a form of focusing the human energy,
Shadia: exactly like in the act of creativity. So we are definitely moulded and shaped by growing up in this centre and watching millions filling the city every season, coming with their cultures and customs, it is not an ordinary crowd,
Raja: it is like a magma of human bodies and energies and hopes.
Shadia: so Raja in her novels and I in my artworks are always bringing to manifestation this invisible energy, these hidden links between the humans, which in the essence makes them one whole family of being.
EB: Would you say that your family’s acceptance of pilgrims into your home during the Hadj every year sparked an interest into cultures and civilisations different to your own? Does your family continue to influence your work?
Shadia: It is not the family but the mosaic of cultures. Our family itself is a mosaic, from my mother’s side coming from Bukhara, where the sun rises from earth, and from my father side coming from Morocco and Iraq, where sun sets in water, we carry this mosaic in our blood and it appears in all our forms of expressions.
Raja: In our work there are no family ties as much as the energy ties to the world. Imagine yourself growing experiencing all kind of traditional customs from East and West, getting accustomed to tastes, hearing all kind of languages and feasting on all colours, you no more feel alien anywhere, you feel the world as part of your place of birth. That’s why the concept of the 54th Venice Biennale is not alien to us, illumination between nations, this is us, the formula of our souls and characters, this eternal exchange of illumination with the world’s cultures.
Shadia: The first figures I painted where a mixture of cultures, and my work “Djinnyat Lar ” is an embodiment of that family, they are sort of creatures in their wholeness, and Raja emphasize that with a philosophical text .
EB: How do you see the city of Venice in relation to your home city of Mecca?
Raja: Many times we visited Venice biennale, something in the architecture reminds me remotely of Mecca, but we were not really aware of the extent of that link, until the curators Mona Khazindar and Robin Start invited us among five Saudi artists to visit Venice and get inspired by the Arsenale, to produce an artwork of which to choose one or two suitable for the biennale. It was 15 November 2010, we were in the airport waiting for our delayed flight back home, when we suddenly realized it is the pilgrimage season and the millions from all over the worlds were gathered in our home city of Mecca, while we were in Venice pilgrims for art!
Shadia: Venice is like Mecca, a unique place in a way; a spot sought by thousands; pilgrims seeking spirituality and art. This incidental timing brought to focus the fact that Mecca and Venice represent the peak of human exchange, through commerce, religion and culture, they are both built on that dynamic triangle. Both are a unique pot where nations and cultures mix, and build on that mixture, they both are sort of eternal by means of that mixture.
EB: Through your involvement in the Venice Biennale, do you wish to bridge the gap between these two cosmopolitan cities? Is this what is implied by your exhibition title, The Black Arch?
Shadia: Arch or arc is the journey we take to cross to the other nations, in the present and back in time.
Raja: The Black Arch moves on 3457 spheres, each sphere represents a nation or a culture, all are actively exchanging illuminations, and all are reflected on and reflecting our first city which is Mecca.
Shadia: The audiovisual part of the work brings to visibility only two cities, both imply rich cultures of multi nations, which crossed its land and left their signs. The projection of those authentic signs brings them whole and visible to the spectators. The mosaic of St. Marco and Mecca’s people are only two spheres, while there are 3457 waiting to be released as the work moves in other cities.
Raja: All kind of cultures will appear in dialogue with our city. It is a sample of what is going on inside our heads, my head, Shadia’s head and your head, as human beings moving in the world and unconsciously absorbing cultures. Each one of us is a moving cluster of cultures eternally exchanging illumination and ceaselessly transforming us.
EB: Through your work at this year’s Venice Biennale, you wish to project the collective memory and physical representation of Black. This colour is obviously significant in your culture. How do you intend to portray this significance to an audience who perhaps see it from a stereotypical stance?
Shadia: The black is the failure of perceptions when its deluded by prohibitions and preconceptions. Whether we admit it or not, every one of us carries his archive of black, with some it’s visible and with some it is invisible.
The work itself is the statement against this failure, against these stereotypes. I wrote a quote about the black arch, which I like to bring here: “The flat is a hidden depth, the black is the condensed all; what we see and what our perceptions fail to sense. I am this black.”
Raja: On the other hand, and while working on the black arch, we discovered that we carry a built-in memory of the Black, around which our whole work was revolving. The first memory of black was the black cloth of Al-Ka’ba, or God’s home. Imagine this black silk curtain with its band of gold - embroidered calligraphy with Qur’anic texts. Imagine this rich black, which attracts the millions to touch it, when you touch it you feel those hands vibrating there, thickening the soft texture.
Shadia: I am sensitive to scents, and that black texture is loaded with whiffs of perfume, ancient Asian perfumes, which penetrates to your deepest core and senses. Your imagination is triggered to reach what is behind. You see, that black is a condensed physical medium which carries unseen sweat, smells and texture which accentuates our senses and links us to the metaphysical and the unknown, and urges us to discover and explore.
Raja: The second encounter with black came so early in our life, when our mothers used to take us to the holy mosque every Friday, and bring us to the black stone, believed to be brought by the angels from Paradise, and placed at the corner of Al-Kaaba, to mark the beginning of the circumambulation. My mother would push our heads in the stone’s cavity and urge us, “kiss it to sharpen your memory and learning abilities!” Once your lips touch it you feel the shock of the sweat of millions of lips and hands kissing it along the ages, you travel back and forth, recalling all nations touching this stone. You feel oneness with the human longings, could I say that was inspiring?
Shadia: The stereotype black is assimilated with the black cloth protecting the precious and covering the holy, it was raised there to urge you to pay extra effort to cross to it.
Raja: Black formed a nagging question mark in our head triggering our imagination. It is an invitation to explore the unknown.
Shadia: some of my work emerged from this black: Negative No More, The Black Mirror and I Am Black.
Raja: And, here, in the Black Arch we placed the black physical, huge, to face the spectators when they first come into the exhibiting space, this black is the trigger of the journey. And it is for the comer to go beyond or allow the black to block his vision and drive him out of the place.
Shadia: for me the whole work is in this black, it could stand alone as a whole work of art, or a question mark.
EB: What do you intend to portray with the second part of your installation, the mirror image?
Shadia: Its up to the viewer to portray what he feels at that moment of exchange. But for me, it is the inner self, the mind, and soul, the lagoons of one’s being, and the medium, which carries one’s arc to the other side of enlightenment and salvation.
Raja: You could say it is a vertical water, open to reflect all; the spheres plus spectators. This vertical domain reminds me of water, what gives life to Venice and what sprang in Mecca desert at that ancient time, and what invited the human imagination to build God’s home around it, as second heaven on earth, heaven is nothing but going back to the whole, the essence of all cultures.
Each of us, humans, go around in the world unaware of the eternal exchange of illumination going between him and every single sign and culture passing by. This vertical formation is to enhance the feel of the magnitude of that unconscious exchange.
EB: This will be the first time that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has exhibited at the Venice Biennale. Surely it must be extremely important that two female artists have been chosen to represent this nation especially when, from a Western point of view, women are seen as repressed in your culture?
Raja: First it was the artwork that determined the choice. Because originally there were five artists invited to submit their artworks in a competition, for the curators to choose the most suitable to represent the concept of the54 biennale (illume-nation)+to represent Saudi Arabia’s spirit, to address the art world by mean of its culture.
Shadia: As I joined the competition I was never intimidated by the four male artists, I knew it is the work not the gender that will determine the representative to both concept and country. And I am glad to be chosen. “No one but Shadia and Raja are more qualified to be the spirit of exchanged illumination, growing in Mecca the centre which accepts all nations, not only because both born and raised on its generous values and aesthetics, but also that can be measured by our long accumulating of original art and literature.” All our work is drawn from the spirit of the Arabian Peninsula, and its mixture of cultures.
Raja: This show is the answer to the preconceptions about the Saudi females. The Black Arch came from a long history, a creation of a serious research and hard work. Nowadays, and then, we struggled to reach to be productive in this moving world. And we came to believe that there is no way to suppress an individual, suppression is an individual choice, especially now, with this technology of communication. All forms of knowledge are available. The concept of a cold iron wall no more exists, and it is for the individual efforts to break through barriers no matter what gender or where and when this individual happened to be born.
EB: Has Western female art influenced your art practice?
Shadia: It is not the gender of the artists; mainly the daring, changing work is what influences me, not the artist.
Raja: maybe Virginia Wolf is one female that influenced me among the male writers, but your question made me think of her as female for the first time, as Shadia said, it is not about gender but about the creation itself, the energy it conveys. Even in our works you cannot tell our gender from the work, for example when I submitted my first manuscript to the publisher he sent me a letter back saying: “Dear Mr. Alem, we are happy to publish your work.”
Shadia: You might be surprised to know that, it is not a female artist but a writer that somehow influenced me as a teenager, the American novelist Ayn Rand, in her novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’ 1957, which says when Atlas, the Titan giant carrying the world on his shoulders, shrugs in carelessness the world collapses, so we cannot take a careless attitude to the world. In ‘Atlas Shrugged’ leading innovators, ranging from industrialists to artists disappear led by John Galt. Galt describes the strike as “stopping the motor of the world” by withdrawing the “minds” that drive society’s growth and productivity, they refuse to be exploited by society.
Raja: we grew up considering ourselves of those “people of the mind”.
EB: In our contemporary culture, how do you go about encouraging creativity in the women of Saudi Arabia?
Raja: I think every artist and creator works as if walking in his sleep, he follows a thread that appears to him and leads to discoveries. And at the end his discoveries are destined to influence people and trigger their imaginations. And the Saudi individual male or female have access to the world creations, either by mean of travel or through the internet, and that’s the trigger, the exchange of illumination which will create more cultural phenomena, and ensure the continuity of the build up of the human creations.
Shadia: While working in a kindergarten, we found that the best way to encourage creativity is through free play. You supply children with all kind of mediums, and encourage freedom to use them, allow them to go wild, to explore and do the mess. At the same time you provide the exposure to nature and to the outer world. I think this can be applied to the adult world of creativity - we are all children and later when we want to be more serious let us get some academic learning, and find channels to exhibit and exchange.
In ‘Atlas Shrugged’ the people “of the mind” demonstrate that, a world in which individual is not free to create is doomed, that civilization cannot exist where people are slaves to society and government or rigid academic teaching.
Originally published on Line magazine: A Virtual Biennale blog