Her Stories: Alia Al-Senussi on the Venice Biennale, ‘A Testament to the Feminine’

VENICE– Across the globe in arts and culture, women are often at the forefront as powerful agents of change. At the same time, many strings do ultimately seem to be pulled by men, whether it be government ministers, the majority of gallery owners and artists or the collectors engaged in the market. This year’s Venice Biennale, which opened earlier this month and was themed “Vive Arte Viva”, was, to me, a testament to the feminine in large part due to this year’s curator, Christine Macel, the chief curator of Paris’s Centre Pompidou.

There was a specific thoughtfulness, beauty and spirit that seeped through to the works presented throughout the main show, as well as to the surrounding collateral events and pavilions. There was some criticism  levelled that it was a naïve presentation. But I would argue against that, saying it is an unfair assessment of work that visibly and explicitly tried to bring us all together at a time when so much is seemingly fracturing and falling apart in geopolitics. At the moment in many communities across the globe, there seems to be an uptick when it comes to more confrontational, in your face agendas. The German pavilion by Anne Imhof—a Frankfurt-based artist and coreogrpaher— exemplified in this paradox by featuring a bizarre and confrontational amalgam of a grimy Berlin nightclub rave and a concentration camp (complete with rooms reminiscent of gas chambers and barking dogs), and for this she won the Biennale’s coveted Golden Lion.

Also high on the news and geopolitical agenda at the moment is the Middle East, a region where we so often hear dismissive comments on the state of women in the region—an oft-heard example is that women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive—but yet there is little nuanced understanding of what exactly that is or what it means. One artist who is helping to change that stereotype is Maha Malluh— the first Saudi artist to have her work collected by London’s Tate Modern and by the Centre Pompidou, the latter is thanks to Ms. Macel, who was an admirer of Ms. Malluh’s work and made a considerable effort to include it in the collection as well as in her Biennale.

Of her work she wrote to me later that, “with deep thinking, contemplation, and reflection individuals can confront dogmatic norms, induce change and transform societies along the way.”  Ms. Malluh was visibly proud of her work in the Arsenale, and remarked to me there when we spoke that she had spent her life devoting her time to her family and now they were here in Venice supporting her.

These are words that are often repeated by many female artists who only find their success later in life after the often more mundane (but of course, for many, no less fulfilling) requirements of house and family taper away. Her works touch upon topics related to her identity as a woman in Saudi Arabia, but also to traditional forms of culture—her famous “pots” are not just about women cooking large meals for tribes of men, but also from traditional gatherings where men celebrate and cook amongst each other. If anything, Ms. Malluh’s work is about the universality of such traditional illustrations of identity—and the inverse, of tradition in Saudi society in general.

For her works in the Arsenale— one of the two central exhibition venues of the Biennale—Ms. Malluh introduces, for the first time, the installation “Food for Thought ‘Amma Baad.’” Over the years she has witnessed first-hand the phenomenal change in her country with a mix of both curiosity and a heavy heart, and her work reflected those societal changes, juxtaposing cultural heritage and modernity. As someone who is involved in the Middle East art scene –as a founding member of the Tate’s Acquisitions Committee for the Middle East and North Africa and on the board of patrons for Art Dubai— I hope that the world continues to reflect the individualized culture of localities but at the same time incorporate the empathy and knowledge already gained and learned elsewhere. I also hope that we grow in the understanding that global is not evil, and globalization is not an engine of creating more hatred, as it seems to be presented at the moment.

Princess Alia Al-Senussi is the chair of the Tate Young Patrons and serves on committees and boards for a number of art organizations including the ICA London, the Guggenheim, the Delfina Foundation and 1:54 African Art Fair. Based in London, she is the UK and Middle East representative for Art Basel, and is working on her PhD in politics at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

photos courtesy of Maha Malluh





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