Zineb Sedira Triumphs for France/Algeria at 59th Venice Biennale

2 May, 2022
“Dreams Have No Titles/Les rêves n’ont pas de titre,” French Pavil­ion, 59th Venice Bien­nale, Zineb-Sedi­ra (pho­to cour­tesy Thierry-Bal).


Mélissa Chemam


Video artist Zineb Sedi­ra is not the kind of woman who will back down when faced with a direct chal­lenge, so when a pro-Israel group attempt­ed to have her dis­missed as France’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive at an upcom­ing Venice Bien­nale, because of past expres­sions of sup­port for the Pales­tin­ian peo­ple, she held fast to her con­vic­tions. Even though she has pre­vi­ous­ly described her­self as a “polit­i­cal” artist with a small “p” only, Sedi­ra refused to resign even as the pres­sure mounted.

At the end of the day, the artist — born in Paris to Alger­ian par­ents — proud­ly rep­re­sent­ed the coun­try of her birth at the 2022 Venice Bien­nale, which had been post­poned for a year due to Covid. She was the first artist of Alger­ian ori­gin ever select­ed to rep­re­sent France, and only the fourth woman since 1912. Last week, Sedira’s French pavil­ion in the 59th Bien­nale received the Spe­cial Men­tion of the Jury.

Her cin­e­mato­graph­ic instal­la­tion, “Dreams Have No Titles” (Les Rêves n’ont pas de titre), focused on Alger­ian cin­e­ma of the 1960s and ‘70s. Com­ing at near­ly the 60th anniver­sary of Algeria’s inde­pen­dence from France, the pavil­ion could not have been more time­ly, even if cel­e­brat­ing Alger­ian inde­pen­dence for some French might have felt like a sharp stick in the eye.

The instal­la­tion trans­formed the French Pavil­ion into a cin­e­mat­ic expe­ri­ence, a cin­e­ma stu­dio with four rooms, one of which plays her film Dreams Have No Titles at the cen­ter of this cre­ation. The oth­er rooms show the sets cre­at­ed for the work and the objects used.

Zineb Sedi­ra empha­sized the post­war col­lab­o­ra­tion between Italy, France and Alge­ria, high­light­ing, she not­ed “the sol­i­dar­i­ty between the trio of nations.” Most poignant was her inclu­sion of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 polit­i­cal thriller,

The Bat­tle of Algiers, which was banned in France upon release and not seen there until 1971. A pan-African, anti-colo­nial and pan-Arab film, it was shot in Alge­ria with an Ital­ian direc­tor and an Alger­ian and Ital­ian crew, and went on to win that year’s Gold­en Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

Sedi­ra recon­firmed the pur­pose of the Venice Bien­nale instal­la­tion for France when she said, after the Spe­cial Jury men­tion, “My instal­la­tion cel­e­brates above all the polit­i­cal, intel­lec­tu­al and artis­tic sol­i­dar­i­ties between the three countries.”

Her par­ents hav­ing left Alge­ria in the after­math of the country’s war for inde­pen­dence, Sedi­ra grew up in Gen­nevil­liers, a work­ing-class Paris sub­urb. In 1986 she moved to Lon­don, where she has lived ever since. Hence, France, Alge­ria and Eng­land make up Sedira’s plu­ral­ist iden­ti­ty. Edu­cat­ed at the Cen­tral Saint Mar­tins Col­lege of Art and Design and at the Slade School of Fine Art in Lon­don, the artist trained in video while at the same time explor­ing post­colo­nial stud­ies, which turn out to inform her iden­ti­ty as both an African and a Euro­pean. She has said that upon hav­ing “arrived in the UK, I dis­cov­ered my African­i­ty or Algerianity.”

At the Bien­nale, the room where films were pro­ject­ed was also inspired by the pop­u­lar cin­e­ma of Gen­nevil­liers, where Sedi­ra and I both grew up (and where I hap­pened to spend my teenage art house years). It is an ode to her mul­ti­cul­tur­al, immi­grant child­hood, which was the foun­da­tion for her artis­tic learning.

Zineb Sedi­ra on the set of Les Rêves n’ont pas de titre (pho­to Thier­ry Bal).


Between Algiers, Paris and London

“I spent a lot of time at the Ciné­math­èque d’Al­ger for this instal­la­tion, espe­cial­ly with the new direc­tor, Sal­im Agar,” Zineb Sedi­ra con­fid­ed to me in an inter­view in her Brix­ton stu­dio, where she has worked for the last two decades. “I became inter­est­ed in film co-pro­duc­tions between Alge­ria, France and Italy, start­ing with The Bat­tle of Algiers.”

She men­tions oth­er inspi­ra­tions, includ­ing such films as Ennio Lorenzini’s 1964 doc­u­men­tary, Les Mains Libres — an essay­ist film in the vein of Jean Rouch or Chris Mark­er, very politi­cized, a por­trait of the young Alger­ian state; Ettore Scola’s Le Bal; Luchi­no Visconti’s 1967 adap­ta­tion of The Strangers by Camus with Mar­cel­lo Mas­troian­ni —“very faith­ful to the book,” she told me; and Cos­ta-Gavras’ Z. Major influ­ences in cre­at­ing the French pavil­ion, Sedi­ra said, were “The avant-garde cin­e­ma of the 1960s, Chris Mark­er, Alain Resnais, their aes­theti­cism, their poeticism…Algeria in the 1970s saw a mil­i­tant cin­e­ma flour­ish, com­pa­ra­ble to Cuban cin­e­ma, and wel­comed for­eign directors.”

Her goal was to “avoid clichés about Alge­ria, and Africa as well.”

Just as her par­ents left Alge­ria for France, Zineb Sedi­ra felt that she had to make her own way, and left France to find her­self. She arrived in Lon­don when she was 23, at a time when the Blk Art Group was gain­ing strength, thanks to the work of artists and cura­tors Eddie Cham­bers, Lubaina Himid, Claudette John­son, Kei­th Piper, Don­ald Rod­ney and Mar­lene Smith.

From 1992 she stud­ied crit­i­cal fine art prac­tice at Saint Mar­tins, and from 1998 joined the Roy­al Col­lege of Art in the pho­tog­ra­phy depart­ment. Her work has been exhib­it­ed world­wide, and she is still based in the British capital.

After 35 years in Lon­don, Sedi­ra has found that — unlike the French — British artists, cura­tors and art lovers are not only inter­est­ed in assim­i­la­tion and labels, but also in dif­fer­ences, mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and uniqueness.

Her fam­i­ly lives between Alge­ria and France; she and her chil­dren in England —

as if the con­tin­u­ous move­ment towards else­where, the migra­tion repro­duced gen­er­a­tion after gen­er­a­tion, has become a means to make a flu­id, mul­ti­ple, com­plex, chang­ing and unique iden­ti­ty live.

Through her films, pho­tographs and instal­la­tions, Sedi­ra explores the ques­tion of mem­o­ry in fam­i­lies and the places where fam­i­ly mem­bers inter­act despite exile and sep­a­ra­tion. She has often delved into her own pho­to albums, filmed her par­ents and chil­dren, and even recre­at­ed her own liv­ing room for a ground­break­ing solo exhi­bi­tion at Jeu de Paume in Paris, in 2019. In 2021, her work was also on dis­play at the Pho­tog­ra­pher’s Gallery in Lon­don and Som­er­set House, as part of the “We Are His­to­ry” exhibition. 

“My par­ents did not pass on their mem­o­ries, their com­plaints, or their suf­fer­ing,” she says. “Nei­ther about their war in Alge­ria nor about their immigration.”

One imag­ines the wrought emo­tions that must have exist­ed between the artist and her fam­i­ly in child­hood and ado­les­cence. Their mem­o­ries of the shep­herds of the high­lands, the val­ues of the fam­i­ly, between tra­di­tions, reli­gion and sol­i­dar­i­ty, have marked her. Her mod­est child­hood in Gen­nevil­liers was also inspired by the local cin­e­ma, fre­quent­ed by the immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties of the work­ing-class, mixed-race Paris suburb.

“My work does not explore his­to­ry writ large,” Zineb Sedi­ra added in her Brix­ton stu­dio. “It explores my own child­hood mem­o­ries, my fam­i­ly ties, as if I were charged with pass­ing on what was almost lost in the waves of migration.”

An art where pol­i­tics is personal

This work bril­liant­ly con­tin­ues the memo­r­i­al, emo­tion­al and per­son­al work of the artist, who has always left a great deal of space for her com­mu­ni­ty and fam­i­ly in her films and instal­la­tions, trav­el­ing to Algiers to film and pho­to­graph the nos­tal­gia or hope of depar­ture, talk­ing to her moth­er or chil­dren on cam­era, in Ara­bic, French and Eng­lish (as in her 2003 film Moth­er, Father & I), and even repro­duc­ing her own liv­ing room for the famous Jeu de Paume gallery in Paris, to dis­cuss the rela­tion­ship between inti­ma­cy and creation.

In 2006, her evoca­tive 19-minute film Saphir, shot in Algiers and edit­ed in split screen, told of the con­trast­ing expe­ri­ences of two inhab­i­tants of the Alger­ian cap­i­tal, and their rela­tion­ship with the immense clear sky and the “shim­mer­ing indi­go sea,” visu­al metaphors of anoth­er world, and a desire to escape across the water to Europe. It was soon clear that the woman in the film is the daugh­ter of for­mer French set­tlers, while the man is a native Arab dream­ing of Europe. “Saphir” refers to the Hotel Safir, one of the mon­u­ments of French colo­nial Algiers, and from which part of the films were shot. In French, the word refers to the dark blue, pre­cious and shiny sap­phire jew­el; but in Ara­bic, the word means “ambas­sador,” one who can rep­re­sent his coun­try abroad and cross bor­ders as he wishes.

Saphir is very sim­i­lar to the work I pro­duced for Venice,” Zineb Sedi­ra told me. “It’s an aes­thet­ic link, inspired by the visu­al exper­i­ments of the 1960s, the poet­ics of film­mak­ers like Chris Mark­er and Alain Resnais, but also of Alger­ian film­mak­ers, with a voiceover to com­ple­ment it. It also reveals how com­plex my iden­ti­ty has become: I am nei­ther a French artist, nor an Alger­ian artist, nor a British artist; I am a bas­tard child of the three influ­ences, and in addi­tion, you have my Berber ori­gins, and North African heritage.”

Her pho­to­graph­ic and video art is a way for her to reflect on social and post­colo­nial issues. But Sedi­ra empha­sizes that her art is based on an emo­tion­al and authen­tic prac­tice, and that she wants to avoid aca­d­e­m­ic dis­course, to con­nect with “nor­mal peo­ple.” This is one of the rea­sons why her work, like that of Sonia Boyce (who rep­re­sents Britain in Venice and won the Gold­en Lion), address­es fam­i­ly ties and the real expe­ri­ence of colo­nial his­to­ry more than intel­lec­tu­al analysis.

“I can’t sep­a­rate my artis­tic activ­i­ty from my inti­mate life as a woman, daugh­ter, moth­er, cit­i­zen, etc…That is why my work is so focused on the inti­mate lev­el. That’s where I find the con­nec­tion to the larg­er sto­ry. It’s not always the sex­i­est way to rep­re­sent it, but it’s impor­tant to me. It’s also where my activism finds its energy.”

Sedi­ra is also con­cerned with “repair­ing the divide between North Africa and sub-Saha­ran Africa,” a divide main­tained by years and waves of colo­nial lega­cy on all sides, by Euro­pean as well as Arab and Ottoman leaders.

But one of the main ques­tions that con­tin­ues to haunt her is: How to rep­re­sent what we real­ly want to crit­i­cize? — a key issue for artists but also for activists who are com­mit­ted to a process of “decol­o­niza­tion” of art, soci­ety and dai­ly life.

The artist has had to fierce­ly defend her appoint­ment in France, when sev­er­al rightwing intel­lec­tu­als accused her of being rad­i­cal, par­tic­u­lar­ly in her defense of the Pales­tin­ian rights. Despite the con­tro­ver­sy, Zineb Sedi­ra is part of a grow­ing list of French artists of Alger­ian ori­gin in the art world, with her gallery own­er Kamel Men­nour, the inter­na­tion­al­ly rec­og­nized artist Kad­er Attia, as well as Mohamed Bourouis­sa and Bruno Boudjelal.

 “I felt hon­ored to receive the news of rep­re­sent­ing France at the Venice Bien­nale,” she said. “I rec­og­nized a major turn­ing point for French con­tem­po­rary art and our com­mon his­to­ry: An Arab-Berber-Alger­ian-French woman based in Lon­don rep­re­sent­ing France! What I was not pre­pared for was the lev­el of dis­crim­i­na­tion and intim­i­da­tion in response to my nom­i­na­tion. I have been the tar­get of defam­a­to­ry accu­sa­tions that are designed not only to oppose my nom­i­na­tion, but also to cut me off from my artis­tic and intel­lec­tu­al affil­i­a­tions, friend­ships, and solidarity.”

In my view, Zineb Sedi­ra has spent most of her career in Eng­land because France was not nec­es­sar­i­ly ready for her emer­gence, for the beau­ty and ten­der­ness of her claims, which leave no room for anger or vio­lence. Nev­er­the­less, her back­ground makes her feel “nei­ther French nor Alger­ian nor British, but bas­tard…” And this, per­haps, is the secret to her strength.



Inline Feedbacks
View all comments