THIS IS MY BODY/ جسم
The series ‘THIS IS MY BODY’ inquires into the visual expression of corporality by ten female artists engaging with their separate Muslim backgrounds. How do these artists create new ways to look at bodies and corporality? This first article focuses on the gaze of Zineb Sedira. In her work, Sedira expressly questions the gaze with which her fellow – French and English – citizens look at women of Algerian background.
Only her eyes would remain the same
The video ‘Silent Sight’ by the French visual artist Zineb Sedira is published in 2000. Sharp violin tones accompany a ten-minute encounter with a gaze which seems to carry years, decades, centuries of memory. Sedira’s silent eyes hesitate, stare, and comfort. In the background, a voice recalls earlier travels to Algeria. Like a child, Sedira tells us what she felt when her mother, upon arrival in Algiers, would put on her haik (veil): I remember as soon as we got off the plane and arrived at her home, she would open the case and put it out. She would change into it. She would become it.
The daughter of Algerian immigrants, Zineb Sedira (°1963) grew up in the Parisian suburb of Gennevilliers. In 1986, she moved to England, where she studied visual art at Central Saint Martins. Today, she lives and works in London.
Yes, my work is testimonial, and it should be accepted as art
Sedira calls herself a feminist artist. In her early work, she clearly demonstrates that the personal is political – as runs the feminist motto. Sedira films and photographs her family, and asks them to witness about their experiences of war, migration and distance. A central place is given to the women in her family: her mother, her daughter, and the artist herself.
Look closely, she asks: how are we being made? How have we become who we are – by which power structures are we determined? Which gazes subject us? Sedira treats these political questions in a very intimate way.
In the artist’s work, women answer the gazes to which they are subjected by others. Sedira uses the voice-over in Silent Sight to talk about veiling and the impact of her mother’s veil on little Zineb, all the while looking at the spectator. This slow form of witness effectively creates a space of ‘intimate unrest’ between the onlooker and herself. Sedira reflects and returns the gaze.
I will continue to research art as a device for resistance and revolution
Sedira mobilizes her personal portraits as instruments for political resistance. “My art,” she says, “often comments on something that I feel hasn’t been given enough attention. For me it is important to utilise its capacity to express, contest, and highlight specific situations and ideas. Throughout history art and resistance have always gone hand in hand.”
Guardians of images
Looking at Silent Sight and Self-Portrait or the Virgin Mary (2000), another early work by Sedira, we can clearly distinguish how the artist develops a specific visual language to express this resistant gaze.
Self-Portrait or the Virgin Mary is a nearly monochrome portrait of a veiled woman, photographed with her back to the spectator. The simplicity of form and colour is typical for Sedira. Her use of colour is often limited to large monochrome surfaces, mainly in white and blue (cf. also her later focus on the Mediterranean Sea).
Sedira uses both photography and video/film; essentially, however, hers is portrait art. The women under her gaze simultaneously are the objects of her attention and critical ‘counter images’: an endless protest against being looked at reductively. Sedira’s intimate images create difficult encounters.
In her early work, Sedira explicitly uses the veil as a visual symbol for stereotypical imagery of Muslim women – and for the reduction of migrant women to Muslims. Silent Sight and Self-Portrait or the Virgin Mary can thus be seen as subtle inquiries into the way in which the veil is perceived by Western spectators. The reactions of the (Western) audience, Sedira reflects, showed that they could see the beauty of the work, but at the same time many experienced an uneasy feeling: they had been taught to see the veil as a symbol of oppression.
I remember I would ask myself: Could she still hear me? Could she still see me?
Sedira’s portraits talk – literally. Language and image are integrated in the artist’s work; this is evident, on the one hand, in the religious language used for the titles of Sedira’s photographic work (Self-Portrait or the Virgin Mary; Trinity), and on the other hand, in the way in which she uses language in her videos. The women in Sedira’s work communicate in diasporic language – a concept with which the artist indicates a language in-between, a language which is understood but not spoken. The videos seek to create spaces where understanding is not connected to speaking the same language. This is most explicit in Mother Tongue (2002), a series of videos in which three generations of women talk to each other, each in their own language.
The beauty of encounter
Sedira indicates how important it is not only to produce critical witness art, but also to pay attention to aesthetics, the simple beauty of her art. This, the artist says, distinguishes her work from documentary. For Sedira, beauty can be found in the poetry of spontaneous, direct images; hers is not a quest for perfection.
In more recent videos, Sedira’s visual language moves away from her personal surroundings. In 2004 – the year of her first great solo exhibition – Sedira returns to Algeria for the first time in 15 years. She considers this travel to be a turning point in her life and career. Because of the intimate connection of Sedira’s life and work, this experience became immediately translated in her images.
Still, Sedira inquires into the way in which identity is formed and determined by what precedes us in political structures and historical events, yet in her visual language she no longer focuses on the women in her family. Her gaze has shifted: landscapes appear in her videos. The Mediterranean Sea becomes central to her work.
I would love her for who she was, whatever it was. I guess I got used to it
The image shifts, the question remains: how do deplacement, migration and distance determine our lives? What can and should we remember? How are we shaped by the gazes of others?
In Gardiennes d’Images (2010), three recent videos about engaging with memory and inheritance, the specific character of Sedira’s art emerges yet again – that combination of female activism and beauty. As the artist says: “As a mother and an artist, I have been concerned with the passage of knowledge from one generation to the other. In Algeria, as in other countries in Africa and the Middle East, it is the role of women to carry on the tradition of telling stories, which is important for maintaining cultural identity.”
This post is also available in: Dutch