A ‘Product of Colonialism’ Represents France at the Venice Biennale

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 descent.

Zineb Sedira is that artist, and her appointment is historic in several ways. Only a handful of female artists have been showcased by the French Pavilion since it was inaugurated in 1912. More unusually, Ms. Sedira is a child of working-class immigrants who settled in France in the early 1960s, right around the time that Algeria put an end to about 130 years of French colonial rule. Her 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 studio in south London, which overlooks a busy road and is full of visual throwbacks to post-independence Algeria. “Better now than never.”

She attributed her selection to the fact that for the first time, the French Pavilion selection committee was gender-balanced and diverse. “But that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be attacked, criticized by a certain group of people,” she said. “It’s going to be painful.”

To some degree, it already has been. In January 2020, when her name was announced as France’s representative at the Venice Biennale, the French website Causeur wrote an editorial demanding that France withdraw the nomination because, it said, Ms. Sedira had refused to participate in an exhibition in Israel in 2017 and was an “ardent supporter” of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or B.D.S., which, in solidarity with the Palestinians, seeks to put economic and political pressure on Israel. French-Jewish groups and personalities such as the gallerist Jacqueline Frydman and the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy expressed shock at the Venice appointment until Ms. Sedira responded with a public statement that she had never boycotted the 2017 exhibition, that she did not support the B.D.S. movement and that she would not step aside as the artist representing France.

Ms. Sedira, 59, was born in the Paris suburb of Gennevilliers, one of nine children of an Algerian factory worker and a homemaker who migrated to France and with whom she has always been close. She remembered how, as a little girl with ribbons in her hair, she would accompany her father to the local cinema to watch spaghetti Westerns, big-budget Hollywood productions such as “Cleopatra,” and Egyptian melodramas.

As a teenager, her movie theater of choice became the Cinéma Jean Vigo, also in Gennevilliers, which showed art-house but also militant, anti-colonialist films. (She held her first French Pavilion news conference there in February, and will be recreating the cinema in Venice.)

Growing up in Gennevilliers was tough. All through her childhood and adolescence, Ms. Sedira said, she witnessed her parents being disrespected, and protected them as well as she could. She snapped back at market vendors who addressed them using the familiar “tu” for “you” instead of the formal “vous,” or at passers-by who greeted them with racist insults.

The exhibition will feature sets and décors, such as a reconstitution of Ms. Sedira’s home in Brixton in south London.Credit…Thierry Bal and Zineb Sedira

After completing a photography course, Ms. Sedira moved to Paris when she was 18, started mixing with artists and musicians, then moved again, to London. There, she studied at top art schools — Central Saint Martins and the Slade School of Fine Art. Soon after graduating, she had her first exhibition — at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow. It consisted of a space covered with geometrically patterned, Moroccan-style tiles picturing four generations of women in her family including herself.

“Coming to England helped me a lot, because I suddenly was distanced from this kind of pathological relationship with Algeria,” she explained. “I had a different way of looking at French colonial history” that was “more intellectual and less emotional, so I became less emotional about this kind of racism and was able to explain it,” though not “accept it.”

She settled in Brixton, south London (where she still lives) and made friends with artists including Sonia Boyce, who is representing 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 sociable, very good at bringing people together.” Ms. Boyce also said that Ms. Sedira was “very bright in terms of being able to distill what it is that’s going on politically and culturally around us.”

France and Its Colonial Past in Africa

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A troubling history. Decades after independence, relations between several African countries and France, a former colonial ruler, remain complex. Here are key things to know:

Anti-French sentiment. Over the last few years, there has been a sharp rise in criticism of France across its former colonies in Africa, rooted in the idea that colonialist practices and paternalistic attitudes have never ended. Demonstrations against France have taken place in Senegal, Burkina Faso and other countries.

In France. The French president, Emmanual Macron, has tried to address his country’s legacy as a  colonizer, acknowledging crimes by the French and pursuing reconciliation efforts. But far-right politicians have pushed back, invoking France’s supposedly glorious colonial past during a heated presidential campaign.

In Mali. One source of grievance is France’s failure to stop an Islamist insurgency that destabilized Mali. After launching a military operation there nine years ago, France announced in February that it was withdrawing, after a fallout with Mali’s leadership.

In Rwanda. A two-day visit by Mr. Macron last year was celebrated as a new chapter between the two countries, after nearly three decades of recriminations over France’s role in Rwanda’s genocide of 1994.

In Benin. Mr. Macron was also responsible for the formal return of 26 artifacts to Benin that were  forcibly taken by French colonial troops more than a century ago. It was the first large-scale act of restitution to Africa by a former European colonial power.

Ms. Sedira works mainly in film and photography. She makes art that is personal, often starting as a dialogue with one or more family members, and that reflects on her multiple identities: British, French, Algerian, Berber, Arab, African.

“I am a product of colonialism, because I was born in France but should have been born in Algeria,” she said in the interview. “If my parents hadn’t been colonized, I would be there today. I’m a legacy of all the stories and all the suffering.”

Ms. Sedira’s Venice work will be a 25-minute “kaleidoscope,” a film within a film that will be a loosely poetic evocation of her life.Credit…Thierry Bal and Zineb Sedira

“I think there are always traces,” she said. “I’m turning them into a rich experience because I don’t want to keep talking about how awful it was.”

Ms. Sedira’s Venice work, “Dreams Have No Titles,” will be a 25-minute “kaleidoscope,” a film within a film that will be a loosely poetic evocation of her life. It will include clips from films produced by Algeria in the post-colonial era, remakes of scenes from those films and behind-the-scenes images of her own artistic process. The pavilion will also feature sets and décors, such as a reconstitution of her Brixton home, a version of a work she showed at the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris in 2019.

Ms. Sedira’s gallerist Kamel Mennour, also a child of Algerian immigrants, said the fact that a woman of Algerian origin would represent France this year was “an extraordinary signal,” because “we need flag-bearers who can show us the way.”

“Nationalism always has a patriotic, inward-looking aspect to it,” he said. “Zineb is opening up the range of possibilities.”

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