Buro 24/7 Middle East Interview: Art Dubai Patron, Princess Alia Al-Senussi

Buro 24/7 Middle East Interview: Art Dubai Patron, Princess Alia Al-Senussi

The cultural ambassador shares her insight to the fair

Image: Tracy Metz
Image: Viz Kultura
Image: Art Dubai
Image: Barjeel Art Foundation
Image: Arab American Museum
Image: Art News
Image: Global-Citizen
Image: Carroll Fletcher

Blending a rich cultural heritage and an impressive passion for artistic talent in the region, Alia Al-Senussi talks to Buro 24/7 Middle East

Princess Alia Al-Senussi was born in Washington DC to her Libyan father and American mother, spending part of her childhood in Cairo and California, going to school in Switzerland and studying in the US before moving to London. 

With a father who is a member of the royal Al-Senussi family, and exiled from Libya in 1969, Princess Alia's grandfather, Prince Abdallah Al-Senussi, was a political leader in the Libyan government under King Idris. Today, she has made use of an eclectic and esteemed educational background to work both privately and professionally in the art world, with a focus on the Middle East.

Also holding a number of board and committee positions for non-profit institutions such as the Tate, Global Heritage Fund, Parasol unit Foundation, Guggenheim and Serpentine Gallery – Al-Senussi's work in the Middle East also includes being a patron of Art Dubai since the beginning.

Buro 24/7 Middle East finds out more.

Tell us about your involvement with Art Dubai, and how is it different this year in particular?

I've been honoured to be involved with Art Dubai from its inception-watching it go from strength-to-strength.  At the beginning I was helping form the Board of Patrons, bringing in international galleries, collectors, curators, institutions, etc. Really everyone and anyone who was interested in promoting the arts in, and from, the Middle East.  Now, I am still a member of the Board of Patrons and the Advisory Board, offering help when and where I can and acting as a cheerleader for all the incredible things that happen in the region and at the fair, which is a powerful platform for art and culture.

AD princess Al Senussi

Ai Weiwei

AD princess Al Senussi

Wim Delvoye

Do you have a particularly fond memory from past fairs?

My favourite aspects of every fair are the personal interactions I have with artists, collectors, curators and art world personalities from around the globe-encountering Ai Weiwei red as a lobster on the beach at Mina Salam and befriending him with an offer of some sunblock, hanging out with Wim Delvoye in a totally different context from the norm (his crazy castle in Belgium), seeing my friends, the legendary Los Angeles-based collectors, Cliff and Mandy Einstein have an illuminating trip and falling in love with Etel Adnan's work and others.  All of these experiences prove that art helps educate and inform one's images of another culture, of other people, and truly bridges the gap.

AD princess Al Senussi

AD princess Al Senussi

Emilia and Ilya Kabakov 

Have you always been so passionate about the arts? When did your interest begin?

My experience working with the celebrated artists Emilia and Ilya Kabakov in Siwa, Egypt, this crazy romantic ethereal desert oasis was the beginning of my love affair with artists, art and the art world.  Emilia, along with her husband, Ilya, were the first artists I worked with, on my very first week on the job in the arts (the week after I handed in my Master's dissertation!).  I had the honour of being the project coordinator for their first ever 'Ship of Tolerance' (showed in Sharjah during the Biennale in 2010), which was at the time the Ship of Siwa in 2005.  So that was how I discovered my passion for art and the art world, purely by chance.  I had never worked in the arts but as I had an interest for non-governmental organisations working in the Middle East I thought this would be an interesting first job for me when I graduated with my MSc from LSE, I was recommended to the project by a friend whose family were collectors and it seemed interesting.  Also, the fact that Siwa bordered Libya was particularly poignant as I had never been able to visit the country of my heritage.  In the end, it was fate and I fell in love with art, the art world and everything about it. 

AD princess Al Senussi

The 'Ship of Tolerance' showed in Sharjah during the Biennale in 2010

So art bridges many topics for you...

Yes, I saw it as being a perfect way for me to balance my interest in political science, international relations and the history of the Middle East with a 'softer' way of approaching the difficult issues facing the region.

How would you describe art and design in the Middle East to someone who needs educating?

First of all, we all need educating, constantly.  Contemporary art is no different.  Art and design does not have to be a passion, does not have to be all-encompassing.  I like to demystify the art world to people who aren't involved because it can be intimidating.  Art and design is an important cultural marker-it defines who we are, be it as a culture, as a place or as a society and I truly believe everyone should value and support artistic production in whatever way they are able.

You were born in Washington and have lived in London, has your varied Middle Eastern/Western upbringing affected your cultural taste? If so, how?

I am passionate about contemporary art and supporting living artists.  I focus mostly on Middle Eastern art and artists as this is close to my heart and my heritage, but I think it important to not just pigeonhole one self culturally or ethnically.  I very much hope I see the day when more artists of Middle Eastern origin are integrated in to the wider art world.  Art Dubai plays a big role in this, by being one of the main thoroughfares for artists, museum directors, patrons and collectors from the Middle East as well as elsewhere.  I've had an international upbringing and I value that, and I love to see the same incorporated in to an artist's work and see artists who value their own heritage, life experiences and societies but who also understand the role they play in the wider world-for example, the American installation artist Theaster Gates, who works to better his own neighbourhood in Chicago but also creates art that speaks to his community and the rest of the world.

Art Dubai Patron, Princess Alia Al Senussi

Theaster Gates

How would you describe your taste in art, generally?

I like work that is both beautiful aesthetically and quite conceptual.  Some people don't care about beauty in art, but I believe it to be integral to a work.  For instance, I think Walid Raad marries these two elements perfectly.

 Art Dubai Patron, Princess Alia Al Senussi

Walid Raad

Who would you cite as 'one to watch' on the Middle Eastern art scene?

Dana Awartani (see the Athr Gallery based in Saudi Arabia, showing at this year's fair).

 Art Dubai Patron, Princess Alia Al Senussi

Dana Awartani

What do you like about Dubai?

Dubai is a global metropolis, a city that is both national and international and incredibly warm and inclusive.  Like me, Dubai cannot be necessarily defined by one ethnicity, one group-of course there are the locals but there are also the expats and the visitors, everyone working side-by-side to make Dubai the city that it is today.


What are your personal highlights for the Art Dubai plans this year? Is there anything you are particularly excited for?

The Canvas magazine 10-year anniversary will be a blowout shindig I am sure!  And a visit to the studio of Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian is always a necessary stop on my calendar. The new Marker program of Art Dubai is a great source of education for me, each year I am able to get specialised insight in to parts of the world far and wide such as West Africa, Indonesia and now Central Asia.  And Manal AlDowayan's show at Cuadro is something I cannot wait to see!

 Art Dubai Patron, Princess Alia Al Senussi

 Art Dubai Patron, Princess Alia Al Senussi

Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh

 Art Dubai Patron, Princess Alia Al Senussi

Manal AlDowayan

Are there any other aspects to Art Week, encompassing other initiatives such as Design Days Dubai that you are keen to explore?

Design Days is a great platform to share regional as well as international design, something absolutely perfect for Dubai and its residents.  Sharjah's activities and shows are always intellectually stimulating, and this year will be no different with some wonderful works as well as a fascinating talks program.  One of my favourite places in London, Delfina Foundation, will be showing the outcomes of A.i.R Dubai, their annual artist-in-residency programme in partnership with Art Dubai Projects, Tashkeel and Dubai Culture & Arts Authority.

 Art Dubai Patron, Princess Alia Al Senussi

 Art Dubai Patron, Princess Alia Al Senussi

Main image of Alia Al-Senussi by Sueraya Shaheen, wearing DAS Collection. Art Dubai runs March 19–22.

Related articles

Buro 24/7 Selection