How are fragmented histories and memories captured, especially traumatic ones? Can language and communication reflect experiences loyally and in their entirety, or are ellipses inevitable? Isn’t reality itself an ambiguous notion?
* Click images to view extended captions.
Zineb Sedira, Gardiennes d’images (Image Keepers), 2010. Three screens video projections with sound. Exhibition view: “Gardiennes d’images”, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2010. © Photo: André Morin. Courtesy the artist and kamel mennour, Paris
Documentary-based art practices have sought to explore these ambiguities and to reappropriate historical and memorial spaces to counter oblivion. Often times, these practices contribute to the exhumation of ordinary stories otherwise overlooked.
The nature of documentation has gradually moved beyond presenting things as they are, and has evolved with the growing necessity of bringing complexity to narrative perspectives. The time-based practices of photography and video making gain layers through the mixing of media (sculpture, performance, etc.) and through more intricate presentation strategies. The practice of Zineb Sedira falls within this quest to deconstruct conventional narratives through multifaceted and protean works.
Yet, documentarians’ desires to represent reality authentically might be offset by aesthetic considerations and the permeation of fiction. In so doing, they open up new and unique spaces with contours that lie between truth and mise-en-scène. And so, there is a constant play between reality and the way each of us sees reality.
Zineb Sedira, Transmettre en abyme, 2012. Still.Three screens video installation. Courtesy the artist and kamel mennour, Paris
Sedira’s concern for and urge to record, share, and pass on disappearing testimonies are remarkable. Her site of intervention and experimentation has been defined by her fascination with listening and observing. This appears time and time again when she gives the floor to various interlocutors, relentlessly deciphering the subtle and complex mechanisms of communication, and the impact of historical and social memories on systems of meanings.
She develops poetic documentary expressions through topics that she is personally motivated by or linked to, such as her family, personal history, or migration. Sedira pushes the viewer to act as a keen observer and to look beyond the first signs of sharing and contact. She reveals how verbal and nonverbal languages mingle to expose the unconscious choices we operate by when expressing ourselves, and she does so by highlighting apparent omissions in the communication process, whether they be on the part of the listener (the viewer, the artist herself) or the speaker (the storyteller, the historian, the subject, etc.). As cultural theorist Stuart Hall  once said, ‘Language externalises the meanings that we are making in the world’; it transcribes one’s perception of reality for the other. Implicitly, language is marked by a succession of amnesia and memories, a mixture of fiction and reality, and an amalgam of fears and liberations.
Yet, if Sedira departs from very intimate accounts, she does so to rethink social content and the greater narratives, which are memory, transmission, and ecology. She is interested in manifesting how landscape can contribute to the conversation, many of the traces of universal history being embedded in it. The recurrent motif of the sea epitomises these convergences. The perspective she opens is entrenched in ‘mobility and nomadism’, and maybe for her, too, ‘absence is the only way to depict the realities of fragmented global spaces and to portray the fates of people who end up being swallowed by the chasms in between them’ (Maria Lind & Hito Steyerl ).
Zineb Sedira, Floating Coffins, 2009. 14 screens installation. Courtesy the artist and kamel mennour, Paris
Clelia Coussonnet | To get a sense of the arts in Algeria, could you speak about your efforts as a cultural worker and advocate? If I am not mistaken, you were already receiving curators and artists in Algeria before officially launching aria, a residency programme in Algiers, in 2012.
Zineb Sedira | I already had access to the space where aria is housed back in 2005. At that time, we primarily received friends—curators and artists, amongst them also Algerians from the diaspora who knew little of Algiers despite regularly coming here on vacation. They had the chance to meet the local art scene. From there, I had the idea of formalising those trips. In 2012, aria to have local artists benefit more from such flows, by organising talks, workshops, and portfolio reviews. Some events were extremely locally successful, with critical exchanges, such as with Alfredo Jaar or Younes Rahmoun. At aria, we always think about how artists-in-residence can interact with, and invest in, the Algerian artistic fabric.
What has aria been working on of late?
In November 2015, our artist in residency was Abdelkader Benchamma, an artist of Algerian origin based between Paris and Montpellier. He gave a talk on his drawing-based practice, and he conducted a workshop on this medium at the School of Fine Arts in Algiers. Even if in the last year, we have slowed down a bit our programming – I am busy with my own artistic practice and Yasmina Reggad, our project curator, is also in great demand – the program exists and continues to seek funds to carry out its various projects.
It has been more than a decade since you began focusing on the local artistic fabric. How has it evolved?
In Algiers, an evolution can be sensed within the practice of some artists—those who left the School of Fine Arts five, six years ago, thanks to their increased external contact. With aria, artists like Atef Berredjem, Amina Menia or Oussama Tabti, all of them went to international residency programmes, such as the Delfina Foundation in London, or the Villa Romana in Florence. It allowed them to meet artists besides those in Algiers, and to have genuine conversations and to see contemporary art in Europe. I always advocate eagerly for this. Visual artists from the Maghreb tend to depend primarily on the Internet—it is the only open window they have to contemporary art. So, experiencing an exhibition may represent a new perspective. Still, I cannot affirm that such changes derive solely from aria’s impact. There is an amalgam of exchanges and flows that have contributed to these developments.
Speaking of external contact and advocacy, does aria work beyond Algeria?
In 2016, our focus is on curatorial residencies. Alongside the residencies in Algiers, we are approached by institutions and organise collaborations in Europe and Africa. We love provoking these meetings, spurring contacts, and allying ourselves with existing cultural spaces. For example, we are engaged in a curatorial residency project between Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. This is an exciting and crucial co-operation because there are few curators in Algeria. We would like to contribute to expanding their presence in the country.
Turning to you as an artist, Algeria has been a primary source for your artistic material. What prompted you to explore this?
In North African countries, and probably also in sub-Saharan Africa, there is no distinction between contemporary art, modern art, and crafts. Craft is art. I explored this idea, as well as the fine line that divides them. Back then, amongst my salient themes was the study of Orientalism and the representation or non-representation of the body of the Arab or African woman.
Zineb Sedira, Quatre générations de femmes, 1997. Silk screened ceramic tiles with computer-generated patterns. Exhibition view: “Authentic/Ex-Centric: Africa In and Out Africa”, 49th Venice Biennale, 2001 © Zineb Sedira / DACS, London © Photo: Zineb Sedira Courtesy the artist and kamel mennour, Paris
This was the chapter of your autobiographically-based works. What were your influences, artistic or otherwise?
The mother-child relationship already significantly spoke to me. From the moment I became a mother in the early 1990s, I was automatically transmitting something to my children. As my own mother is still alive, deepening the mother-daughter relationship became a prerequisite in my practice.
Zineb Sedira, Mother, Father and I, 2003. Installation. Triple video projection (colour, sound). Exhibition view: “Les rêves n’ont pas de titre”, [mac], musée d’art contemporain, Marseille, France. Photo: Zineb Sedira. Courtesy the artist and kamel mennour, Paris
I indulged in the idea of transmission—oral, cultural, identity, and traditional—especially as my childhood was filled with many tales. I used to spend summer vacations in the Aurès Mountains in Algeria, listening to my grandmother’s stories. Most of the population, especially women, was able to neither read nor write. Oral history was crucial—people remembered facts by telling them.
The title of your work Image Keepers has often been used to metaphorically ascribe you as a memory-carrier and a story collector of sorts….
I developed a love of listening and giving others a chance to speak. I was full of craving when I listened to my grandmother during our summer nights together. Indeed, I enjoy hearing other people’s stories, and I wanted to include that in my work.
Zineb Sedira, excerpt from Gardiennes d’images (Image Keepers), 2010. Three screens video projections with sound. Exhibition view: “Gardiennes d’images”, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2010. © Photo: André Morin. Courtesy the artist and kamel mennour, Paris
For those reasons, I created videos where I gave the floor to my mother in Retelling Stories, then to my father in Mother, Father and I, then, later on, to Safia Kouaci in Image Keepers, and, recently, to Hélène Detaille in Transmettre en Abyme. Speaking and interviewing are fundamental strategies for me.
Indeed, orality is a dominant aspect in some of your films. Exhibition-goers do not always follow entire dialogues. What, if any, influence does this have on your artistic decisions?
Spoken word does not have the same importance in all the videos. In Mother Tongue, it is not necessary to understand the discussion. My approach is sublimated and conceptual. We see and hear three different languages spoken by three different voices: Arabic, English, and French. The content is less important than the experience of simultaneity, especially in the third video, where the granddaughter and grandmother’s troubles communicating are obvious.
Zineb Sedira, excerpt from Mother Tongue, 2002. Installation. 3 videos (colour, sound) on screens with audio headsets. “Mother and I (France)”; “Daughter and I (England)”; “Grandmother and Granddaughter (Algeria)”. Exhibition view: “Les rêves n’ont pas de titre”, [mac], musée d’art contemporain, Marseille. Courtesy the artist and kamel mennour, Paris
My mother and daughter are constantly looking at the camera and rarely towards each other. They need me behind the camera, while, in the other two videos, we are speaking face to face.
You portray the nonverbal dimension of communication: a gesture, a look….
Many people who saw Mother Tongue said it was so sad to see that my daughter had no relationship with her grandmother. Some went further, claiming that it was the legacy of the diaspora. After that, I decided to make the photographic series Mother, Daughter and I, adopting the same format as the video, but showing the bodies, and, in particular, the hands.
Zineb Sedira, Mother, Daughter and I, 2003. Triptych I. C-print mounted on aluminium. Courtesy the artist and kamel mennour, Paris
Through their body language you feel a lot of tenderness, you see smiles and grasp that there are things that cannot be expressed by speech. There are many modes of communication.
Though your autobiographically-based work is unscripted, do you ever direct your subjects?
A little, but not really…. In Saphir, I was interested in the real, lived experiences of the two actors as subjects. For instance, the actor Samir El Hakim actually left Algeria to live in France. He did not like his life there, so he went back to Algeria. Then, he returned to France, and left again. When I was filming, I asked Samir to be himself.
Zineb Sedira, excerpt from Saphir, 2006. Video installation. Double projection (color, sound). Courtesy the artist and kamel mennour, Paris
I had the same experience with Caroline Lena Olsson when she first came to Algeria. She is the daughter of a pied-noir —her father had grown up there. We see her in this colonial scenery. There is no speech in that video. The viewer faces a great deal of silence, and the absence of words. Again, we are in the nonverbal.
The notion of absence resonates deeply. Many of your works and subjects deal with loneliness. For instance, the lighthouse keeper in Lighthouse in the Sea of Time, the elderly as custodians of memories that disappear in death—that is, your mother, Safia Kouaci—migrations as in the man and the woman wandering in Saphir….
There are people with isolated lives, like Safia or the lighthouse keeper, but they do not experience the same kind of loneliness. Safia Kouaci is a widow speaking tenderly of her husband’s illness and death. She shares what it is like living alone, the weight of that archive, and the weight of loneliness, too. Conversely, the lighthouse keeper likes his isolation and his constant contact with the elements.
Zineb Sedira, Lighthouse in the Sea of Time, 2011. Stills. Video installation (colour, sound). Six screens (Part I, Part II, Part III). Courtesy the artist and kamel mennour, Paris
When I film, I do not limit myself and often shoot intuitively, as I do not script my projects. After watching, and only then, the unconscious choices appear evident. I always work with what I find on the spot, whatever the conditions. I do not willingly create any atmosphere. I film what is. Of course, I do not operate blindly, as I have an initial idea. However, the ‘final version’ is revealed in the editing process.
What was revealed in ‘Saphir’?
In Saphir, a woman meanders into the Hotel Es Safir. It is empty the whole time. I did not create this vacuum—it was there. I realised then that Samir [the man in the same video] was also in situations where there was no one around.
Zineb Sedira, Saphir, 2006. Still. Video installation. Double projection (color, sound). Courtesy the artist and kamel mennour, Paris
Why was this unconsciously generated? Perhaps because, in these moments of questioning one’s dual identity, one feels alone—as I have experienced myself. I believe that migration is also an intellectual and an intimate journey that everyone undertakes…. It is a journey that is individual and, in a sense, is a lonely crossing.
This article forms part of the In/Visible Voices of Women series. Read more about it.
Zineb Sedira (b.1963 in Paris) lives in London and works between Alger, Paris and London. Her work was shown in several solo exhibitions at the Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston; at Prefix – Institute of Contemporary Art and at the Charles H. Scott Gallery in Vancouver, and at the Photographers Gallery in London. Her work was also shown in many group shows. Sedira is the founder of aria, a residency programme to support the development of the contemporary art scene in Algeria.
 Stuart Hall, Representation and the Media, dir. Ut Jhally, Media Education Foundation, 1997.
 Maria Lind, and Hito Steyerl, eds. “Introduction: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art #1”, The Greenroom. N.p.: Sternberg, 2008. 21. Print. Co-published with Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College.
 A pied-noir is a person of European origin who lived in Algeria during French rule, especially one who returned to Europe after Algeria was granted independence. The origin is French, literally meaning ‘black foot’, so named because of the western-style black leather shoes worn by the first colonisers. (Oxford Dictionaries)
All images courtesy of the artist. © Zineb Sedira / DACS, London. All rights reserved.
Interview by Clelia Coussonnet.