In the late 1960s, in a poor suburb north of Paris, Abdelrahman Sedira was in the habit of taking his little girl Zineb to the local cinema on his day off. Abdul Sedira worked as a cleaner in a factory. He was illiterate in both French and his native Arabic having hardly been to school, but he and Zineb shared a love of film. The cinema was the place where Abdelrahman met other working men, some like him from Algeria, some also with their children in tow. Father and daughter’s favourite films were spaghetti westerns, or schlocky Egyptian epics about Cleopatra. In place of subtitles an Arab speaker might stand at the front and shout out ad hoc translations. Those afternoon adventures stayed with Zineb Sedira, opened up worlds for her.

Fast forward to 2022, and that same little girl, now a resident of Brixton in south London, is selected to represent France at the famous Venice art biennale. There are some protests at her appearance from conservative voices in Paris – what does this daughter of Algerian immigrants, an exile in London, know of French culture? But Sedira doesn’t listen to any of that. As part of her pavilion, she recreates the rough old cinema in Gennevilliers in which she and her father had spent those 1960s afternoons. And she doesn’t stop there. She locates films of Algerian émigrés like her father arriving in France in hopeful berets and somehow inserts herself in among them. She brings to life a famous celluloid bar-room in exacting detail – in order to recast a celebrated, taboo-breaking scene from the movie Le Bal in which a Parisian woman dances the tango with an Algerian man (Sedira sashays as the woman). And she remakes in loving homage the living room in Brixton, with its retro 1960s furniture, its vinyl records, its film posters, in which these vivid memories had settled in her head.

A scene from Sedira’s film Dreams Have No Titles at the Venice Biennale 2022. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

Critic Laura Cumming, writing in this paper, described Sedira’s Venice show as “the wildfire hit” of that pioneering “women’s biennale”; a “living enchantment” that “weaves the family story into postcolonial history” and uses “the seamless flow of film to question what is real and what is fiction”.

Next week those Venice rooms and films are once again being recreated – with some added reference points from that personal history – this time in the Whitechapel Gallery in London’s East End. The venue is a natural one for Sedira’s seductive inquiry into the nature of displacement and assimilation, memory and forgetting – it has been for generations a refuge and showcase for waves of different local communities in adjacent Brick Lane. In a time of depressing political obsession with the “cultural threat” from immigration, Sedira’s art examines and celebrates the romance of moving and mixing and making new.

Last week I sat upstairs with her in the gallery, while staff knocked together her living room below, and talked about some of that history. The show has a particular emotional relevance for Sedira, because her father, the man who “planted those seeds in heart and mind” died in December. Sedira, 61, is just back from Paris, where she now has a studio as part of a city initiative to promote “homegrown” artists. “My identity was already a little complex,” she says, with a smile, “but I’m still getting used to two homes and studios. I woke up this morning, back in Brixton, and I thought I was still in Paris. And if I’m cooking something in the Paris kitchen I’m looking for my olive oil in the place it is in England.”

Has having thousands of biennale visitors wandering through her London living room, sitting on her sofas, reading her books, changed the way she feels about the real thing?

“A little. And people obviously often have deja vu when they visit – or if I do a Zoom call they know the background very well. But it’s still as it was. And I live in it, as before.”

It was partly her interest in collecting furniture and photographs from the 1960s that established Sedira’s artistic practice. She’d look in flea markets or on eBay for “lived objects” that might tell a political or postcolonial or feminist story. That habit became a full-on conservationist’s obsession with projects to preserve archive film from the 1960s, in particular from the “golden age” of Algerian cinema that followed the end of the colonial war with France and independence in 1962. Sedira is fascinated by the way Algiers became briefly the centre of political film-making at that moment, with the independent government, for example, funding such lasting masterpieces of cinema as The Battle of Algiers by Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo.

That film was not one Sedira and her father ever saw – it was banned in France for several years and the subject of terrorist threats when eventually released. The artist first watched it when she came to art school in London in the early 1990s, and a few of her parents’ stories of the past fell into place.

A still from Zineb Sedira’s 2003 film Mother, Father and I, featuring her parents. Photograph: © Zineb Sedira

She made a film piece called Mother, Father and I in which her parents talked first about their life in French Algeria, and their involvement in some actions by the resistance movement – and then about their decision to come to live in France, to choose the country of their coloniser. “They explained it in very simple words,” Sedira says, “it was for economical reasons, for the family.”

In her childhood, her parents were careful never to say anything negative about France. “They obviously didn’t want us growing up hating France, our home,” she says. “Nevertheless, we could see that there was a problem. I was born a year after Algeria won the war – so you can imagine the racism in France towards Algerians. I grew up with a lot of that racism. As a child, you might not fully understand political conversations [going on] around you, but you still absorb something about it.” She believes those absorbed attitudes and emotions “have sort of started coming out of me now” in later life; she finds herself picking through that past, trying to make sense of it all.

One aspect of that is her experience of two different kinds of assimilation. “France was, is, very much more about integration than Britain,” she says. “You were required to almost forget everything you come from, and adapt to the French identity, the French culture, the French language. Though my mum, who was at home, to this day doesn’t speak much French.” Still, they were between worlds, adrift in the imaginary homelands they glimpsed on the big screen. “In France we were seen as Algerian, and when we went to Algeria to visit, we were seen as French … ”

In order to understand that, Sedira had a powerful need to be in a more neutral place. She came to London to study art at Central St Martins and the Slade when she was 23. “I started to gain some political consciousness because I could see things from afar … living in Brixton allowed me not to be judged non-stop, for the colour of skin or my background.” That consciousness crystallised when she became a mother for the first time at 28 – she has three children – “and you also want to pass on some knowledge of your culture, of your tradition to them”. In many ways, the question of what of the past to hold on to and what to let go of, remains the shaping force of her art.

She had a stroke of fortune when she settled in London. Living two doors down from her in Brixton was the artist Sonia Boyce – now Dame Sonia – a pioneer of the British Black arts movement in the 1980s. They became close friends. “Sonia had her first daughter more or less at the same time as I had my son,” Sedira recalls, “we were going to the one o’clock club together, to the park. And we had a lot of conversations about art. I was accepted into what had been the Black art movement – not least because Frantz Fanon [the Black political philosopher and radical] had taken up the cause of Algerian independence. The struggle was the same”. She and Boyce set up a women’s art group, which met once every two or three weeks, quite often in Sedira’s now famous living room. “Sonia became a kind of mentor because she’s so generous,” she says.

Sonia Boyce and Zineb Sedira greet each other at the Venice Biennale, 2022. Photograph: Alamy

In 2022 that three-decade friendship had an impossible kind of Hollywood ending. At the same moment that Sedira was chosen to represent France at Venice, Boyce was chosen for the British pavilion next door – their Brixton neighbourhood transported to the grand canal. Boyce’s show also mined cultural memory and the power of collaboration – giving a voice to the often forgotten role of Black female singers in British cultural life; Feeling Her Way was awarded the top Golden Lion prize at the festival.

Sedira and Boyce loved the serendipity. “From the outset, I said I want to make a bridge between the French and British pavilions,” Sedira says. Boyce appears in the film about film that Sedira shows (now in Tate Britain’s collection), Dreams Have No Titles, which explains her life and her practice. “It came completely naturally that Sonia would be in the film,” she says, “and another coincidence, the film was directed by Gilane Tawadros [since made director of the Whitechapel Gallery]. It made perfect sense that those two girlfriends of mine would have a conversation together in my living room in Brixton – that’s what we always did.”

When they were first having those conversations, with kids running about, did she ever imagine the kind of storyline that followed?

She laughs. “No, never! I couldn’t even go to any exhibitions or show my work: I didn’t have much money and I had three children. But I think with art you just keep doing it, until you get an opportunity. The big break for me was to be invited to be part of the group show in the first African pavilion in Venice, in 2003.” Ironically, she says, there was a growing interest in artists with Muslim or Middle Eastern heritage after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. “People wanted to hear those voices suddenly … there were symposiums, conferences and I was part of that.”

Her own relationship with that part of her background is relaxed. “I’m not a practitioner of Islam at all. But, you know, I say I am Muslim as an identity.” Her parents were believers, but generally secular in their lives in France. Over the years her mother adopted a face covering when she went back to Algeria, which was quite alien to Sedira. “When we landed she would get this out of her suitcase – a scarf and veil. Suddenly, she became lost. Literally, sometimes we would meet somewhere and there would be four or five women with the same attire and you wouldn’t know who she was.” There was never any suggestion that Sedira should do the same; indeed, when her sister wore a headscarf once in Paris, their father was furious: “That’s not what we believe in.”

I wonder if Sedira’s inspired curation of the past has an audience in Algeria as well as in France and Britain. She suggests that it has, up to a point. “The art scene is very limited there. But I have had four or five shows.” She is more concerned, on visits to archives in Algiers, by the way in which the record of the years of revolutionary optimism is slowly decaying. There is a nostalgia in her efforts to preserve it, but it also represents a political act, trying to maintain a thread of connection back to those 1960s dreams.

“For me, it’s telling the world that despite everything that has happened since, that moment did exist. With the rise of terrorism in Algeria in the 90s the country went downhill. The culture, the cinématique [film school] that had been created in the 1960s was killed, basically.”

In this sense, you understand her love of the materiality of old film reels and archive records as a kind of defiance, a personal rage against the dying of the light, an insistence to keep protesting, keep dancing. Film-making during the war for independence was not only part of the struggle, it was literally a struggle.

A scene from Pontecorvo’s groundbreaking film The Battle of Algiers. Photograph: New Line/Allstar

“Because it’s so much easier now to film something, on a phone or whatever, we forget how hard it was,” she says. Each of the film reels and sets of transparencies from that time represents a proper commitment, not least in terms of heavy lifting. “These people were taking a big 45mm or 60mm camera into a war zone, with a tripod. What interests me is the fact that culture was used and will always be used as a protesting tool.”

In the current political situation in all three of Sedira’s homelands – Algeria, France and the UK – that commitment seems as urgent as ever.

“I think there is obviously a big something going on around these questions [of immigration and identity] again,” she says. “It feels like something not nice is happening in all Europe.” She is alarmed by the prospect of another Marine Le Pen election run next time around. “I wouldn’t point my finger at France particularly, because you see it everywhere. But of course France allowed extreme right parties to exist, so now we’re faced with it. If she comes into power, which a lot of people are saying she might, then of course it will be awful, especially for the immigrants.”

Sedira’s work, in a small way, offers an alternative to those divisions; a complicated, creative personal history that becomes a symbol of the ways in which life is not about division. How, I wonder, does she hope people will react when they arrive at her show?

“Well in Venice,” she says, “people were smiling, getting on the dancefloor. I think it was successful because it was a participatory project. It was an invitation to bring your own story. People seemed to feel like they had walked into a doll’s house, a place to play. You could go in the kitchen, and nobody was saying, don’t do that, you could sit in the living room. So a lot of people said they came out with a big smile on their face.”

Just like the artist, you might say, they finally felt right at home.


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