The Wick - Princess Alia Al-Senussi The Wick - Princess Alia Al-Senussi
Monday Muse

Interview Patron of the arts Princess Alia Al-Senussi

Princess Alia Al-Senussi
29 November 2021
Princess Alia Al-Senussi
29 November 2021
A descendant of Libyan royalty, Princess Alia Al-Senussi, PhD, grew up between Egypt, South Dakota, San Diego and Minnesota. Now based in London, she is an active member of the contemporary art world, working to bridge networks in the Middle East, UK, Europe and Asia. She has also become an outspoken voice on how the arts can advance and shape societies, particularly through her work as Art Basel’s representative in the UK and the Middle East.

In addition to being a founding member of Tate’s acquisitions committee for the Middle East and North Africa and a board member for Art Dubai and the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, she was appointed senior advisor to the Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture in 2019. She focuses on developing international partnerships while working on a variety of projects including the upcoming Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale, which is running from 11 December 2021. Of the event’s 63 artists, 26 come from Saudi Arabia. Princess Alia Al-Senussi shares what else to expect…

THE WICK:   Talk us through a typical Monday.

Alia Al-Senussi:   It depends on the time of year. I have no typical days, and I don’t know if this is a curse or just the nature of being obsessed with obligation, but I believe that every day is a work day, and a day for action and renewal. Sundays are sometimes Mondays due to the Saudi working week, and currently every day is a Monday for the inaugural Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale and Art Basel Miami Beach.

TW:   How do you choose which projects to get involved with, and what personal mission underlines them all?

AA:   I believe that art can fundamentally change our world. I started my professional career obsessed with the notion of what the Arab world could be, in the context of contemporary art and identity. My enthusiasm for joining things can be traced to that – to wanting to belong, but also to wanting to nurture. Culture, at its core, can bring us to a closer understanding of our shared purpose of humanity – I will give my all to any organisation, personally and professionally, that tries to build a bridge with their communities and with the world, by explaining who we are through the best ambassadors any society can appoint, our artists and cultural organisations.

TW:   How have the events in the past year impacted artists from the Arab world and your approach to supporting them?

AA:   The Arab world has dealt with so much change, so much revolution in all senses of the word that Covid was another such moment. It was a moment of lockdown, but then a moment to just move on and renew. If anything, I see the Arab world as having been able to understand that difficult times are a matter of resilience and renewal. You grit your teeth. You get through it and then you open the next chapter and flourish.

TW:   What does your role as Art Basel’s UK and MENA Representative involve?

AA:   My work with Art Basel encompasses and envelops so much of my life – my role in the context of the Middle East is totally different than my role in the UK. The Middle East is about being that ambassador on both sides – helping a nascent art market enter the art world ecosystem, and then also encouraging that ecosystem (which is notoriously closed off) to accept the newcomer. In the UK, we have an established art world and it’s about taking care of our partners and team members, finding those points of contact, and helping support all that happens culturally around London and the wider community. My life with Art Basel is really about understanding the nuances of the art world and working with this organisation that fundamentally understands the same.

“I believe that art can fundamentally change our world.”

TW:   What are you most looking forward to at this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach and Diriyah Biennale?

AA:   The energy of the art world has kept me going – any difficult Covid moment I had was restored through our community. Art Basel Miami Beach might be a strange place to find comfort, but indeed that’s what it will be for me. Being together, seeing great art, at the Rubell collection, at De La Cruz, in the Design District, and most of all on the show floors is what I love. I truly love the energy of being reunited with people at an art fair, as a dear friend once told me, “it’s like being at summer camp all the time”. Community means a lot to me – that idea of nurturing each other, and familiarity. Yes, of course, it is about business, but it is about society and community at its core. I am sure I will also be having lots of conversations about NFTs, so I suppose that is what I most look forward to – hearing every possible iteration of what NFT means to our new world.

Straight after Art Basel Miami comes the Diriyah Biennale. Philip Tinari, the curator of the inaugural Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale, is a visionary curator and cultural leader – the most perfect fit for this seminal moment. He came to Saudi with me two years ago and just got it – this moment in Saudi Arabia – a moment of profound change, of evolution and of positive forward movement. Artists have been at the foundation of it all, and the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale will be a touchpoint for generations to come – we will see what Saudi artists have done to create dialogue in society, and also how art can speak to society at large.

TW:   Who are some of the emerging artists that you think should be on everybody’s radar?

AA:   Any artist that is from a background that is unfamiliar to the viewer. We should embrace the unknown and think that artists are those interlocutors.

TW:   What are your favourite culturally curious spots?

AA:   I’m the ultimate art road tripper – give me an adventure and I will make an itinerary and bring a whole crazy posse with me. Favourite trips have been in the US, visiting Marfa and always adding some new spots along the way, like Roden Crater, Crystal Bridges, The Lightning Field, the Grand Canyon, and mixing it in with some kitsch Americana like rodeos and all the rest. Asia is also dear to my heart, every year alongside Art Basel Hong Kong I visit friends around the region. The last trip to Seoul was out of control in the best possible way – stunning museums and a healthy dose of K-pop. Tokyo is another story for another time, and not in print… truly a city that never sleeps. I love experiencing a place through its art, and understanding the context of who we are – for example, Crystal Bridges Museum then the Mississippi Blues trail – how do we understand the South if we don’t know the beauty and the horrors of American history?

TW:   Desert island quarantine – which album, book and artwork do you take with you?

AA:   Album: The Wallflowers – memories of teenage melancholy and also joy going back and forth from school to home.
Book: I was an avid reader my whole life, until I did my PhD. My mother despairs that I can no longer read in an intellectual capacity. It will come back I reassure her, but I just need a little mental break… so if I were to be on a desert island (YAY!), in quarantine (UGH!), I would be reading A Wrinkle in Time, alongside Condé Nast Traveller, because when you are on a desert island, and in quarantine (which thankfully I have never had to do), you want to be transported to other worlds and universes.
Artwork: Hank Willis Thomas’s “Kama Mama, Kama Binti” – a Covid acquisition that gives me a feeling of love and hope, I found it in the very first Art Basel viewing rooms, and while the virtual will never replace the physical, this work brought it all together and further instilled and reinforced in me the love of community, the love of the art world and the love of my mother.
And just FYI, Armageddon would be playing on repeat… a bizarre source of comfort.

TW:   Who is your ultimate Monday Muse?

AA:   Sumayya Vally is a muse and a light in every way. She gives me such a sense of strength through a constant flood of reassurance and unwavering hope. There is no false pride with her, it is professionalism and positivity at its best – because it’s real.

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