London-based Franco-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira, who has just represented France at the Venice Biennale, is opening 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 since 2011, the show returns to a recurring obsession in her artistic practice – the sea, rich in multi-layered symbols and memories of migrant identity.
“The sea has been a common thread in my life for a long time,” says Sedira. “My parents emigrated by boat from Algeria to France in the ’60s, then I emigrated by boat from Paris to London in the ’80s.”
“The sea can be a space of limitation 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 a space to explore and travel to other countries.”
In a year in which up to 60,000 refugees are expected to end up on the beaches of Britain’s south coast, the Bexhill show may have a particular poignancy, although it contains no direct references to current migration crises.
That’s partly because the opening was scheduled more than two years ago, before the Covid-19 pandemic hit – and before the refugee crises sparked by events like the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan or the Russian invasion of Ukraine .
Basically, it reflects Sedira’s artistic practice. “I work more with metaphors and analogies than pointing out specific catastrophes or political stories,” she says. “When I talk about the sea, I’m talking about all kinds of migration, whether legal or illegal.”
Rather than focusing on the present, the exhibition, which spans two floors of the gallery, offers tangential meditations on past stories, not least those of her parents’ generation navigating the turmoil of a post-colonial world.
Your three-channel video installation, Transmettre en abyme (2012) evokes the North African exodus to France through a 50-year photo series curated on screen by Marseille gallerist Hélène Detaille, chronicling the movements of ships in the French port city.
Lighthouses, signals of safe passage and danger, mark a path through the show. 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 navigation through the eastern and western approaches to Algiers. Register you phare (2011) sheds light on Algeria’s journey to independence in 1962 through a lighthouse keeper’s daily log.
Sedira’s artistic vision is both physical and metaphysical. sea rock, a photo observation of eroded rock formations on the Algerian coast, references the shaping power of waves over time, erasing memory and history. Other photographs sweep 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 rust buckets and a historic transit point for African migrants venturing the sea route to Spain. Alongside this, Sedira has installed a partial recreation of her Brixton studio, including her collection of antique sea objects and books.
A center of London’s Caribbean-African community, Brixton was the scene of race riots in the 1980s and ’90s. But for Sedira, who arrived in 1986, it was a safe haven from the anti-North African racism she’d grown up with in France after Algeria’s war of independence. In Brixton, she disappeared under the radar as a non-white and non-black: “Algeria meant nothing to the people,” she says.
Still, “In Brixton I was able to see black people suffer like I did in France,” she adds. “That’s why I’ve made a lot of friends with people like Sonya Boyce. I could recognize myself in their stories.”
“I’m much closer to the black art movement than, for example, to the Young British Artists. All of my work is about looking at any form of racism, be it through a colonial situation or a post-colonial situation.”