Zineb Sedira’s Ode to the Ocean

An exhibition at De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, unites the artist’s maritime works, exploring narratives of migration, power and trade  

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BY Rosanna McLaughlin in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 11 NOV 22

The first piece on show in ‘Can’t You See the Sea Changing?’ – a retrospective of Zineb Sedira’s ocean-oriented work – is Registre de phare (Lighthouse Register, 2011), a display of logbook entries for a lighthouse in Cap Caxine, Algeria. Initially, bar the charm of old-fashioned cursive, the pages of the logbook appear unremarkable: a record of visitors received and duties performed. However, on closer inspection, the entries produce a minor portrait of decolonization. Following the Algerian War (1954–62), which led to the nation’s eventual independence from France, the names of visitors change from French to Algerian. 

Registre de phare is exemplary of a philosophy that underpins Sedira’s practice: a belief that, by paying attention to the details, it is possible to unlock wider narratives of migration, trade and power, releasing geopolitical knowledge. On the ground floor, the video work Transmettre en abyme (Transmit into the Abyss, 2012) tells the story of Yves Colas, a man who assiduously photographed the Marseille docks between 1935 and 1985. On one screen, a pair of hands drops image after image of vessels into a pile; on another, an archivist extrapolates from Colas’s photographs a tale of the rapid evolution of global trade, from a time when goods were unloaded by hand to one dominated by cranes and shipping containers.

Zineb Sedira
Zineb Sedira, ‘Can’t You See the Sea Changing?’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea; photograph: Thierry Bal

‘Shattered Carcasses and Architecture of the Forsaken’ (2009), a series of lightboxes displaying photographs of a boat graveyard in Mauritania, is the most direct link Sedira makes between the ocean and the plight of migrants. Mauritania is the starting point for many hoping to undertake the perilous journey from Africa to Europe via the Canary Islands. The De La Warr Pavilion is situated in the sleepy seaside town of Bexhill-on-Sea, and the backlit images of rusting hulls are shown in a gallery looking out over the English Channel: a passage of water that is a favourite subject for nationalist posturing over border control, and a site of human tragedy. Just ten days before the exhibition opened, a boat of migrants landed in nearby St Leonards-on-Sea – a fraction of the more than 38,000 people who have attempted the crossing from France in 2022 alone.

Zineb Sedira
Zineb Sedira, ‘Can’t You See the Sea Changing?’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea; photograph: Thierry Bal

‘Can’t You See the Sea Changing?’ opens in the wake of Sedira’s success at this year’s Venice Biennale, where ‘Dreams Have No Titles’, her exhibition at the French Pavilion, which included re-enactments of scenes from revolutionary Algerian cinema, received a Special Mention from the Jury. While the majority of works on view at De La Warr Pavilion are more than a decade old, the most recent, The artist’s studio and the sea (2022), is a reconstruction of Sedira’s south London studio. A shelving unit serves as a whimsical self-portrait of the artist as an obsessive collector of oceanic memorabilia: model ships, old maps, books on paper boats, a tin of chocolate sardines. The effect is charming but twee, and the exhibition excels when Sedira focuses her attention on others.

Zineb Sedira
Zineb Sedira, ‘Can’t You See the Sea Changing?’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea; photograph: Thierry Bal

The standout work is the six-screen video installation Lighthouse in the Sea of Time (2011), on display in the upstairs gallery, which relays a history of the Algerian coast through the mundane details of the lives of lighthouse keepers. A man with a kind face and neatly parted hair explains what it was like to work through storms, the routines of the men employed there and how famous poets would occasionally stop by to take in the views. On the adjacent wall, hypnotic films show seawater hitting rocks that have eroded over millennia, their edges worn like old bones. Here, Sedira’s philosophy bears fruit: the history of the ocean – at once vast, obscure and deeply political – is opened up by the humble biographies of its gatekeepers.

Zineb Sedira’s ‘Can’t You See the Sea Changing?’ is at De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, until 8 January 2023 

Main image: Zineb Sedira, ‘Can’t You See the Sea Changing?’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sean; photograph: Thierry Bal

Rosanna McLaughlin is a writer and editor. Her novel Sinkhole: Three Crimes is out with Montez Press.

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