In Saudi art and cultural circles, siblings Shadia and Raja Alem are currently the toast of the town. The former a visual artist, the latter a published author, together they form Saudi Arabia’s first and foremost contemporary art duet. In a region where artistic collaboration is still in its embryonic stage and art collectives remain few and far between – think daughters of known jewelry designers teaming up to roll out their own lines – the Alem sisters are going against the grain.

The Black Arch

The Black Arch

Active since the early ‘90s, each of the Alems has established herself in her own right. The artist had exhibited prolifically in Saudi Arabia as well as the Middle East and was among the first Arab artists to penetrate European art platforms, while the writer had penned a series of novels, plays, short stories and essays along with a biography in addition to snapping up several literary awards.

But it was when the two joined forces that the Alem ladies catapulted to international fame –Shadia creates the artwork and Raja generates the narratives for it. Their work heavily references the notions of culture and identity and touches on such issues as language, communication and women. Born in the Saudi city of Mecca to a conservative yet art geared family, the sisters, now based in Paris, have had a classical and literary education and can afford to tackle such dense topics. This, compounded with their sheer talent, was why they were selected in 2011 to represent Saudi Arabia for its very first participation in the Venice Biennale, the granddaddy of biennales. There was a lot riding on their entry – for reasons too long for this space to list. Ultimately, the Alems did not disappoint.

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