VAN January/February 2013: Fighting Amnesia | Caroline Hancock Talks to Zineb Sedira


Zineb Sedira, Image Keepers, 2010, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Kamel Mennou.


Caroline Hancock: In 2010 you were the recipient of a prize given in France by SAM Art Projects (, which enabled the production of your work Image Keepers, now on show here in the RHA. Introduce us to this work…

Zineb Sedira: Mohamed Kouaci (1922 – 1996) was the main (if not the only) official photographer for the Temporary Government for the Republic of Algeria (GPRA) and subsequently for the free Algerian state, working for the Ministry of Information. From the late 1950s until the Algerian Independence from French rule in 1962, the GPRA was based in Tunis. To this day, his photographs and negatives are stored in his widow’s flat in Algiers. For posterity, this archive of historical documentary importance and of significant artistic interest urgently needs to be preserved and recorded using scientific preservation and indexing methods.

Kouaci’s work has yet not been the subject of a substantial publication or exhibition in Algeria. The copyright on his images is regularly violated or ignored. I decided to make a multi-screen video installation in order to raise consciousness about this body of work.

Image Keepers is a portrait of his widow Safia Kouaci and the archive, homage to this militant couple and their story, and finally a glimpse at Algerian history through the photographs.

CH: What struck you particularly about Mohamed Kouaci’s work?

ZS: Kouaci photographed all the significant events during the war and the first three decades of the young independent country. His angle is different to that of the French or other Western photographers and his work is still very much unknown despite Safia Kouaci’s efforts.

CH: The notion of ‘keeping’ seems very significant in your work – you have often insisted that you want your works to fight amnesia. Do you think that you have been successful in this?

ZS:My work often revolves around the crucial necessities of memory and transmission in society. The passage of knowledge, stories and history to future generations is in no way fixed. This fragility fascinates me: the truth for one person might be erroneous or mistaken to another. Ageing might tend to distort information. By making Image Keepers, I have partly collected and archived a slice of history. Its absolute exactitude is debatable, of course. I have recorded footage, a trace of Mohamed Kouaci, via Safia Kouaci. Nevertheless, so far the archive is no closer to being professionally preserved. The call is still open.

Zineb Sedira, Image Keepers, 2010, courtesy of the artist and Galerie Kamel Mennou

CH: You worked with the artist Amina Menia on Image Keepers, who interviews Safia Kouaci in the film and also presents works at the RHA. How did you start working together?

ZS:I met Amina Menia in Algiers in 2008 and we instantly became friends. I was drawn to her personality and to her artistic practice, which is also based on memory. Menia is one of the only Algerian artists who works site-specifically; her interests lie primarily in space, urbanism and architecture. Her initial background is not in fine arts but in design. She introduced me to Kouaci’s photographs and then to his widow. We talked about how to help towards the preservation of this family archive. To raise its visibility I proposed to make a video installation on the subject and asked Amina to collaborate on the shoot and with the research. Since she lives in Algiers and knows the family, she has a deep understanding and direct experience of past and present situations.

CH: You have already exhibited in Dublin in 2006 when Saphir (2006) was shown at Temple Bar Gallery and Studios. Can you remind us about this work?

ZS:This was a two-screen projection funded and commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella and the Photographer’s Gallery in London. The first character is an Algerian man who walks around the port of Algiers, with no apparent purpose, silently watching the ferries. The second is an older woman, daughter of the pieds noirs or ‘black feet’, a term for European settlers who left Algeria after its independence. She inhabits the Safir Hotel, one of the grand landmarks of French colonial Algiers, built in 1930. Gazing out to sea from its balconies, before withdrawing to the faded grandeur of its lobbies and halls, the woman not only echoes the man’s restless movement but also reinforces a wider sense of languor, inertia and enclosure. Although both characters circle within their own separate but parallel worlds, their paths often appear to intersect but without any denouement or conclusion. The Hotel Safir is linked to the history of the War of Independence, since many negotiations occurred there.

CH: The RHA exhibition occurs during the 100-year commemoration of the Dublin Lock Out, which kicks off a series of events relating to Irish independence. Algeria also marked 50 years of Independence in 2012. What are your views on commemorations and the other processes bound up the notions of ‘becoming independent’?

ZS: The Algerian War of Independence (1954 – 1962), and what followed, severely disrupted the society and economy established by the colonial system. In addition to the physical destruction, the sudden exodus of French settlers deprived the country of most of its managers, civil servants, engineers, teachers, physicians and skilled workers, leaving the new society in a shambles. With such a start, Algeria had little chance to progress healthily – the ‘Black Decade’ – the 1990s and early 2000s – is an example of the ‘bad seed’.

I, personally, have not witnessed any of the commemorations this year, either in London, where I live, in France or in Algeria. But there have been countless articles, events and exhibitions. While Algeria commemorated independence, France was ‘commemorating’ the loss of Algeria and the mass exodus back to France. There are still many unresolved issues and gaping wounds, due to lack of open public debate.

Zineb Sedira, Image Keepers installation shot.

CH: Could you summarise the current Algerian art scene?

ZS: It is still very slow to develop, but it has great potential. The Modern and Contemporary Art Museum (MAMA) in Algiers opened a few years ago in a fantastic restored Neo-Mauresque building in the city centre. Due to the lack of local exhibition opportunities and platforms for artists, the contemporary art world is not as developed as it should be. The profession of curator is very rare. Local artists need to leave to exhibit their work or travel to residencies for  visibility. The artists from the diaspora still get the most international exposure and the Maghreb (the countries in North Africa) in general has not received as much attention as the Middle East in recent years. It is also really important that artists and curators come to Algeria. Only through local and international exchanges will this scene flourish.

CH: Tell me about your self-initiated residency project, the Artists Residency in Algiers (aria)?

ZS: Having spent a lot of time listening and talking to my friends and colleagues in Algeria, I decided about a year ago to create aria, a private initiative that provides a platform for exchange. The core principle is to invite artists to come to Algeria; they discover the city and contribute to workshops, talks at the School of Fine Arts and so forth. Our most recent guest was Alfredo Jaar. aria is connected to other residencies outside Algiers in places such as London, Florence, Tétouan (Morocco) etc. We are about to curate an online exhibition featuring Algerian artists for ArteEast.

CH: I understand that you are making work for Marseille- Provence 2013, the European Capital of Culture. What other plans do you have for 2013?

ZS: I have concentrated on various activities in and around the port of Marseille (Grand Port Maritime) and am planning two new works. One of them focuses on Baudelaire’s photographic archive of the port. He was a ‘boat spotter’, obsessively collecting images of the arrivals and departures of all types of boats. He soon became a ‘collected collector’ and I have interviewed Hélène Detaille, the current keeper of his archive. I am also interested in this city as a bustling commercial hub and, in particular, in the St Louis sugar industry. The raw material originally arrived from India then from Mexico and Brazil. Today it comes from Brazil, Mauritius, Zambia, the West Indies, Burkina Faso, Cuba, Guyana, Swaziland and Réunion. This will be a geological, geographic, historic portrait of provenances.

Zineb Sedira lives and works between London, Paris, and Algiers.

Caroline Hancock is an independent curator and writer based in Paris.

The RHA exhibition has been made possible through the support of Petroceltic. Additional support has been received from Institut Francais as a contribution to Ireland’s Presidency of the EU Cultural Programme.

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