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Embroiled in Palestine row, artist Zineb Sedira says she will not stand down as France’s representative at 2021 Venice Biennale

Pro-Israel arts group protested to French culture ministry about her appointment

Zineb Sedira Photo: Musthafa Aboobacker. Courtesy of Third Line gallery

The French-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira says she will not stand down as the representative of France at the 2021 Venice Biennale after being caught up in an ongoing row over her support for Palestine. The latest development comes after Isart, a group that promotes cultural exchange between France and Israel, called on the French culture minister, Franck Riester, to “renounce” Sedira’s appointment.

“I have decided to not renounce representing France at the next Venice Biennale, despite this attempt to silence me and infringe on my freedom of expression,” Sedira says in a statement (published in full below).

The dispute erupted late last month when the French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy tweeted: “How, after the moving trip to Israel by President Emmanuel Macron [late January], can France choose an artist for the next Venice Biennale [who]… calls for a boycott of Israel?” He also accused Sedira of being an activist for BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), a Palestinian movement that “works to end international support for Israel's oppression of Palestinians” according to its website.

Lévy posted a letter from Jacqueline Frydman, the director of Isart, dated 25 January, which was addressed to Riester. Frydman writes that she represents “the Paris art world which is shocked by your choice of Zineb Sedira as the French representative [for the 2021 biennale].”

I was not prepared for was the level of discrimination and intimidation, in response to my nomination. Zineb Sedira

In the letter, Frydman refers to Sedira’s decision to pull her works from the Mediterranean biennial held in Sakhnin, an Arab city in Israel’s northern district, in 2017. She writes: “This artist [Sedira] co-signed a request to withdraw her work from the 2017 Mediterranean Biennial in Sakhnin... because one of her works was exhibited in Israel which [Sedira] called Occupied Palestine in her message.” Crucially, she also says that selecting Sedira is an endorsement of the BDS group.

The “message” cited by Frydman refers to a Facebook post dating from 24 June 2017 which reads: “A message from Yto Barrada, Bouchra Khalili & Zineb Sedira. Artists demand removal of their work from the Biennale of the Mediterranean in Sakhnin (Occupied Palestine).” Barrada, Khalili and Sedira say in the post that the French contemporary art organisation Frac Paca loaned their works to the 2017 Mediterranean Biennale without seeking their approval.

A Facebook message (since deleted) associated with the BDS was posted at the same time which listed the three artists’ names. “We stand in full solidarity with our Palestinian colleagues. #BDS,” the post said.

Lévy later tweeted that the Facebook page linking Sedira to the BDS was published without her consent, and that Sedira condemns “the BDS and all forms of discrimination and hate”.

The BDS and the French culture ministry did not respond immediately when asked to comment. Meanwhile, the curator of the Mediterranean Biennale, the Israeli artist Belu-Simon Fainaru, told our sister newspaper, The Art Newspaper France, that he has invited Sedira to take part in the next Mediterranean Biennale scheduled for November.

Complete statement from Zineb Sedira

I am a woman artist working between London, Paris and Algiers. I see my practice as autobiographical, poetic and universal; a place for preservation and transmission of personal and collective memories and histories, focussing on French, Algerian and British narratives and experiences, a bridge that reconciles memories, beyond cultural stereotypes.

I was born in the suburbs of Paris from Algerian immigrant parents. I know what it means to be ignored, silenced or made invisible. I grew up in the shadow of the Algerian memory, its struggle for independence.

I felt honoured at receiving the news to represent France at the Venice biennale 2021. I recognised it as a major shift for French contemporary art and our shared history: an Arab-Berber-Algerian-French woman based in London representing France! I am also the fourth woman selected for the French pavilion since its creation in 1912.

What I was not prepared for was the level of discrimination and intimidation, in response to my nomination. I have been the target of defamatory accusations which aim not only at opposing my nomination, but also to cut me from my affiliations—artistic and intellectual friendships and solidarities.

I was legally advised to make a statement for AFP (Agence France Presse) to respond to the false allegation. AFP did not publish the full statement. That edited version created further misleading information by reducing my beliefs to a sheer condemnation of BDS.

Some passages were completely removed from my statement, for example: “I state my full support to the aspirations of the Palestinian people for self-determination and the protection of their existence and their rights”, as well as stating my firm opposition to any form of injustice and neo-colonialism.

By sharing a partial statement in the press, my views, ethical position and beliefs have been misrepresented. As an Algerian-French woman, I have been given an opportunity, a voice to continue being critical of all forms of hatred and racism. I have decided to not renounce representing France at the next Venice Biennale, despite this attempt to silence me and infringe on my freedom of expression. I am, hereby, reaffirming my beliefs for a more inclusive, interrelated and decolonised art world and art histories.