The conversation felt so familiar, I knew I had heard it before.
Tangled in A Fiction of Authenticity in the honeycombed Blaffer Gallery, a video installation sits at the top of the stairs. It has been set apart from its comrades here in Houston at the behest of the Contemporary Arts Museum of St. Louis. Most of the warmed over modernism in the show toys with European identity, which is where the real fiction lies with this curatorial gathering. Taking Western art history on so strongly has led most of these artists to make traditional works with traditional materials or to wrap technology so tightly into the process that it's about as enlightening as a dead yak wrapped around a warm body. Only one work is immune to this tendency, embracing the show's subtitle: Contemporary Africa Abroad. Where other works would require the artist's presence to verify their connection with the only continent referred to as a nation, Zineb Sedira's contribution is inexorably of Africa and the only representation by a non sub-Saharan artist, a glaring deficiency all too common in exhibitions focusing on Africa.
The forewarnings that come with that sense of déjà vu — inexorably of the moment — are troubling. In Sedira's installation, universality emerges from the specific tales of an older couple; the man speaks in French, and the woman, in Arabic. Their narrative does not fully embody the history of the conflict they endured in the mid 20 th century, nor does it broach the abstracted issue of world migrations and diasporas. Instead, this subjective interlude provides a portrait of the world's parents. Mother, Father, and I, the creation of this Algerian-French artist, is an examination of our immigrant nature, living in a crystalline globe of fixed boundaries and geographic nations. The work is also a personal and endearing portrait of the relationship between the artist and her parents.
Twin films are projected onto one wall, displaying three-quarter length shots of Sedira's parents, father to the left and mother on the right. Both of them relate stories of their times, caught in events of history that would sweep them from the countryside of Algeria through the capital of Algiers and across the Mediterranean to Paris. They speak over each other, though each other's stories, in a babble of emotion. Across from the pair, another projection places the artist inside the work. A head shot of Sedira shows her sitting in silence, listening to her parents. She stares ahead intently, occasionally shifting back and forth, riveted to the stories of a time when she was very young.
In both projections, a table extends off of the bottom corner of the frame, bringing the viewer into intimate contact with the slightly larger-than-life figures. Their tone is authoritative; they are speaking with their daughter. The audience assumes the viewpoint of the camera, with the artist peering over its shoulder. Unless you know Arabic and French, to follow the narrative, you must read the subtitles from one side of the room, or you may watch the artist's face from the other side and allow the sound of two people talking at once in different languages to become detached from their readable narrative aimed at the listening figure.
Their memories are brutal. Occupying soldiers are remembered as sadistic aggressors, but not entirely: a sympathetic soldier allows the family to get on a ship to France after recognizing the area of Paris where Zineb's father worked as an illegal laborer. Harkis, Algerians loyal to France, rape women arbitrarily. Some French workers save Zineb's father from a police beating. A racist housewife kicks Arab children off of the apartment building's elevator. The mujahadeen are saviors and also arm-breaking thugs.
Filtered through the hesitations, inconsistencies and falsehoods of memory, the landscape disappears. One moment Zineb's parents could be talking about Mexico; the next, Palestine. The flatness is heightened by the vocal mix of a Romance language with Arabic, translated into English text below the figures. Violence, corruption, death and miracles coexist in stories immigrants have always told. Home country conflicts are fueled by money from émigrés; political power shifts left and right radically. Here the drama writ large on the world stage plays itself out in all too familiar ways. The collections taken from Algerian laborers in France bring up memories of my own grandparents" role in the Irish Lottery, a funnel for IRA funds from America, and the $45 billion sent to Latin America by immigrants in the United States last year. Sedira's mother's cries that she will never be able to raise her children in their own country or with their own religion echo the sentiments of thousands of families in Houston who have come from towns in Mexico's heartland and further abroad.
During the Algerian struggles, twice as many foreign troops as we have today in Iraq operated in half the area the Coalition of the Willing controls in the Middle East today. In addition, 170,000 Algerian troops trained by the French Army served under the control of the colonial Fourth and Fifth French Republics, many more than the 75,000 Iraqi Army soldiers (4,000 of them functioning) counted as allies by U.S. forces today.
Counterinsurgency tactics still used today were solidified by French troops in Algeria. Torture methods were brutal. Reprisal killings raged between French and Algerian extremist groups in the capital of Algiers. Over 42,000 terrorist incidents were recorded. Algerian harkis fled the country, and 150,000 were killed by the new government at the end of hostilities.
Looking to the future at the close of the 20-minute film, Sedira's father warns of impending culture war in France: " …they'll say, ‘you're Arabs. Get out." He lives in Paris, speaks French and has worked in France for over 40 years, yet the tension of charged political boundaries and ethnic migrations hold too much history for him to believe the worst is over. As we contemplate our own struggles as an occupying power in an Islamic nation and the swelling immigrant populations of our own country, Mother, Father, and I is a powerful reminder of scale in these situations. All politics are local, and all art is personal.
Images courtesy Blaffer Gallery and The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.
Sean Carroll is an artist and writer living in Houston.