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Zineb Sedira

By Cherry Smith

1. Mother Tongue

Zineb Sedira's impressive body of film and video work, explores diaspora, identity and the movement between borders.

This is achieved through autobiography, story-telling and both non-narrative and conventional strategies. Born in Paris to Algerian parents in 1963, Sedira came to London, where she now lives, in 1986. Her early work builds a complex profile of cultural, geographical and historical legacy using a documentary method and the net of language. Later, she relies on a finely tuned visual aesthetic that foregoes language, evoking the landscape tradition of painting as well as the economic sparseness of poetry and literary genres like the Nouveau Roman.

In most artists' oeuvre there exists one significant moment that signals a change of direction, the immanence of a new style or approach or a psychological shift on which subsequent works hinge. This moment happens in Mother Tongue, a 3-screen installation from 2002.

The film employs three generations, in three stages. It takes place in Paris with the artist and her mother, in London with the artist and her daughter, and in Algeria with the artist's mother and her daughter. Each speaks her mother tongue: the grandmother speaks Arabic, the artist, French and the granddaughter, English. Their roots are audibly distinct, yet visually interconnected. The bare white setting deprives the viewer of cultural signifiers, forcing us to focus on the subjects' faces and their conversation.

The topic is ordinary enough - their experiences of school - but as the viewer moves between the three screens, it becomes clear how fractured and fractious communication can become when the mother tongue isn't passed on. The artist speaks in French to her mother who answers in Arabic and in French to her daughter who answers in English. When the granddaughter addresses the grandmother in English, the conversation comes to a painful halt. That the three languages are not subtitled emphasises 'foreignness' and disorientation in the viewer.

Without understanding Arabic, the viewer experiences the granddaughter's loss and confusion acutely. We witness how the artist's mother safeguards her daughter's early schooldays: 'When did you come to get me? Did I like school?' The piece poignantly conveys how memory is mothered in language. The sadness, with its undercurrent of self-criticism, is also expressed by the poet Sujata Bhatt on moving from India to America, and losing fluency in Gujerati:

'And if you lived in a place you had to
speak a foreign tongue,
your mother tongue would rot,
rot and die in your mouth
until you had to spit it out.'

Sujata Bhatt, 'Search for my Tongue' from 'Bruinzem, Carcanet, 1988

2. Story Telling

How can we access our younger selves, the stem of our identity itself, without access to family storytelling?

'Did you play with friends at school?' the granddaughter asks her grandmother who smiles a little, unable to understand or reply. The granddaughter continues. The grandmother mutters hopelessly in Arabic, then makes a noise somewhere between tutting and a sigh of despair. It is tremendously powerful to watch the disempowerment of the matriarch, the loss of her role as memory-keeper and giver, and the discomfort of them both, isolated and isolating each other.

We are granted rare witness to the nervous embarrassment of a diluting and disintegrating bond, which ends in alienated silence. This silence acts as a resonant metaphor for all the moments, everywhere, in which a bond between generations can't be sustained, due to different values, outlooks, clothes, tastes, lifestyles, religious beliefs, cultures, sexualities, geographies and/or deracination. It is the inter-generational estrangement, so subtly and simply lamented here that makes this piece utterly successful and enduring. Finally, the grandmother looks at the camera, to her daughter, the artist, for help in bridging a gulf she could never have foreseen. She holds up her palm. It is this gesture, outside language, on which Sedira's later works hinge.

By choosing not to intervene, to act as interpreter and lessen the visible discomfort of both her mother and her daughter, the artist seems to signal her desire to act as an interpreter of experience to a wider world through her art. Absent from the frame, Sedira controls the image and the drama within it by her silence as mother and daughter.

This marks a dramatic shift from speaking for the pre-verbal and verbal 'I' in 'Silent Sight', 2000, (and to the mother directly in 'Don't Do to Her What You Did to Me', 1998-2001), to the post-verbal 'we' in later works. While the earlier works are influenced by documentary, the later work invokes landscape painting, still life photography and the aesthetic of Algerian cinema of the 60s and more recent Iranian cinema. This profound shift emerged from Sedira's first visit back to Algeria after 15 years at the end of the Civil War (1991 -2002). While her parents living in France had previously been her anchor and vicarious connection to the homeland, from 2002, Sedira rediscovered her own love for Algeria itself after her parents returned to live there. But her recent films, all shot in Algeria, resonate more strongly if read through the autobiographical knowledge gained from earlier pieces, of the war, exile, separation, diaspora and racism that the family suffered.

3. Silent Sight

Themes of provenance, separation and return are key to Sedira's practice. and the questions surrounding a partial return to Algeria, apparent in Silent Sight, are resolved in the recent films Saphir, 2006 and Middle Sea, 2008.

In Silent Sight, Sedira remembers returning to Algeria as a child and the confusion she experienced when her mother donned the haik or veil. 'I remember,' she says in voice-over, 'as soon as we arrived, she would get it out, change into it, become it.' The 'it' is not named but signified by the tight framing of the artist's eyes, edged by two bands of white, mimicking the effect of a veiled face. Discordant music intensifies the alienation the daughter recalls. The eyes look left as if seeking someone. 'The anxiety of confusing her with others would be lifted with a glance from her.' The artist's experience of the sudden threat to the symbiotic bond is brilliantly portrayed. Her search for presence in absence, the personal in the depersonalised, echoes the way the Western view, unaccustomed to veiled women, negotiates feelings of incomprehension. It also conveys to a wider audience the way we mask our disappointment with the unavailability of the mother and eventually grow used to it. 'She was very at ease; she felt protected by it. It was her home, my home...' This acceptance from the artist-onlooker who is both inside and outside, acts as a model for those who find the 'niqab' one of the most disturbing symbols of Islam.

This split positioning is central to Sedira's approach - whether in her use of parallel screens or in films like And the Road Goes On, 2005, where consciousness itself seems split. Here, the coastal landscape of Algeria is filmed from a moving car. The horizontal layers of colour stack like a landscape painting, from the dusty road, the red earth roadside, the green scrubland and the deep blue sea to the pale blue sky. Small farms, settlements and fields of crops pass in a blur but as the car passes people, such as a walking man in a headscarf, or a young woman using a mobile phone, or three people sitting at the roadside, the image is staggered, as if to connect with those who seem to move at a less Metropolitan pace, in a more ancient time. But the figures also become ghosts - ghosts of those massacred in the villages during the Civil War, those one million Pieds-Noirs who fled during the exodus of 1962, those economic migrants, like the artist's parents.

Sedira's striving to freeze her sighting of them acts as a memorial, an answer to the desertion that the landscape suggests. This is the view of a returning daughter, trying to find a way to match her pace and her history with the land and people of her ancestors. It may have a hint of what French philosopher Jacques Derrida dubbed nostalgerie, but it avoids sentimentality.

4. Saphir

Sedira's recent work no longer centres on the family and her role as observer is more removed, less narrativising, more spatially expansive.

The sense of movement through an exterior space continues the trajectory seen in On A Winter's Night A Traveller (2003) in which the location moves between two airports and the night sky viewed from a plane. As the memories of war and protest recounted in Mother, Father and I (2003) carry across to the experiences related by Zineb's mother in Retelling Histories (2003) so And the Road Goes On, seems to end at the port of Algiers and the sea in Saphir and Middle Sea.

Autobiographical threads are woven more subtly into the four later pieces. 'It seemed important to show an Algeria that's little known in the West, free of the "politics" and exoticism so often attached to it here in the UK.' (Zineb Sedira in conversation with Christine Van Assche, Photographers' Gallery, London and the Kamel Mennour Gallery, Paris, 2006, p.60)

In some respects, Saphir re-enacts the story of Sedira's father leaving for France, his young wife forced to remain in Algeria. On a split screen, a male and female actor are positioned inside and outside a 1930s' French-built, art deco hotel called Es Safir, never acknowledging one another. The central characters, however, are the port with its faded grandeur and decrepit colonial architecture, and the sea itself. The sonic atmosphere of the harbour traffic signals the general restlessness: seagulls squawking, horns blaring, people talking, maritime machinery clanking, bikes revving.

The woman stands framed by the hotel window, unable to move on, as did Penelope, waiting for Ulysses. How many leave-takings and reunions happened here? The soulful positioning of the two characters - one takes the lift, the other the stairs, never to meet, points up the myriad sacrifices exile demands. They seem locked into a desire to leave and a fear of homesickness. The Tariq Ibn Ziyad ferry that travels between Algiers and Marseilles, moves into view, paralleling the hotel as a place of transitory dreams, held under a veneer of glamour that belongs indelibly to another era.

5. MiddleSea

In MiddleSea, this melancholy estrangement is intensified as the lone man, the same actor used in Saphir takes the boat journey.

The sea becomes the antagonist here. Darkly mysterious and powerfully mesmeric, it erases boundaries and a sense of self with its immense impersonality. The man wanders through the beautifully stark symmetry of the deck, along steel corridors, past a Venetian blind blowing in the wind. The glassless windows of the ship, the deck-rails, act as poetic framing devices, suggesting that he'll spend a lifetime, always looking on, never being part of the thing itself.

The highly stylised camerawork renders twilight at the deck-rails incredibly seductive with its Minimalist tones and hard edges. The romance however is off-set by the uncanny soundtrack, composed by Mikhail Karikis, which uses intermittent sound effects to amplify the sense of being lost at sea. There is the itchy static of a radio trying to tune into a frequency in which language can't be understood, mingled with the rumbling of the engine, the trailing voices of a distant party who are never seen. The provenance of the sound is not identified, fading in and out with an eerie, unplaceable music that echoes the timelessness of sea travel and the loss of bearings. The figure stands beyond territory and identity and the soundtrack implies both the freedom and the terror of that.

The journey not only re-imagines Sedira's and her family's many journeys to and from France, and from immigrant to citizen, but also the metaphorical journeys an artist makes towards maturity, autonomy and creating a distinct voice. It's not until the ship's hull is reflected in a glass building at an unspecified harbour that we learn that the ship is from, and perhaps returning to, Algiers. The juddering rope is pulled taut to the mooring. Then the passenger, standing ashore, is shown loosening it from the mooring again. The rope slips slowly out of shot, as though it and the ship itself are no longer needed.

This quiet ending implies that Sedira has completed a journey to end all journeys, and found a kind of resolution in the act of coming to rest, 'coming home' in film itself. There's an acceptance of the pleasures of absence, the fuel of nostalgia and the joy of arrival. It is this moving perspective on destiny and longing that sings most eloquently from Sedira's films shot in Algeria. The act of gentle relinquishment suggests another vital hinge on which the artist's next body of work may, once again, turn.

Cherry Smyth, 2008

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