State Dep't Spends $150K On 'Black Arch' Mecca Art

December 3, 2013 - 1:44 PM

"The Black Arch" (photo from Kingdom of Saudi Arabia)

( - In the days before the October government shutdown, the State Department spent $150,000 on “The Black Arch”, an art installation piece referencing Mecca.

On September 23 the State Department contracted $150,000 for the “The Black Arch” by Raja and Shadia Alem.

A 2011 press release describes the work as a “profound collaboration between Shadia and Raja Alem. It is very much about a meeting point of the two artists; of two visions of the world; from darkness to light, and of two cities – Makkah (Mecca) and Venice.”

“The work is a stage, set to project the artists’ collective memory of Black - the monumental absence of color - and physical representation of Black, referring to their past. The narrative is fuelled by the inspirational tales told by their aunts and grandmothers, and is anchored in Makkah, where the sisters grew up in the 1970s.”

In a 2011 interview Shadia explains the piece: "Physically it is simple, everyone will see the elliptical wall when they enter, and this wall is the black; the unknown. But if you cross to the other side you will find several universes."

"We created this elliptical barrier, like an arch, and behind it, you find 3457 stainless steel spheres gathered together and going in circle after circle on the ground. One sphere reflects into the other and the other… and they become an endless multiplying energy field. And there is a cube, which represents our city of Makkah, surrounded by the stainless steel spheres reflected on our city."

Raja provided further details about  the work: "Inside the cube is another black cube, which we relate in a way to the Black Stone of Al-Ka’ba; it’s filled with pebbles which are used to throw at the devil during a specific moment in the ritual of the Hajj. But those pebbles or stones are not only stones. They are sculptures, as they have been touched by millions of people and used to stone the negative moments of their lives. And these tons of stones are recycled. Once they are thrown by the pilgrims then they are picked up and reused by the next group, and the next year the same stones are used. So those stones are sculpted by the hands and by the emotion of those pilgrims. It has a very Sufi-like quality."

The State Department tells,  “The Black Arch will be installed at the new U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.”

“The Black Arch” was one of several artworks that were purchased by the State Department in September of 2013.

In all, $1,420,000 in contracts for artwork were posted Sunday afternoon on the Federal Business Opportunities website.

The largest State Department contract was a million dollars for a “Granite Sculpture by Sean Scully”. The contract was awarded on Sept. 25 to the Waqas Wajahat gallery in New York.

“Granite Sculpture” is designated for installation at the U.S. Embassy in London.

The State Department also awarded a contract on Sept. 17 to Chiem and Read LLC.  The contract was $120,000 for a bronze sculpture titled “Flowers 2008” by artist Donald Baechler.  It's slated to go to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan.

A $150,000 contract for a mosaic mural was made on Sept. 20. It's to be installed at the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia, Brazil.

A State Department official tells that the purchases were made as part of the Art in Embassies program.

“For the past five decades Art in Embassies has played a leading role in U.S. public diplomacy with a focused mission of cross-cultural dialogue and understanding through the visual arts and artist exchange.”