LONDON — When the Venice Art Biennale opens its doors to the public this weekend, France will be represented for the first time by an artist of Algerian origin.
Zineb Sedira is that artist, and her nomination is historic in many ways. Only a handful of female artists have been presented by the French Pavilion since its inauguration in 1912. around the time that Algeria ended about 130 years of French colonial rule. His community has suffered decades of racism and discrimination.
How does it feel to represent France in such a context?
“It’s a great opportunity to pave the way for other artists like me,” Ms Sedira said in an interview at her south London studio, which overlooks a busy road and is full of visual memories of the Algeria post-independence. “Better now than never.”
She attributed her selection to the fact that for the first time, the French Pavilion selection committee was balanced and diverse. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to be attacked, criticized by a certain group of people,” she said. “It’s going to be painful.”
To some extent it already has been. In January 2020, when her name was announced as representing France at the Venice Biennale, the French site talker wrote an op-ed asking France to withdraw its candidacy because, according to it, Ms Sedira had refused to participate in an exhibition in Israel in 2017 and was an “ardent supporter” of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement, which, in solidarity with the Palestinians, seeks to exert economic and political pressure on Israel. Franco-Jewish groups and figures such as gallerist Jacqueline Frydman and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy expressed shock at Venice’s nomination until Ms Sedira responded with a public statement that she had never boycotted the 2017 exhibition, that she did not support BDS. movement and that she would not resign as an artist representing France.
Ms Sedira, 59, was born in the Paris suburb of Gennevilliers, one of nine children of an Algerian factory worker and housewife who emigrated to France and with whom she has always been close. She remembers how, as a little girl with ribbons in her hair, she accompanied her father to the local cinema to watch spaghetti westerns, big-budget Hollywood productions like “Cleopatra” and Egyptian melodramas.
As a teenager, her favorite cinema became the Cinéma Jean Vigo, also in Gennevilliers, which broadcasts auteur but also militant, anti-colonialist films. (She held her first French Pavilion press conference there in February and will recreate cinema in Venice.)
Growing up in Gennevilliers was difficult. Throughout her childhood and teenage years, Ms Sedira said, she saw her parents disrespected and protected them as best she could. She hit back at market vendors who addressed them using the colloquial “tu” for “you” instead of the formal “you”, or passers-by who greeted them with racial slurs.
After taking a photography course, Ms. Sedira moved to Paris at the age of 18, began to mix with artists and musicians, then moved again to London. There she studied at the best art schools – Central Saint Martins and the Slade School of Fine Art. Shortly after graduating, she had her first exhibition – at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow. It was a space covered in Moroccan-style tiles with geometric patterns depicting four generations of women in her family, including herself.
“Coming to England helped me a lot, because I suddenly moved away from this kind of pathological relationship with Algeria,” she explained. “I had another way of seeing French colonial history” which was “more intellectual and less emotional, so I became less emotional about this kind of racism and I was able to explain it”, but not “ accept it”.
She settled in Brixton, South London (where she still lives) and befriended artists including Sonia Boyce, who represents Great Britain at the Venice Biennale this year – the first black British woman to do so.
In a telephone interview, Ms Boyce described Ms Sedira as ‘a party girl’ who was ‘very social, very good at bringing people together’. Ms Boyce also said Ms Sedira was ‘very brilliant in terms of her ability to distill what is going on politically and culturally around us’.
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Ms. Sedira mainly works in film and photography. She makes personal art, often beginning with a dialogue with one or more members of her family, and which reflects her multiple identities: British, French, Algerian, Berber, Arab, African.
“I am a product of colonialism, because I was born in France but I should have been born in Algeria,” she said in the interview. “If my parents hadn’t been colonized, I would be where I am today. I am a legacy of all the stories and all the suffering.
“I think there are still traces,” she said. “I turn them into a rich experience because I don’t want to keep saying how awful it was.”
Ms. Sedira’s work in Venice, ‘Dreams Have No Titles’, will be a 25-minute ‘kaleidoscope’, a film within a film that will be a vaguely poetic evocation of her life. It will include excerpts from films produced by Algeria in the post-colonial era, remakes of scenes from those films, and behind-the-scenes footage of its own artistic process. The pavilion will also present scenographies and decorations, such as a reconstruction of her house in Brixton, a version of a work she showed at the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris in 2019.
Ms Sedira’s gallery owner, Kamel Mennour, also a child of Algerian immigrants, said the fact that a woman of Algerian descent is representing France this year was “an extraordinary signal”, because “we need flag bearers who can show us the way”.
“Nationalism always has a patriotic and introverted aspect to it,” he said. “Zineb opens up the field of possibilities.”