Nuanced Nostalgia

Jo Lawson-Tancred, Canvas Magazine, May 1, 2021

French-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira explores political history and her own family roots through a creative practice that digs deep into complex geographies spanning France, Algeria and her current base in London.

The restrictions on international travel imposed over the past year have been frustrating for everyone, and no less so for French-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira, who lives in London. A closed world is not just a practical hindrance to her location-specific film and photography practice, but spiritually antithetical to its central themes of complex cultural identity, movement and memory. As our confinement comes to an end, Sedira will be making up for lost time with an exhibition opening in Sweden in June and as she prepares to represent France at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022.


As is the case for all three countries to which Sedira feels she belongs, she considers France to be a part of her. Born and raised in a North African immigrant community in the suburbs of Paris, however, she was aware of racism from a young age. "I was born in 1963 and Algeria won its independence just the year before, so you can imagine that growing up in France at that time was really problematic," she explains. "My parents never wanted to say anything bad to us about France because we were growing up there. They knew that if they filled our heads with hatred or real stories of what happened in Algeria under colonisation we would grow up feeling disturbed and out of place. When you're a child you know something's not quite right, but I didn't really understand why until I was an adult and started researching my Algerian history."


In 1986 Sedira moved to London and fell in with an artsy, intellectual crowd. After a few years of evening art classes she enrolled in a foundation year at Chelsea School of Art, going on to complete her BA in Critical Fine Art Practice at Central Saint Martins School of Art and receive an MFA from the Slade School of Art in 1997. Studying under tutors with Irish and Indian backgrounds, Sedira was introduced to postcolonial theories not yet commonplace in French academia. "The tutors could see that my work was questioning my existing dual identity and my third identity of coming to England, so they were advising me to read more or meet certain artists like Mona Hatoum and Sonia Boyce," she says. "It helped me mature in that 'identity politics' context." Feminist studies also helped anchor her exploration of motherhood after her daughter was born in 1991.


Raising her children in London, Sedira ensured that they stayed aware of their French and Algerian roots. In one triptych film, Mother Tongue (2002), she mediates a conversation between her mother and her daughter. "We transmit stories from one generation to another because we don't want them to be forgotten," she maintains. "Definitely in the Arab world this often happens through the women." In colonial Algeria few indigenous people were allowed to go to school, meaning Sedira's parents still can't read or write and rely instead on oral histories. "I remember how, when visiting Algeria, every evening I would sit among the women and they would tell amazing stories. My childhood was filled with voices in Arabic."


Some subjects remained off-limits, however. In the triptych Mother, Father and I (2003), Sedira asks her parents about their experiences as freedom fighters during the Algerian War of Independence. "For the first time one of their children asked them to speak about that very painful moment in their life and the awful things they saw," she recalls. The work demonstrates the need for collective memory. "Of course, there were a lot of books written by Algerians who went through the war and talked about the tortures, so I wasn't completely naive, but I wanted to hear it from my own family."


In 2004 Sedira returned to Algeria for the first time since before the 'Black Decade', a brutal civil war between the government and terrorists during the 1990s. She now goes back several times a year, and hosts the platform aria (artist residency in algiers) at her flat, inviting international artists and curators to engage with the local art scene. As she began receiving commissions, Sedira was able to hire a film crew and realise a series of films far more cinematic than her previous documentary-style work. Saphir (2006) places Algerian actors in a poetic response to the local landscape. "I was suddenly able to talk about Algeria's history in Algeria with Algerian people, as opposed to just talking to my parents or using my own experience of being Algerian in France and England," she says. "I looked at the country less from my parents' perspective and more from a collective point of view."


Floating Coffins (2009), a study of abandoned shipwrecks along the coast of Mauritania, and Sugar Silo (2013), a diptych documenting the geographical movements of sugar manufactured in Marseille, feel like an even greater departure from her old autobiographical lens. In fact, the works can be related to her parents' immigration to France and hers to England, both undertaken by boat. "The boat became a very strong motif in my work for immigration and movement. It is still my story, but in a broader and more universal context," she explains.


Sedira has long favoured film and photography for their use as documentary records and for the experimental freedoms they offer, and she does not necessarily see them as flat media. Presented in diptychs, triptychs and other multi-screen installations, the works demand that the viewer move around the space. Sound makes the experience immersive. In Sedira's installation of Floating Coffins, visible speakers and cables added a dimensionality reminiscent of the ropes and pulleys in a shipyard.


This nascent interest in enveloping the viewer in a multidimensional experience is further developed in Sedira's forthcoming exhibition at Bildmuseet in Umeå, Sweden (opens 19 June, see page 34). Commissioned by Bildmuseet in collaboration with the Jeu de Paume in Paris, the IVAM in Valencia and the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, Standing Here Wondering Which Way to Go (2019) is a touring show first shown at the Jeu de Paume in 2019 but whose schedule has, like so many others, been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It comprises four works - a photomontage, a film, a collection of vinyl records and a lifesize installation of Sedira's living room - and is built around archival material relating to the first Pan-African Festival in 1969, which took place in Algiers and was a meeting place for anti-colonialist and anti-capitalist movements. Attendees included the Black Panthers and activists from Cuba, Vietnam and Palestine, among other countries.


Of her decision to 'invite' visitors into her own flat in London's Brixton, Sedira says: "Brixton is known for its riots and race problems, so I saw lots of connections between there and Algiers." The reproduction is faithful, with original furniture and family photos, and suggests a full-circle return to the highly personal self-exposure that Sedira employed early in her career. Once inside, viewers are free to delve through photos, documents and songs from the era, as well as Nadira (2019), a filmed oral testimony of one woman's experience of attending the festival when aged 17. This reexamination of the past, Sedira says, could show us "how culture can be used, has to be used, as a weapon against colonisation."


The postponement of the Bildmuseet edition of the exhibition (and also that scheduled for the Gulbenkian in 2022) means they will take place after last summer's Black Lives Matter protests. For Sedira, this moment represented one of just a few times since the 1960s - "a decade of political consciousness and solidarity" - when "the whole world stood up". Looking back on the Civil Rights movement, the feminist movement, protests against the Vietnam War and the events of May 1968, she adds that "It's important to wonder why it didn't go further, why the solidarity got crushed. At one point everyone was connected politically, but that connection got lost. So, when BLM happened, I felt this show was somehow

very relevant."


From the May/June 2021 issue of Canvas Magazine. A digital copy may be purchased here.