Zineb Sedira, Don’t do to her what you did to me, 1998–2001, video, color, sound, 8 minutes.

Zineb Sedira, Don’t do to her what you did to me, 1998–2001, video, color, sound, 8 minutes.

Zineb Sedira

Zineb Sedira’s film mise-en-scène, 2019, opens with a text reading, “In June 2018, after a visit to the Cinémathèque of Algiers archive, I decided to browse in bric-à-brac shops. . . . I discovered two canisters containing fragments of worn 60s, 70’s and 80’s films. The vendor told me the canisters came from a retired projectionist . . . so I pieced the footage together to create my own film.” The result is roughly nine minutes of enigmatic footage, spliced together and colorfully tinted, that ranges from scenes of daily life in Algeria to abstract rhythmic patterns produced by the decay of the stock.

The film’s preface could be read as a tidy methodological summation of Sedira’s complex and wide-ranging practice, which fuses lyrical and poetic documentary with the interrogation of official historical narratives and archives. mise-en-scène also functioned as part of a major new multimedia installation created specifically for “L’espace d’un instant” (A Brief Moment), Sedira’s first large-scale exhibition in Paris. Standing Here Wondering Which Way to Go, 2019, was an installation in four “scenes,” each a discrete installation within the installation, each summoning—through careful arrangement of images and objects collected and found, collaged and reproduced—a different aspect of postliberation Algerian history, with a focus on the utopian moment of the first Pan-African Festival in Algiers in 1969. The most striking part was Scene 3: Way of Life, 2019, a life-size diorama of the artist’s London living room, in which books, records, DVDs, film posters, art, and ephemera intermingled in a synecdochic web. Walls, shelves, and tabletops were ebullient with cultural references that immersed the viewer in an evocative history at once individual and collective.

In the next room, two installations similarly reconstructed the archive as porous, permeable, personal, and political—three-dimensional, something to be entered and reckoned with. Laughter in Hell, 2014–18, displayed Sedira’s personal collection of political cartoons and caricatures published in the Algerian press during the civil war of 1991–2002, a time known as the Black Decade. Darkly funny and anarchic, arranged in vitrines or blown up in vivid decals on the neon-orange walls, they evidenced the power of humor to mount resistance where other means were quashed. Among those often violently suppressed means was conventional journalism, the subject of The Forgotten [Condemned] Journalists of Algeria’s Black Decade, 2018, which lists the many journalists assassinated, disappeared, or intimidated between 1993 and 1997. The first name to be memorialized is that of the poet and novelist Tahar Djaout, who was assassinated in 1993. He wrote, “Silence is death / And you, if you speak, you die / If you remain silent, you die / So, speak (out) and die”—and he did.

Djaout also wrote, “I like it so well / on this mistreated earth / —earth stolen from the light, earth enclosed in its silence.” Sedira’s oeuvre, like Djaout’s, marries the geopolitical with the poetic to propose an experience of culture as transhistorical and of heritage as an activity enacted and reenacted in the present, of which the artist is a steward and a conduit; to think about the past, in this view, is to think about the future. A trio of elegiac video installations—The End of the Road, 2010; Lighthouse in the Sea of Time, 2011; and Transmettre en abyme, 2012—focused on themes of global mobility, consumption, and migration. But I remain most haunted by the simple plea of Don’t do to her what you did to me, 1998–2001, one of Sedira’s first videos. In this eight-minute work, photographs of a woman are torn up and stirred into a glass of water until they dissolve: The work reinterprets an Algerian talismanic ritual, substituting images of the woman for phrases from the Qur’an. I do not know what was done to her, nor what she wishes to never happen again, but it seems, in its ominous mystery, terrible, urgent, poignant.