Franco-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira on the politics of the sea and why she felt at home moving to Brixton in the 1980s
After representing France at the Venice Biennale, London-based French-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira opens a solo exhibition Can’t you see the sea changing? at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, on the south coast of England (24 September-8 January 2023).
In photographs, videos and installations dating from 2011, the exhibition returns to a recurring obsession of her artistic practice: the sea, rich in multilayered symbols and memories of migrant identity.
“The sea has long been a leitmotif in my life,” says Sedira. “My parents migrated from Algeria to France by boat in the 60s, then I migrated from Paris to London by boat in the 80s.”
“The sea can be a space of confinement or freedom, depending on which side of the world you are on,” she says. “If you’re from the south it’s kind of a barrier to most of Europe, but if you’re in Europe it’s more of an area where you can explore and travel to other countries.”
In a year when up to 60,000 refugees are expected to land on the beaches of the UK’s south coast, Bexhill’s spectacle could be particularly poignant, despite featuring no direct reference to the migration crises current.
This is partly because it was planned to open more than two years ago, before the Covid-19 pandemic hit and before the refugee crises triggered by events such as the Taliban takeover. in Afghanistan or the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
More fundamentally, it reflects Sedira’s artistic practice. “I work more with metaphors and analogies rather than particular disasters or political stories,” she says. “When I talk about the sea, I mean all types of migration, whether legal or illegal.”
Rather than focusing on the present, the exhibition, spread over two floors of the gallery, offers tangential meditations on past histories, notably those of her parents’ generation navigating the upheavals of a postcolonial world.
His three-channel video installation, Transmit in abyss (2012), evokes the North African exodus to France through a series of 50-year-old photographs, curated on screen by Marseilles gallerist Hélène Detaille, recording the movement of ships in the French port city.
The headlights, signals of safe passage and of danger, trace a passage through the spectacle. Lighthouse in the sea of time (2011), another multi-screen film and sound installation, explores the symbolism of two lighthouses built under French colonial rule to guide shipping through the eastern and western approaches to Algiers. Lighthouse register (2011) sheds light on Algeria’s journey to independence in 1962 through the daily diary of a lighthouse keeper.
Sedira’s artistic vision is both physical and metaphysical. sea rocks, a photographic observation of eroded rock formations on the Algerian coast, references the forming powers of waves over time, erasing memory and history. Other photographs pass the eye of a clinical scanner over the abandoned ruins of French colonial seaside villas in Algeria and the port of Nouadhibou on Mauritania’s Atlantic coast – the world’s largest cemetery of abandoned rusting buckets and a historic transit point for African migrants risking the sea route to Spain. Next to these, Sedira has installed a partial replica of his Brixton studio, including his collection of vintage marine objects and books.
Brixton, the hub of London’s Caribbean and African community, was the scene of race riots in the 1980s and 1990s. But for Sedira, who arrived in 1986, it was a haven from anti-North African racism with which she grew up in France after the Algerian War of Independence. In Brixton, as non-white and non-black, she went under the radar: “Algeria meant nothing to people,” she says.
However, “in Brixton, I could see black people suffering like me in France”, she adds. “That’s why I made a lot of friends with people like Sonya Boyce. I could see myself in their stories.
“I am much closer to the black art movement than to the Young British Artists, for example. All my work is to examine any form of racism, whether through a colonial situation or a post-colonial situation.