It takes five minutes to walk across from the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) to the Sofitel bar off Pall Mall, London. By the time I finish the journey with Alia Al-Senussi, we’ve already covered Churchill's views on democracy, the anthropological possibilities of watching an Arsenal game, the ravaging of the Middle East by Isis, Beyoncé concerts and the Arab Spring. Conversation with the It girl of contemporary art ranges wide. And deep. And dizzyingly fast.
If things had turned out differently, Alia would be swanning around the world’s luxury malls, inhabiting penthouse suites and private jets, aloof in the cocoon of gilded young Middle Eastern royalty.
Instead, Colonel Muammar Gadaffi gifted her to the art world. In 1969, the dictator deposed her family from the Libyan throne, which it had held for 18 years. Her father, a young cousin of the queen consort, was just 12 when he was forced into exile.
Alia ended up in London, where her networking and fundraising skills, her sheer energy and her knowledge of all things Middle Eastern are turning her into one of the most important young figures in contemporary art.
In October, she will be busy with Frieze London, where she is organising a party for Tate patrons and another for the ICA and attending the much-anticipated opening of Tony Salame’s Aishti museum in Beirut. “The opening of the Aishti Museum will be a watershed moment for arts in the Middle East. Tony and Elham Salame are visionary collectors and patrons; not only do they champion artists in their hometown of Beirut but they understand the global network of the art world and recognise that it is very much a community and have worked tirelessly to bring together the various cultures and overlapping interests form the US and UK to Beirut and vice versa.
The 32-year-old works with a wide array of institutions from the Serpentine Galleries to Art Dubai, and hobnobs on committees with Princess Eugenie and Rebecca Guinness. Just last month she hosted a talk by Middle Eastern artists at Art Basel. Her status was cemented in May when, fresh from co-curating an ICA show in Hong Kong, she was invited to participate in the Inspiring Women in the Arts networking events, where she worked alongside such luminaries as the director of London’s Southbank, Jude Kelly, and the British actress Sally Hawkins, helping to demystify the arts for wide-eyed schoolgirls.
Despite all this, however, Alia is sad. Her beloved Libya is being torn apart by civil war, with Isis filming mass-beheading videos on its picturesque coastline. In Syria, its forces are destroying the treasured ancient monuments of Palmyra. “What's happening in Syria is a tragedy in so many ways,” she says. “Throughout history, art has been a spoil of war and a way for opposing sides to manipulate and humiliate each other.”
Alia was ecstatic when Gadaffi was toppled in 2011, and she could finally visit Tripoli for the first time with her father and half-brother. What does she think of the revolution now?
She plays with her teacup, no trace of the earlier levity in her tone. Then she shows a rare flash of anger. “When people say it was better off before, that’s such a ridiculous statement. Libyans don’t want Gadaffi instead of this… I have not one sliver of doubt that Libya will ultimately be a flourishing, wonderful place to visit. History dictates that nothing ever stays the same.”
Middle Eastern creatives will already be making art about this for future generations, she believes. “Contemporary art responds to the circumstances of the here and now,” she says. “Many artists living and working in the Middle East or its diaspora see art as a way to interpret the horrors that surround them, as well as reflect the small beauties of people trying to live and overcome daily tragedies.”
The region has recently captured the zeitgeist of the art world. Works by Saudis, Iranians and Lebanese have started going under the hammer at big auction houses and seeping into western museums.
Alia has played an important role here. In the cool, calm main galleries of Tate Modern, you can now see works by the female Lebanese abstract artist Saloua Raouda Choucair and the French-Algerian Kader Attia, among others. Maya Rasamny, co-chairwoman of the Tate Middle Eastern and North Africa acquisitions committee, on which Alia sits, credits her with helping to shift attitudes to make this happen. Her ability, through easy social encounters, to connect a young artist with a big gallery in another continent, or increasingly cash-strapped state institutions with rich philanthropists, fills a very modern need.
“Alia is a child of our times. She's the future,” says Gregor Muir, executive director of the ICA. While Alia poses for photographs in an exquisite red Victoria Beckham dress in the classical surroundings of the gallery, Gregor is holding court, barely touching his cup of coffee as he enthuses about the newest, youngest member of the ICA council. “A rare creature,” he calls her fondly. “She knows everybody.” He seems bemused, admiring, exhausted by her. He’s looking forward to a trip to America with Alia and her regular collaborator, the Saudi art collector Abdullah Al-Turki. “It'll be such fun. She’ll know all the artists, all the galleries, exactly which branch of Neiman Marcus to go to.”
Later, in the genteel surroundings of the bar, I ask Alia how she became such a connected polyglot. She launches apologetically into the lengthy tale of her upbringing. She grew up in a rambling Cairo mansion, a sort of court-in-exile of Libyan uncles and aunts and grannies, all expecting to be back in Tripoli at any moment. “They kept saying, ‘When we get back to Libya’, ‘It’ll end soon’, ‘He can’t last for ever.’ Well, he didn’t,” she says wryly, “but he took his time – 42 years.”
Her parents are divorced but good friends. Alia is particularly close to her American mother, Cindy Heles. When we meet, she’s staying with Alia at her flat in Knightsbridge, and they rush off together afterwards to a Hozier concert at the Roundhouse in North London. Alia credits Heles with awakening her artistic side. In their many travels together, they would visit local cultural sites, museums and artistic quarters.
Her university friends first exposed her to contemporary art. One invited her to Basel in the summer of 2001, to visit “this art thing that happens there”. Today, Art Basel, where she nurtures Middle Eastern VIP relations, provides one of the three jobs that enables her to do so much other work unpaid. She also does art investment and consultancy work for Generation Three Family Partners and Rolls-Royce, for the latter, Alia will be hosting a Rolls-Royce event for Art Abu Dhabi in November under the patronage of HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan at his majlis in the capital. “I have almost rarely been as awestruck as when I visited the Rolls-Royce facilities in Goodwood, UK. I suppose you would call it a factory but it was so much more than that – a pristine, beautiful environment that happened to produce cars. It oozed quality and it was then that I understood what it would mean for the arts that Rolls-Royce began its own initiative supporting artists and non-profit organisations around the world, such as partnering with Sotheby’s in November for the opening of Art Abu Dhabi. In March this year, for Art Dubai, Alserkal Avenue opened its A4 space to house an incredible commission by Saudi artist Manal Al Dowayan, which fitted so well with the Rolls-Royce sponsorship of the Saudi Art Council’s second edition of 21,39, which also featured Manal’s work.”
Through her work with Rolls-Royce, Alia’s impact on the new generation of artists is acutely felt, says Manal. “Alia has always been a passionate ambassador of the art and artists she believes in. Her mind is always at work, thinking of new connections between people in her vast circle. I don’t recall ever having a conversation with Alia without her introducing me to an individual or organisation that I ‘must connect with’, and she once personally escorted Hans-Ulrich Obrist to my studio to ensure he did not leave the region without meeting me,” she says. “This year, as a consultant for the Rolls-Royce Art Progamme in March, Alia helped me realise an artwork focused on the idea of designated spaces for women, that I wouldn’t have been able to produce without the support of a grant, allowing me to develop my first ever multi-screen video and sound installation, I Had No Wings.”
It was at Art Basel that Alia bought her first work of art eight years ago, a piece by the Lebanese media artist Walid Raad, who has gone from strength to strength and will have a solo show at MoMA, New York, in October. But the lightbulb moment came a decade ago, when, as an Arabic-speaking new graduate, she found work with the Russian-American artists Emilia and Ilya Kabakov, helping with a project in Egypt, near the Libyan border, called Ship of Tolerance. Involving local children making art about tolerance to decorate a wooden ship, this ticked all the boxes for Alia: intercultural understanding, education and art. She was hooked. The relationship with the Kabakovs continues to this day.
I catch Emilia at her home in Long Island, New York. She’s more than enthusiastic about her “beautiful” protégée: “We have to learn to live together and understand different cultures and respect them. I hope politicians today understand that what people like Alia are doing is much more important than what they do.”
She says Alia is like a daughter to her, and Alia says the Kabakovs – Emilia is 60, Ilya is 81 – are like family. It suddenly hits me that what Alia has done is re-create that Egyptian family villa on a global scale. Almost everyone she mentions is a “dear friend”, “like family”, “practically a grandmother”. Abdullah is like a brother.
She seems nonplussed when I ask her if she ever runs out of steam. “Why would I?” Well, I’m wiped out just listening to what she does. “She doesn’t stop!” says Maya, laughing. “Once she delegated the Tate quiz night because she was too busy, then organised it anyway.”
When she first entered London’s art world, Alia was surprised that others weren’t nearly as well connected as she was. “I used to think, ‘How is it that you two don’t know each other? How is that even possible?’ I didn’t get it.”
Alia pauses. “Well,” she says with a smile, “my mother is from Minnesota and my father is Libyan, so it must be the friendliness of the Midwest with the warmth of the Middle East. You know, I'm just spreading the love.”