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, 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?
Its a great opportunity to pave the way for other artists like me, 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 doesnt mean that Im not going to be attacked, criticized by a certain group of people, she said. Its going to be painful.
To some degree, it already has been. In January 2020, when her name was announced as Frances representative at the Venice Biennale, French website Causeur wrote an editorial demanding that France withdraw the nomination because, it said, 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 BDS, which, in solidarity with the Palestinians, seeks to put economic and political pressure on Israel.
French-Jewish groups and personalities such as gallerist Jacqueline Frydman and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy expressed shock at the Venice appointment until Sedira responded with a public statement that she had never boycotted the 2017 exhibition, that she did not support the BDS movement and that she would not step aside as the artist representing France.
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 re-creating the cinema in Venice.)
Growing up in Gennevilliers was tough. All through her childhood and adolescence, 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 passersby who greeted them with racist insults.
After completing a photography course, 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, Scotland. 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, Boyce described Sedira as a party girl who was very sociable, very good at bringing people together. Boyce also said that Sedira was very bright in terms of being able to distill what it is thats going on politically and culturally around us.
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, Sedira said in the interview. If my parents hadnt been colonized, I would be there today. Im a legacy of all the stories and all the suffering.
I think there are always traces, she said. Im turning them into a rich experience because I dont want to keep talking about how awful it was.
Sediras 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.
Sediras 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.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times