Collecting special: Pilgrims’ progress

The secret of success, some say, lies in learning how to overcome failure. It is a lesson that artists Shadia and Raja Alem, two sisters from Mecca, seem to have taken to heart. In January a flood destroyed 15 years’ worth of their work that was stored in a house in Jeddah. In February they lost five other projects when their computer blew up. Then, to compound the misery, their mother died.

“We lost everything,” says Shadia.

But one of their biggest challenges arguably still lies ahead. They have been chosen to represent Saudi Arabia for its first ever entry in the Venice Biennale, the world’s pre-eminent art show. From a country where women cannot drive and that boasts fewer than 10 commercial art galleries, it is a groundbreaking move.

The sculpture the sisters are exhibiting is firmly rooted in their home country. Called “The Black Arch”, it is about Mecca. It evokes the experience of a pilgrim walking around the Ka’aba – the ancient stone sanctuary shrouded in a black cloth, towards which the faithful turn to pray – and the realms they travel through to reach divine light or illumination, the theme of this year’s Biennale.

But it is also about ignorance. “We grew up aware of the physical presence of black all around,” says Raja. “The black silhouettes of Saudi women, the black covering of the Ka’aba and the black stone [a key feature of the structure] which is said to have enhanced our knowledge.

“We are interested in the black façade and what lies behind it. We are discussing not only the physical black but also the psychological black. The barrier of black to the unknown. Our ignorance creates monsters in others, reflecting our fears.”

The work consists of a 24ft long ellipse covered in black cloth. Only when you go round the back of it do you become aware of its other face of burnished steel, in which your own milky reflection mingles with ghostly photographic projections of pilgrims praying in Mecca and paintings of Arab merchants taken from Venetian paintings. “Four million people visit Mecca during Hajj,” says Raja. “Every person is a planet, full of culture – exchanging light and illuminations. Mecca is a melting pot.”

Filling the air are sound recordings of Venetian church bells and lapping water interwoven with the sounds of Mecca – not ululating calls to prayer but the more intimate strumming of lutes and singing of Bedouin songs by the men of the household that the sisters remember hearing as they grew up there.

On the floor are steel balls, glinting like tesserae, denoting the mosaic of humanity perambulating the Ka’aba during Hajj, while inside a metal box lined with black stone are a cache of pebbles the sisters have collected from the Muzdalifah valley outside Mecca.

It is a haunting piece, and its makers are equally striking. Both sisters have dark eyes and great manes of hair. Shadia speaks slowly, like an oracle; Raja, who recently won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the “Arab Booker”) for her novel The Dove’s Necklace, is the more discursive. Though serious in their conversation, they also laugh easily, and, like twins, are apt seamlessly to finish each other’s sentences.

Now in their late 30s, they grew up in a house overlooking the Ka’aba. Their grandfather was the keeper of the sacred Zamzam well in Mecca; their father was head of the passport office but also a spiritual guide for pilgrims.

“We lived in a seven-storey house with all our cousins, aunts and uncles,” says Shadia, “but during Hajj, Ramadan or other times of pilgrimage we would move out of our rooms to accommodate pilgrims who came from countries all around the world, and sleep on the roof.”

I meet the sisters in Paris, where they share a flat on the Ile de la Cité for part of the year. Shadia is dressed in a blue silk jacket, black trousers and boots; Raja, in neatly tailored tweed. I ask them if their illustrious parentage might have given them an artistic freedom not afforded to all women in Saudi Arabia. But they insist not. “The point is that things are changing there,” says Shadia. “The government in Saudi Arabia celebrates all our exhibitions.”

The duo certainly don’t seem to have shrunk from making polemical work in the past, though not in Saudi Arabia. For an exhibition in Lille last year about 9/11, Shadia filled a gallery with rolled up newspapers, and singed them as if they were sticks of dynamite. “Newspapers are explosive – they create new enemies,” she says. “People always talk about the Americans – but the attacks on the twin towers also meant personal destruction for us Saudis.”

Equally striking is “Negative no More”, a tableau showing a woman wearing an abaya sewn together from old photographic negatives. “Saudi women are not as they are presented in the media,” says Shadia. “They are not oppressed by the men – they are supported by them. You are more pampered as a woman in Saudi than in France where you have to shop for your own groceries.” Then why not live there all the time? “I like to walk,” she says simply. “In Saudi you are driven everywhere. The sky in Paris is amazing.”

It is hard not to feel that these sisters are part of a brave new movement. Hans-Ulrich Obrist, co-director of exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery, London, who interviewed them for their catalogue says: “What has struck me is the amazing strength of the women artists in the Middle East. They have an impetus and energy that is very impressive. They are pioneers.”

The sisters, he says, “have a feeling about a world without boundaries. A world that is opened up.” He adds, though, that “the Mecca they describe and experienced as children is very different, now”.

Still, that upbringing has stood them in good stead. Despite having no formal training in fine art – both sisters studied English at university in Riyadh – their family taught them other things that make their work rich.

“Our mother used to embroider our pillows and clothes, so this was our first memory about art,” says Raja. “Our father was a calligrapher, and while he would work, we used to watch him.” Such precision is handy when it comes to expressing complex ideas about an exacting culture, and can lead to objects of great beauty.

Robin Start, the co-curator of the Saudi pavilion says he hopes that the Alems’ work will open up discussions about the cultural scene in Saudi Arabia. “This is a healthy and necessary thing to encourage.”

‘The Black Arch’ is on display in the Saudi Arabian pavilion in the Arsenal in Venice, June 4-November 27 2011.

New kids on the block

The Venice Biennale hosts a record 89 countries this year, up from 77 in 2009, writes Raphael Abraham. Its ever-extending global reach is reflected by several countries making their first appearances, and some interesting returnees.

The newcomers range from oil-rich Saudi Arabia to impoverished Haiti, from overpopulated India to diminutive Andorra.

The highest profile newcomer is India, which has been represented by collateral events in past years (1982 was its last appearance) but will have a dedicated pavilion for the first time. Its provocatively titled exhibition, Everyone Agrees: It’s About to Explode, draws together artists of diverse regional and religious backgrounds from across the subcontinent and promises to include exponents who “have not already been valorised by the gallery system and the auction-house circuit”.

Bangladesh, another new name, marks 40 years of independence with a show entitled Parables for which five artists have conceived site-specific installations that make use of the Venetian architecture.

Haiti will stage two exhibitions: Death and Fertility, housed in two 40ft shipping containers arranged to form a T, will feature works by three Port-au-Prince artists while Haiti Kingdom of This World will present the works of a further 15 artists.

Zimbabwe joins the select group of African nations with a Biennale pavilion. With Seeing Ourselves it hopes “to unlock the dialogue between Zimbabwe and the international art scene”. South Africa returns with a pavilion for the first time since 1995 – and not without controversy. Painter and photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa withdrew earlier in the year, citing what he called the “opaque” selection criteria employed by South Africa’s commissioner and gallery owner Lethole Mokoena.

Significantly perhaps – since this Biennale is an event that is all about nations putting their image across to the rest of the world – Iraq appears for the first time since 1976. Its show has been put together by the US curator Mary Angela Schroth. Entitled Wounded Water, it presents on-site works by six Iraqi contemporary artists and addresses the crippling shortages the country is facing.

Two Andorran artists will mark their nation’s inaugural appearance with ILLUMInations, which plays on this year’s Biennale theme.

However, there will also be notable absences from this year’s event. Political turmoil has prompted Bahrain and Lebanon to withdraw. And, although most of the work is by living artists, Egypt will be present and will show work by Ahmed Basiouny, a 31-year-old, Cairo-based digital and media artist who was shot dead while filming protests in Tahrir Square in January.

Other smaller countries with their own spaces include Azerbaijan, which has broken away from the Central Asia pavilion to host its own shows.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.