In April earlier this year, I wrote about how it was 'Woman's Hour at Venice Biennale', noting that despite the show being 'dominated by 80% women', it was not a 'feminist spectacle, just a new reality.' One of the female artists that stood front and centre at the fete was French-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira who represented France at the French pavilion. Sedira also slotted in rather nicely to this year's Frieze fair, with Goodman Gallery representing her latest work, Dreams have no titles.
Of course, only time will tell when it comes to such statements like women being spotlighted falling into a 'new reality'; indeed, time can also jade these promises of hope when things fall flat. However, the trend clearly continued into Frieze this year, proving (fingers crossed) that real change is finally happening. Frieze Masters' Spotlight section took this representation to new heights, choosing to dedicate this year's curation to 29 female artists born between 1900 and 1951. Curator Camille Morineau told the Financial Times 'You can connect the dots and see that in every avant-garde, in every movement, there have been women artists - most of them unknown and under-recognised - but you find that trace and you can rewrite history', which is exactly what she did. Earlier this year, London's Tate Modern also took aim at reframing the ever-misogynistic Surrealist movement, looking at it 'beyond borders' and, seemingly, sexes, too. Then there was Frieze New York which, as was reported in Frieze magazine, 'brings together today's most influential and innovative women artists.' No questions there then.
So, where exactly does Zineb Sedira sit in all of this? Countlessly referred to as a feminist artist by whoever writes about her work, Sedira’s practice is unapologetically political. With her work undoubtedly enriching debate surrounding concepts of modernism and modernity, Sedira process also dedicates itself to raising awareness of artistic expression and the contemporary experience in North Africa. However, the 'feminist' label strongly associated with her work seems somewhat lazy, or at least she thinks so.
'Because I am a woman who makes art, they call me a feminist artist. I am an artist, but I am not a feminist', Sedira tells me over the phone as I nod, cautiously. However, her point isn't necessarily heading where I think it is; Sedira is an artist who has dedicated her life to the lived experiences of women and immigrants, after all, and so before I can interject, she breaks her silence. 'I wouldn't go as far as to call myself that because, for me, if you are a feminist, you need to be an activist, and this is not where I stand; I am not actively protesting', siding with the belief that you need to instead earn the privilege of calling yourself a feminist by being an active participant, which Sedira doesn't think she is. 'Nevertheless, I am still interested in women's issues', she assures. 'I have done work looking at the representation of the female's body, especially in orientalism, but yeah, that was a long time ago. I don't know what else to say.'
Sedira’s work at Frieze London 2022 happened to be almost identical to her work shown at the Venice Biennale's French pavilion, only produced on a slightly smaller scale. 'In art, it's called a Maquette', Sedira kindly informed me, which is the one I saw: a tiny model-sized production of her actual living room at home in Brixton. 'It's a total reproduction of my living room, including the size of it and the furniture. All the objects and furniture in my actual living room were recreated for this, the live-sized version and the maquette at Frieze'. Existing as part of a larger body of work, the model sets are also featured in Sedira’s seminal 2021 film, which borrows from the same name Dreams have no titles (Les rêves n'ont pas de titre). 'For me, it's a strong autobiographical act because it's basically the furniture me and my children and my friends sat on; it's where we've talked, danced, partied, cried even. The furniture embodies the traces of all these lived experiences I've had in that flat, and so, for me, it was an essential act to put in the context of a larger political project.'
Sedira has made many political works in her lifetime as a working artist, so I can't say for sure I knew which piece she is referring to. She continues by clarifying that she was looking at the first Pan-African cultural festival that happened in Algeria in 1969. 'As the title implies, that '69 festival was filled with culture, music and cinema and the whole continent of Africa was invited to Algeria to celebrate post-independence. For me, the living room became a mini festival in its own way during this time; a space that hosts, a space for discussion, a space of joy, of dancing, of playfulness. You may ask, 'why the living room and not the bedroom or kitchen' and for me, it was simple. My living room is a place where I invite a lot of people and discuss politics and other issues, where we dance and have parties, and we dine, and we drink; the space became a micro-festival in itself, there's a sharing of knowledge and joy that happens within that space.'
Often challenging the role Algeria has played in modern French cinema throughout her work, it's no doubt Sedira never fails to cast her scolding eye over history - particularly pertaining to a colonial and post-colonialist one. She told The Art Newspaper earlier this year that 'I am much closer to the [British] Black art movement than the Young British Artists, for instance. All my work is about looking at any form of racism', presumably because Sedira herself is only too well accustomed to the racist behaviours ingrained into Western identity and politics. 'I talk about the issue of immigration because I am a daughter of immigrants', she told me. 'I grew up in the suburbs of Paris, which is where you lived if you were an immigrant, and it was unbelievably racist then. It makes sense for all my political issues to be centred around discriminations'.
'Feminist' or not, I can't help but feel there's more of a reason behind the media labelling Sedira as a 'feminist artist' than she may think. Yes, she's a woman, but she is also - despite what she thinks of herself - an activist, the purest kind. At the end of the interview, I remind her that art, when done well, can be the most coherent form of activism. 'I guess it is, but I would feel bad... like a bit of a fraud. If someone wants to call me an activist or see my work in that light, then sure, but I would never use that word myself. I would say I am a political artist. My work is political and personal, that I can say quite openly.' Sounds like activism to me.
Frieze and Frieze Masters is open until 16 October.