- Travelling in Circles:Postcolonial Algiers in Zineb Sedira's Saphir
Space in political, social and geographic terms, as well as in terms of its importance within the exhibition venue, has remained a key concern throughout the work of the British-based Franco-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira.1 Born in Paris in 1963 to Algerian parents, Sedira moved to London in 1986 where she studied fine art practice and lives to this day, working in a wide variety of visual media. Her works have been exhibited worldwide and now form part of several public collections, including the Cité nationale de l'histoire de l'immigration in Paris, where her works Mother Tongue (2002) and Mother, Father and I (2003) are featured on permanent display.
Given the titles of these latter works, it is perhaps unsurprising that much of Sedira's art was previously viewed as either directly or indirectly autobiographical. Migration, identity, and diaspora were already key themes in her work, and several pieces, such as those shown in her first major UK solo exhibition, Telling Stories with Differences at Cornerhouse in Manchester in 2004, depicted her alone or with family members. Viewed in hindsight, this exhibition marked an important juncture in Sedira's practice. Although her previous creations never in fact centered exclusively on the autobiographical, her subsequent work signaled a change in emphasis, bringing a recurrent focus on narrative spaces other than those provided by self and family, spaces emphasizing architecture, transport, and the nautical in particular.2
The current article considers a key work from this latest phase of Sedira's practice that both uses and represents space in compelling ways: the 19-minute dual-screen HD video projection Saphir (2006).3 As will become clear, even if the sense of mystery, the explicit focus on composition and aesthetics, and the emphasis upon sound rather than dialogue make of Saphir an intriguing world that encourages universal resonances beyond its setting, it can also be read productively in terms of Franco-Algerian relations and the local geographical, architectural, and socio-cultural specificities of postcolonial Algiers.
Algiers in visual culture
Whether known as Alger la blanche, Marseille's Maghrebi twin, or as the site of an infamous battle during the war of independence, the city of Algiers [End Page 26] has long fascinated artists working across a range of visual media. As Zeynep Çelik has argued, colonial Algeria was "the most important, the most cherished, the most invested in, and the most problematic of all French territories outre-mer." Algiers became "the colonial city par excellence, the terrain of many battles—cultural, political, military, urban, architectural."4 Many French and other European Orientalist painters migrated to the city in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to depict on canvas its trademark palette of blue and white, dazzling sunlight, and brilliant blue sea.5 Landscapes were, of course, not the only draw, and the perceived otherness of the local colonial subjects also served as captivating subject matter, which is no doubt one reason why Delacroix's Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement (1834) remains one of the most famous paintings associated with the city. Following Algerian independence from France in 1962, the allure of Algiers as a powerful signifying space has certainly remained strong within contemporary visual culture, and the city has featured prominently in several recent films, such as those of Merzak Allouache and Nadir Moknèche, as well as served memorably as the setting for the dénouement of Tony Gatlif's Cannes award-winning Exils (2004).6
Shot completely in the Algerian capital, Zineb Sedira's Saphir therefore forms part of this wider corpus of images that take Algiers as their setting. Sedira's novel use of space and screens to probe questions of postcoloniality in present-day Algiers provides a fresh interpretation of the city, a renewal that is operative both for those looking in from the outside and also for local audiences who, as the Algiers-based critic, curator, and art historian Nadira Laggoune-Aklouche has argued, were surprised by Sedira's interpretation:
Décidément, comme d'autres artistes d'origine algérienne vivant en Europe, Zineb Sedira apporte un regard nouveau et...