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  • Zineb Sedira brings her Venice Biennale showstopper to Berlin


Zineb Sedira brings her Venice Biennale showstopper to Berlin

Wowing visitors to the Venice Biennale, Zineb Sedira's cinematic installation 'Dreams Have No Titles' has come to Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof.

Photo: Zineb Sedira

Her Dreams Have No Titles was the most talked about national pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale – now Zineb Sedira’s installation is coming to Hamburger Bahnhof. We talk to Sedira about growing up as a daughter of Algerian immigrants and never quite being seen as a British artist.

In Venice, there were always long queues to get into the French Pavilion to see Dreams Have No Titles. Were you surprised by its reception?

Yes, extremely. It’s scary doing a big show like that with its big budget. But I decided from the beginning to have a lot of fun. So I invited all my friends to film in freezing cold Venice in January. It was only in the editing process that I started to really map out that it has to be a film about my life.

I’m always asked to choose if I’m French, Algerian or British. But I love all three of them.

I am a daughter of Algerian immigrants and grew up in France. I was born in 1963, just a year after Algeria’s independence, so I always say I’m an example of what colonisation has produced. I made a decision to talk about my story and connect it to a bigger story, which is Algerian cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, with the anti-colonial and anti-capitalist ideas all coming through.

Alongside recurring performances and the recreation of a film studio, it recreates your sitting room and shows a very personal video of your life, narrated by you…

It was a simple idea when you think about it: to turn the French Pavilion into a film studio. You make your set design in it, you shoot your film in it and then you leave everything there, as an artwork, as decor. Although it was serious and about colonisation, at the same time, the fact that I was laughing and taking the piss out of myself showed I that wasn’t taking myself so seriously. The film was at times very sad and at others funny yet always politically engaging. Somehow, I managed to combine all those things quite well.

Dreams have no titles by Zineb Sedira, French pavilion, Venice (Sept 6, 2022) IMAGO / Panthermedia

Perhaps, more than anything, the work revealed the collaborative forces that came together to fight colonialism…

I didn’t want it to be a criticism, it was about a celebration. Yes, it was about France as a coloniser, but there were also a lot of French, Italian and German intellectuals and artists in the 1960s and 1970s who aligned themselves with Algeria. If I think about it, it was really about creating one’s own tribe in one’s own community. Back then, there were these islands of intellectuals and artists working together. Now, we don’t see that so much today in terms of political alignments. And that’s what I was nostalgic about. When Black Lives Matter started and everyone came together – that was one of the most beautiful moments for me. And I thought: why aren’t we connecting anymore in the same way? Why is it only possible if you come from that same identity?

Despite the impact of the Algerian film industry around the world, much of the culture and films were suppressed…

The film The Battle of Algiers (1966) was censored in France until 2004! I saw it in the 1990s in the UK, where I have lived for the past 32 years, and by then it had been seen by millions of people all over the world. I wanted to talk about how our culture is used as a tool of resistance. And film was the ultimate weapon. It was so easy to send a roll of film to every country or have a copy made and disseminated. Cinema, books and music: art has a tremendous political militant power.

Dreams have no titles by Zineb Sedira, French pavilion, Venice, set design Way of Life (Sept 6, 2022) IMAGO / Panthermedia

One of the reasons this work resonated in the way that it did in Venice is because visitors could really engage with it. Will it be the same when it comes to Berlin?

Yes, there will be performances – those details we are still finalising. I loved how people came and sat down at the bar and could be swept away by the tangoing and performances on the dance floor. That was brilliant for me. Art can often be something quite precious, but this piece was about inviting and being welcoming. I think that by allowing audiences to engage physically with the artwork, photographing themselves sitting on the sofa, it almost gives them the framework to create their own film.

Would you say your work, even in a metaphorical way, is concerned with racism and the legacy of post-colonialism?

Well, racism and prejudices are often targets of my work, and it’ll be interesting to see how people will react to Dreams Have No Titles in Berlin. It looks like politics in Germany is quite complex – that came out with documenta and the Berlin Biennale situation. Although it appears to be a very open country in terms of freedom of speech, it looks to me that it’s not really the case. To be honest, I haven’t really talked too much with German people to find out, but I was surprised by the amount of nastiness in the press. Everyone who went said it was the best documenta ever, but the relentless criticism ended up overshadowing everything else.

You tell them facts, but they don’t listen because they just want to think that they’re the best and the white race is supreme

In your video work, Mother Tongue (2002), you act as a conduit between your Arabic-speaking mother and an English-speaking daughter who don’t share a common language. Why is it so important for shared identities and stories to be conveyed from generation to generation?

What I was trying to say is that there are more and more people like me with a complex or mixed identity, and that’s increasing all the time. In the 1940s and 1960s, it was rare for people to mix with each other, and now it’s so common. I can see my children in their London school, their classes with this amazing mix, and it breaks down the boundaries of what a nation should be and what an identity should be. I’m always asked to choose whether I’m French or Algerian or British. And I don’t want to do that because I love all three of them.

Dreams have no titles by Zineb Sedira, French pavilion, Venice, set-design Le Bal with dancers (Sept 6, 2022) IMAGO / Panthermedia

Much of the anti-migrant sentiment is fuelled by an ignorance of the circumstances around migration –  even of their country’s own colonial past. Are you using your work to shift that perception?

I hope they see it as something that’s not scary, but that there is good that can come out from it. Because I’m an example: I’m a product of immigration, and I’m quite successful! But I can’t be in the head of people from the extreme right, and I can’t understand how they can possibly be in denial of their country’s colonial past. You tell them facts, but they don’t listen because they just want to think that they’re the best and the white race is supreme, so therefore they couldn’t have done anything wrong. It drives me mad to hear them say colonisation was good because it brought modernity to Algeria.

You hear that a lot?

Yes, they say, “We’ve made hospitals, we’ve made the old motorways,” as if that was the only thing they did. I think it comes from fear more than  anything. You in Germany should know that more than anyone else because of your past.

Dreams have no titles by Zineb Sedira, French pavilion, Venice (Sept 6, 2022) IMAGO / Panthermedia

I was surprised to hear that your most recent solo UK show was your first there in 12 years. How can that be?

Because the Brits don’t consider me a Brit. I had a dinner yesterday with the director of the Tate Modern, and when they buy my work, it goes into the British collection, not the North African collection. But other people don’t see me as British because I’m dealing with Algeria, which does not quite fit with Britain’s colonial past. I should be more of a British artist, but I have a French passport, not a British one. It’s funny, after seeing the success of the French Pavilion in Venice I had all these people coming up to me saying, “Now we’ve got two British artists in the Giardini.”

You were the first artist of African descent to represent France at the Venice Biennale. Have you yourself noticed a real shift now in the art world as it aims to address its lack of diversity?

I think by choosing me, I’ve opened the path to other artists of colour to be included in this pavilion, which for 100 years was never the case. They’ve just nominated the 2024 artist: Julien Creuzet, a black man from Martinique. They are trying to readdress an imbalance, but let’s hope that it won’t be to the detriment of other artists. This is a great shift, but it should be remembered that there are also underrepresented Asian artists and Arab artists, it can’t be just about the African ambience.

Zineb Sedira is a photographer and video artist who was born in Paris in 1963 before moving to England in 1986 to study at Central Saint Martins’ Slade School of Fine Art and the Royal College of Art in London. In 2021, she was shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize. In 2022, she represented France at the 59th Venice Biennale. She now divides her time between Paris, London and Algeria.

  • Zineb Sedira: Dreams Have No Titles, 24.02 – 30.07.23, Hamburger Bahnhof Invalidenstr. 50-51, Mitte, details.