BEIRUT: “If you speak out, they will kill you. If you keep silent, they will kill you. So speak out, and be killed.”
This bleak rallying cry was penned by Algerian journalist Tahar Djaout (1954-93), the former editor of the independent cultural magazine “Rupture.” Djaout proved to be prescient. He’s said to be the first journalist to be assassinated by the GIA (Armed Islamic Group).
A sound bite from Algeria’s recent history, Djaout’s reminder that it’s the job of the press to speak truth to power remains, if anything, more pertinent 25 years after his murder.
Djaout’s voice is included in “Of Words and Stones,” the solo exhibition of French-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira, now up at Beirut Art Center.
Her first Lebanon solo draws on a diverse body of work. Djaout is remembered in “The forgotten [condemned] journalists of Algeria’s black decade,” 2018, an exhibit documenting that country’s 1991-2002 civil war.
Sedira’s civil war archive provides a sort of counterpoint to her own work on show at BAC - early films from the late ’90s, photography and video works as well as objects. In fact the artist’s practice oscillates between research-based work that conveys information directly and more aesthetic pieces, much of which draws on her sharp eye as a photographer.
The documentary imperative is most evident in her videos, not least her 2010 piece “Gardienne d’Images” (Image keeper). Presented in two parts a 20-minute two-channel projection and a 30-minute single projection - the work is an interview with Safia Kouaci. The widow of Mohammed Kouaci, a photographer who devoted his career to the Algerian revolution and early independence periods, she is the guardian of a photographic depiction of this period that is incontestably Algerian.
The tug of intimate history is also clear in Sedira’s 2003 work “Mother, Father, I,” three 20-minute-long interview-based videos documenting her parents’ experience of the French military’s bloody occupation of Algeria and their decision to migrate to France.
Further from classical documentary but equally fixated on history and place is the four-minute 2017 video “Inconsistent Mapping.” The premise of the work is the plot of land in Algeria owned by Sedira’s father, as represented in two maps - one devised by the colonial administration in 1920, the other downloaded from Google Earth. The camera looks on as the artist uses Photoshop to try and reconcile the two divergent depictions of the man’s landholdings.
Born in Paris in 1963 and maintaining residences in Algiers, Paris and London, Sedira is preoccupied by place, an interest reflected in curator Marie Muracciole’s design of this show.
“Historically, words and stones have been used for construction materials as well as improvised weapons,” Muracciole writes in her remarks on the show. “Stones have also been used as physical markers, whether traces of natural landscape formation, tools to demarcate borders or, as milestones, to signal the distance between places. [“Of Words and Stones”] refers to the way some singular voices can trace paths through the blind alleys of history, at once building narrative and unraveling trauma and oblivion.”
The exhibition title also names the 2018 work that is the show’s sole sculpture - a collection of stones arranged in a straight line that bisects one of BAC’s downstairs galleries like a property boundary. In a nod to an earlier video work, the artist has bound the rocks with a red ribbon.
The balance of the work on show attests to Sedira’s keen interest in her family’s country of origin but she’s trained her eye on locations outside of Algeria as well as within.
Her 2013 series of large-scale prints “Sugar Surfaces I,” for instance, yields more satisfaction the closer you get to the research at the core of the work.
At first glance, individual prints in the series resemble aerial photos of desolate landscapes or reproductions of topographical features. Others suggest abstract art from the 1980s.
In fact Sedira’s photos all stem from a project devoted to the industrial transport of sugar from the tropical agricultural regions that grow plants that yield the stuff to the port of Marseille.
The locations of these photos, then, are the interiors of shipping containers and ship holds. The “topographies” and “abstractions” her photos suggest are the residues of roughly disgorged cargo.
The subject matter immediately evokes the work of Allan Sekula these images remind you how far removed raw sugar is from the stuff you stir into your espresso. The eye that’s captured these surfaces, though, is that of Zineb Sedira.
“Of Words and Stones” is up at Beirut Art Center through Dec. 23. For more, see http://www.beirutartcenter.org.