Cover Alia Al-Senussi

She's both a doctor and a princess who champions the embrace of diversity

Alia Al-Senussi is no stranger to multitasking. A member of Libyan royalty, this patron of the arts recently earned her PhD degree at the SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) University of London. “So now I’m a princess and a doctor,” she shares with an excited smile when we met on the sidelines of the Milken Institute Asia Summit in Singapore last year.

Her dissertation explored artists’ contributions to social change in Saudi Arabia, and it took her five years to finish, partly because she happens to be one busy princess. Besides serving as the Milken Institute’s arts and culture adviser and holding several advisory and philanthropic roles in different organisations, she also works for Art Basel as a VIP representative. Her work at the prestigious art fair is about “trying to make contemporary art from the Middle East a part of the international art world ecosystem in a very sustainable and thoughtful way”, she says. 

That task has a unique importance for a region that is not always associated with modernity. As Alia puts it: “If you only look at a part of the world in terms of its ancient history, it’s much easier to not value it as part of a contemporary society. You forget that there’s a living, breathing population there right now, real people who are struggling, working and trying to make their lives better.”

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Having spent a lifetime reflecting on her Arab identity, Alia embraces the opportunity to be an ambassador for Middle Eastern art. Her mother is American, and her father is a member of the ruling Al-Senussi family that was expelled from Libya in 1969 following the coup led by Muammar Gaddafi. Alia was born in the US, and as a young child, lived in Cairo, Egypt, along with her exiled Libyan relatives. After relocating to the US with her mother, she continued to visit family in Europe and the Middle East regularly, then went on to study in Switzerland before earning degrees from Brown University and the London School of Economics.

One place she never visited during this peripatetic time was Libya. In 2005, she got close: working as a coordinator for artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, she found herself in Egypt’s Siwa Oasis, which bordered Libya. Artists came to Siwa to interact with local communities, and children and youths reflected on the idea of tolerance. The project eventually culminated in an artwork called Ship of Tolerance.

The experience inspired Alia profoundly. “After that, I decided to devote my life to the arts,” she says. “For me, it’s all about expanding the idea of what it means to be a citizen. If you look at the people who come together in the art world, they often have very diverse backgrounds. That’s the kind of world that I think we all should aspire to.”

The art world’s commitment to such diversity can make a powerful statement, she believes. Alia was a founding member of Tate’s Acquisitions Committee for the Middle East and North Africa, and she sees the UK institution’s acquisition approach as a reflection of its broad-minded values.

“Tate really understands that the people on these committees are intellectual resources,” she notes. “Curators need people who can serve as their entry points into different artist communities. I really think it’s about reaching out and creating those friend networks.”

Like Middle Eastern contemporary art, work from Southeast Asia faces a similar challenge of staking a space in the global art ecosystem. In Singapore, the end of Art Stage Singapore in 2019 also means the untested Art SG, debuting this October, is now the country’s only large-scale art fair. In Alia’s view, though, not every city needs an art fair. “I think that there are other ways to support a cultural scene. Many people who only have an understanding of the capital markets think that you need an art fair because it’s where you can buy art. But why not just step into a good gallery to do that?”

Closer to home, Alia finally visited Libya for the first time in 2011, after the Gaddafi regime toppled, and was able to meet some young creatives. “I’ve kept in touch with a few of them as they scattered to different parts of the world,” she says. “There’s a sense that life must go on. People are finding ways of expressing themselves in a hopeful and beautiful manner.”

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