The princess of Exile, the Art Lover!
Alia Shahin Al-Senoussi was born in Washington, DC, for a Libyan father and an American mother. Her father is from the Al-Sanoussi family that was expelled from Libya in 1969 when General Muammar Al-Gaddafi overthrew the throne by a coup d’état and declared himself the leader of the Republic of Libya. Her grandfather Prince Abdullah Abd Al Senoussi was a political leader in the government of King Idriss the first and was also a businessman and lands’ owner and was assigned by the king in the counter-coup attempts after 1969. Alia plays a significant role in the world of art around the globe, and has her own imprint in helping and encouraging contemporary Arab artists from different countries. To get to know her more, we had this small chat:
Born and raised in exile away from your country, how did you manage to preserve your Libyan heritage despite all the circumstances?
My mother played the biggest role in building my Libyan identity; she’s American of Scandinavian-German origins and grew up in Worthington, Minnesota. My mother socialized with Arabs and Iranians for the first time there, and fell in love with world culture and art and decided to get her master’s degree from the American University in Cairo, from where she graduated. During her stay in Cairo she met my father and they got married before touring the world together. My grandmother and the rest of the women and children in the family used to spend most of their time between the kitchen and the salon. I used to drink Arabic tea and Libyan soup before the age of two. I was a child surrounded by adults but my mother was aware of the importance of getting closer to other family children not only to build a strong family relationship, but also to enhance my identity and cultural heritage and share concepts. When I lived in Cairo at the age of five, my memories of her were that she was strong and my memories of my father’s family became clearer.
Then I moved with my mom to San Diego, California, and spent the next nine years as a typical American child. During this time, I used to visit my father and family in Europe and the Middle East two to four months per year. To a certain extent, I got immersed in the mentality of typical immigrants in terms of the desire to be a real American girl, but at the age of 15 I went to a school in Switzerland, specifically Aiglon College, and I achieved 4 A levels and I was the first in my class. Then I returned to the United States to join the Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and there I fully realized the truth of my identity as a Libyan raised in exile in the United States so I embraced everything that meant to me and my family. I decided to make my life in London, so I went to the London School of Economics to get a Master of Science in Law, Anthropology and Society. I have been in London since then and I recently get back there to study for the PhD at SOAS which I hope to finish at the end of the year. After graduating from the London School of Economics, I began my work in art and my first full time job was because of Libya.
What was behind your passion for art, and how did all this begin?
My work with the famous artists Emilia and Elia Kabakov in the Siwa Oasis in Egypt, this madly romantic desert oasis, was the beginning of my passion to work with artists, and art in general. Emilia along with her husband Elia was one of the first artists I worked with during the first week of my career in arts. I was the coordinator of the Siwa Project, a non-profit project that aims at bringing together world-renowned artists to Siwa in Egypt, to interact with local people there and work on creating a more innovative experience than a business project. Here, they created their first artistic work “Vessel of Tolerance” (that participated in the Sharjah Biennial in 2010 along with other works from around the world): It was called then in 2005 Siwa Vessel. I coincidentally discovered my passion for art and the world of art in general. I never worked in the field of arts but being interested in working with non-governmental organizations operating in the Middle East, I thought this would be a new adventure that combines my academic life with my career in art. Furthermore, the fact that Siwa was situated on the border of Libya was especially impressive for me, as I was unable to visit my mother country (I have been since then following the news about the Arab spring revolution). At the end, I set my destiny, whereas I fell in love with art and everything related to it.
How did your work in the field of art affect your personality, and what did you learn from it?
My life revolves around my family, friends and art. For me art formed a bridge that helped me cross towards many subjects and family relationships. Basically, I use the power of my love for my family and friends to make them dive into the world of art. I see that art has constituted a way for me to realize a balance between my interest in political science, international relations and the history of the Middle East. It helped me better understand the difficult issues facing the region. My personal and professional life is in many ways related through my role at the Basel Art Fair. Art and design should be an individual passion. I love demystifying art for people who don’t understand its mysteries because sometimes it might be scary. Art and design are a very important cultural landmark that determines who we are, whether as a culture, a place or a society and I really believe that everyone should appreciate the value of art and support artistic production by any means. I am excited towards contemporary art and supporting artists. I majorly focus on art and artists in the Middle East because it touches my heart and gets me closer to my country’s heritage. Art is an alternative speech through which we can solve problems, enhance heritage and instill national belonging. I hope, by educating artists and pioneers, to introduce populations to the benefits that art can bring to their daily lives, not only by beautifying the communities where the individual lives but by finding more creative ways to solve problems and build the society’s feelings and strength.
Why is it important to encourage talents and embrace the art scene in our country?
Living artists translate our living history. I believe that they are mediators of our time and represent modernity with its good and bad aspects. People in the Middle East often criticize artists and accuse them of being obsessed with politics and that is true. The abstract expressionism school responded to Western ideals after the Second World War, and this is the case of the artists who live in the Middle East in the wake of revolutions, occupation, disasters and wars: they respond to the reality they live in.
In Kuwait we have a group of female artists who deal with negative phenomena such as women’s rights and social inequality. What do you think of these movements? What motivates women to confront, rise and never be scared?
I have never been conscious about the fact that I am a woman with dark skin until during the past 12 months. I assume that I’m late to the game as a woman and an activist but as they say “you should appear” at some point and here I am. I praise all the activists who have come before me and are eager to make their lives better at home and everywhere in the world. This is not the issue of women in the Middle East, but the issue of women all over the world as well as minorities and marginalized people everywhere. The power of art is a basic brick for equality not only in laws, but also in emotions.
Do you practice any form of art yourself?
No this is why I do not have much to say here.
Where do you see the Arab art scene 10 years from now? Are you planning to visit Kuwait soon?
I don’t like to talk about this. As for Kuwait, although I would love to visit it, I have not done so yet.
Can you tell us about your focus in the doctoral thesis on creating a national identity through art and culture and its relationship with politics in the Middle East?
The thesis is in fact the product of my academic obsession with politics and my personal and professional interest in arts. I study the theoretical foundations of sponsoring and incubating projects and ideas, and then apply this to some of the current models of institutional development in the Middle East. The modern concept of sponsorship will be cleared in Saudi Arabia in particular, in order to deeply illustrate the tensions that rise between the sponsor and the artist and the power and influence of a royal sponsor in an absolute kingdom. The various agents’ work together in the future will be considered as well as the built of sustainable models of cooperation. In particular, the importance of the role of culture in strengthening political institutions and capacity-building in society will be investigated.
Tell us about the works and activities you’re proud of?
Chris Dercon, former director of Tate Modern, described me as a communication bridge, and Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of Gallery Serpentine, calls me the “Communication Maker” and I really love the two titles. Tate has a special place in my heart and it was one of the first companies I joined in London through youth sponsoring. Then the acquisition committee was established in the Middle East and North Africa and I was one of the first people on board to take part in it. This led me to become the Ambassador of Youth Pioneers and then the Head of Youth Sponsors. I also represented youth sponsors in Tate council but my mandate recently expired. Although I have worked during a transitional period, but I feel that Tate is my family and I hold the responsibility of helping them develop and grow not only in London, but in the Middle East and now in the UK itself. I am excited to start working with a new group of Tate sponsors in Britain and support the Art program now.