PARIS — Zineb Sedira’s art is one of rare generosity. Using her own history of migration as the starting point for each artistic journey she embarks upon, Sedira conveys the political through the personal. Born in Paris to Algerian parents who immigrated to France in the early 1960s, she moved to London in 1986, when she was in her early 20s and remains there today. The experience of immigration and travel so deeply embedded in her family’s personal history has since informed the artist’s work. A Brief Moment, her current exhibition at Jeu de Paume, is a testament to this autobiographical approach. Encompassing various media, such as film, video, installation, and photography, the exhibition showcases works from 1998 to the present, including a large, site-specific installation that Sedira created especially for the show.
The exhibition opens with a particularly breathtaking piece. For Lighthouse in the Sea of Time (2010), a darkened room invites the viewer to immerse themselves in the history of two lighthouses in Algeria — Cape Sigli (1905) and Cape Caxine (1938) — both monuments from the colonial period. Their histories are explored through videos projected onto three separate walls. The first shows footage of the lighthouses and their serene environments on the southern Mediterranean coastline; the second documents an interview with Krimo, the lighthouse keeper at Cape Sigli since 2005, whose stories of Cape Sigli’s history and his everyday life there flow together. The third and final video explores the history of Cape Caxine through archival materials such as logbooks and visitors books. As Sedira notes in the exhibition catalogue, “I use two-dimensional documents, oral histories, and landscape imageries, and alter them into three-dimensional visual narratives.” This installation is an excellent introduction to Sedira’s work, exemplifying her brilliance in weaving together oral histories, archival material, and the present context of the lighthouses, to provide an intimate portrait of cultural heritage and the role archives play not only in providing information, but also in the desire for a connection with one’s roots.
The highlight of the exhibition is certainly Sedira’s new installation, Standing Here Wondering Which Way to Go (2019). The piece takes its title from a song recorded in 1971 by Marion Williams, an African American gospel singer, preceded by Mahalia Jackson’s 1956 recording, and written by Gospel music pioneer Thomas A. Dorsey. Sedira’s work was inspired by the Pan-African festival that took place in Algiers in 1969, and marked Algeria’s important role in various liberation movements.
Composed of four separate scenes, the installation explores the sense of utopia that accompanied the PanAf festival through various media, including footage from 1960s militant films that Sedira uncovered in the film archives in Algiers, as well as an impressive collection of other archival materials (for instance, magazines, newspaper clippings, and Sedira’s own collection of protest songs on vinyl records), with which the artist created a large collage on a bright yellow wall. The work’s central element is a life-sized diorama that recreates Sedira’s own living room, complete with her furniture and personal objects such as photographs, books, and records. Taking a seat on the couch, viewers can watch a video on the TV screen that features Sedira’s friend and scholar Nadira (2019) recounting her experience of the PanAf. Similar to the lighthouse keeper’s personal narrative in the first piece, the oral histories here expose the idea of a stable collective memory as a myth. If anything, collective memory is the compilation of individual memories, demonstrating the impossibility of official memories, or official histories.
In Sedira’s work, archival material is not dead and past, but is active, imbued with intimacy and a cinematic quality suggesting that there is no such thing as “frozen in time.” Histories are a constant balance of stillness, when we attempt to grasp them, and motion, as they metamorphose — much like Sedira’s body of work.
Walking back through the Tuileries gardens in a city that I get to call home for three short months, I found myself contemplating my own history of migration, the past lives I’ve lived in Russia, Kazakhstan, and the Netherlands. How extraordinarily beautiful and rare, I thought, drifting somewhere between a renewed spatial awareness and a feeling of displacement, for one artist to invite such intense contemplative lingering. A Brief Moment is a must-see for anyone in Paris, whether settled or just passing through.
Zineb Sedira: A Brief Moment continues at Jeu de Paume (1 place de la Concorde, Paris, France) through January 19, 2020.