The London-based French Algerian artist Zineb Sedira set to represent France at the Venice Biennale in 2021

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London-based, French-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira
London-based, French-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira

It is a first: The London-based French Algerian artist Zineb Sedira is set to represent France at the Fifty-Ninth edition of the Venice Biennale in 2021. She will be the first artist of Algerian descent to do so.

Zineb Sedira draws on her personal history at the confluence of several cultures to investigate issues of cultural identity, recorded history, transmission, and migration. She is best known for Mother Tongue (2002), a video installation that features three series of trans-generational conversations between the artist and her mother, the artist and her daughter, and finally, the impossible dialogue between the English speaking granddaughter and her grandmother. In an episode of ‘Tate Shots,’ the artist explained that when she became a mother in the early nineties, she “started exploring this idea of transmission. How do you pass on to your children, culture traditions?”

In 2008, the photographs of derelict vessels titled “Shipwrecks: the death of a journey” unveiled a new line of enquiry in Sedira’s practice: travel, mobility, and the lack thereof. The predominant figure of the boat – present in her multidisciplinary practice, spanning photography, video, and sculpture – is also rooted in Sedira’s family history. Her parents travelled by boat to settle in France, where the artist was born in 1963. 

France and Algeria share a tumultuous and violent past. Contrary to other colonised territories governed by a small number of French administrators and troops, Algeria was regarded as an overseas extension of France. Throughout the occupation that lasted for over a century, a large number of ordinary French citizens had moved to Algeria as permanent settlers. In that context, independence was an inconceivable possibility. It was eventually achieved in 1962, on the back of a protracted and hard-fought war that lasted eight years and was punctuated by atrocities. 


The animosity towards the newly independent country informed, to some extent, the discriminatory treatment reserved to some of the Algerians who, like Sedira’s parents, migrated to France. In the 10-minute long video, “Retelling Histories: my mother told me” (2003), the artist revisited these dark chapters of French Algerian history. According to French newspaper Le Monde, that first reported the story, the projection of the video at the museum Picasso de Vallauris in 2010 was met with protests that caused the exhibition to be shut down for two months. 

A decade later, the recent exhibition “A brief moment” at Jeu de Paume in Paris was an immersion into Sedira’s universe, starting with an invitation into her lounge, recreated there for the occasion. The living room densely laid with shelves full of music records, books, and memorabilia set the tone for the time travel back to the 1969 Pan African festival of Fes. Visitors got acquainted with the revolutionary, exuberant, anti-imperialistic ideas, and cultural productions of the time.

Further along, “Laughter in hell” paid homage to Algerians’ resilience and dark sense of humour. The room introduced viewers to archival jokes, cartoons, drawings, and the arsenal of humoristic creativity, which journalists and cartoonists deployed to laugh in the face of constant violence and terrorist attacks sparked by the cancellation of the parliamentary elections in 1993.

Reflecting on her continuous probing of the past, Zineb Sedira said in a video tour of the exhibition, “one cannot face the future without properly understanding the past.” It is a stance that is as relevant to individuals as it is for her country of birth. Her selection to represent France, in the temple of art that is the Venice Biennale, resonates like a symbol. The symbol of a country painstakingly embracing its multicultural makeup and perhaps attempting, at long last, to reckon with the ghosts of a violent, colonial past.

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