On women artists, postcolonial art and the legacy of empires
2020/2021 promises to be a great couple of years for women artists. Where I live in Bristol, major art centres have already welcomed the work of the likes of Judy Chicago, Pacita Abad, Angelica Mesiti, Amak Mahmoodian, and a few years ago Lubaina Himid. Last month, both the UK and France have announced that they’ll be represented by women at the Venice Bienniale in 2021: Sonia Boyce and Zineb Sedira. These two artists have also addressed deep issues that still run deep in European societies, and represent a part of their country’s colonial legacy. A sign of change? Yes, and no.
“La femme est l’avenir de l’homme”… The woman is the future of the man, wrote French Surrealist poet Louis Aragon (1897 – 1982) in the 1930s.
When I studied that line at La Sorbonne in my early twenties, I already pondered: this sounds lovely but what about a woman being her own future? And everyone being responsible for who they are, open to respecting each other, and in best-case scenario empowering each other?
The Surrealist idea that Aragon penned decades ago sounds romantic on a postcard but it was at best an attempt to reverse the then-omnipotent misogyny of the art world, and the lack of tools to bring change.
Now that I live in England, this idea now resonates as a symbol, as many other promises made by the French education system that were never enacted in French society, regarding women’s rights but mostly inequality, multiculturalism and postcoloniality. And I believe the art world is best space to correct these shortcomings.
Since the 1930s, vast progress has been made for women’s rights. And I grew up thinking the old patriarchal order would never affect my life as a woman, or the lives of any other women artists, thinkers, writers, doctors, professionals of my generation in general.
In France, women were granted the right to vote in 1944, later than in most countries in Western Europe apart from Italy. Only in the 1970s did French women get full rights to abortion, divorce, to have their own bank account, to work without their father’s or husband’s permission. In some countries, the right to contraception and abortion, defined by mostly male doctors and experts, remained inaccessible until very recently, like in Northern Ireland.
However, the art world has seen many women artists emerge and flourish. It actually often came ahead in the matter of women’s strength, voices and creativity. But it wasn’t always easy for them to get seen and heard.
Even though for centuries they remain rare, when they were active, women were superbly. Probably because they had to try harder. They were brilliantly representing their uniqueness, like the recent Dora Maar exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris then Tate Modern in London revealed in depth. She was not the only one: Lee Miller, Sonia Delauney, Georgia O’Keeffe, Tamara de Lempicka, Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, Leonora Carrington were pioneers in the first part of the 20th century; later Yayoi Kusuma, Niki de Saint Phalle, Judy Chicago, Yoko Ono, Marina Abramović, Laure Prouvost and Tracey Emin, among many others, made their mark on the turn of the century.
The only women who struggled were women of colours. Having to fight a double glass ceiling: patriarchy and imperialism.
Now, in these early months of 2020, a new level has been reached: For the first time, France and the UK both chose women of colour to represent them at the coming Venice Bienniale in 2021, a highlight of the contemporary art world: Afro-Caribbean London-born Sonia Boyce will represent the UK, and Algerian-French London-based installation artist Zineb Sedira will be the face of France’s art.
Why the Venice Bienniale 2021 matters
“Artist Sonia Boyce is to become the first black woman to represent Great Britain at the prestigious Venice Biennale next year,” wrote the BBC. Artists Anish Kapoor, Henry Moore, Richard Hamilton, Steve McQueen and Tracey Emin are among the ones who have previously been chosen to exhibit in the British Pavilion at Venice. Sonia Boyce will be the first British Afro-Caribbean woman artist to do so.
Accepting the British Council commission, Sonia Boyce said: “You could have knocked me down with a feather when I got the call to tell me I had been chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale 2021 – it was like a bolt out of the blue. Obviously, I’m extremely honoured, excited – and nervous. I’m eager to start this creative journey, exploring the experience with others who agree to work with me along the way.”
This is an unprecedented achievement and sign of recognition, and yet major differences can be found in the way British and French audiences have received the news.
While Boyce’s nomination was acclaimed in the UK, in France vocal right-wing commentators attacked Sedira. The artist had to fiercely defend her nomination: “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.”
The French feminist political scientist and historian Françoise Vergès commented on her Facebook page: “The great black artist Sonya Boyce will represent the UK at the Venice Biennale. Note that it happens in Boris Johnson’s Britain! And it doesn’t cause the controversy that Zineb Sedira’s appointment caused when announced in France. Accused of supporting the BDS by Bernard-Henri Levy and his friends, she had to explain her activism and justify herself. Johnson’s UK vs. Macron’s France: when a black artist represents Britain, she is congratulated; a Franco-Algerian artist represents France, she is attacked.”
“BDS” stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, name of the cultural movement boycotting Israel since 2005, to support the demands of the Palestinian people for the recognition of their state, after many failures from the UN. Bernard-Henri Levy is a right-wing, millionaire writer and media personality. Zineb Sedira has denied having ever been involved with any form of boycott in any capacity, and the controversy soon eluded. Even if she had, her political views shouldn’t allow the belittlement of her art.
It’s important to add that Bernard-Henri Lévy was himself born in 1948 in colonial “French Algeria”, in a very wealthy “pied-noir” milieu, as the French colonisers were called in the country. His family only moved to France after Algeria’s independence. Other right-wing writers have denied Sedira the right to represent France in Venice. Some commentators have also expressed the idea that the French president Emmanuel Macron’s current project to reconcile France with Algeria is using the artist’s nomination but is only hypocritical, political stance. For people like Lévy, Sedira represents most probably everything they resent: a child of the Algerian immigration to France, succeeding in the world of the arts.
Despite the controversy, Zineb Sedira remains one of the rare artists representative of the Algerian French population in the art world, along with her gallery owner Kamel Mennour and the artist Kader Attia. And yet, Zineb spent most of her carrier in England. From 1992, she studied Critical Fine Art Practice at Central Saint Martins, and from 1998 she joined the Royal College of Art in the Photography department. Her work has been shown worldwide but she is still based in the UK’s capital.
Meanwhile, Boyce, who studied at Stourbridge College, was made an MBE in 2007 in her own country and was elected to the Royal Academy in 2016. She is also currently creating a large artwork of public art for London’s new Elizabeth Line railway.
My own experience, as a Paris-born French-Algerian journalist who spent half of my career in the UK, can confirm that it is one the best ways to express a dual culture from both side of the Mediterranean Sea, and to address a few historical issues for French citizens of Algerian descent. The French Algerian artist Kader Attia is himself based in Berlin. The French Senegalese author Marie Ndiaye is too. Both of them have spoken about the lack of support for their ideas on postcolonial and anti-racist history. Kader Attia still managed to open a space in Paris in order to address these issues publicly: La Colonie, in the 10th arrondissement, near Gare du Nord... with no support from any French institution.
When it comes to the representation of women, of activists and people from France’s former empire, the French art world is undergoing a serious crisis, as shown in its cinema and publishing output. Terribly revealing affairs have indeed exposed it this year, from the accusation by actor Adèle Haenel against Christophe Ruggia to the recent César ceremony where she left the room after her peers congratulated Roman Polanski, himself accused of rape multiple times. Malian-French actress Aïssa Maïga also vocally complained about the lack of diversity in French films at the very same ceremony.
I was also brought up in this environment: in a suburban city between Paris and Nanterre (birthplace of the 1968 revolution), with a mayor belonging to the Communist Party, a high level of public services, and a library named after poet Jacques Prévert. From an early age, we celebrated the anniversary of the 1789 Revolution in school, and we read a lot of political writers and philosophers. We had an access to humanities that most British children never had in such a young age, and certainly not in free state schools. Yet, we never heard a lesson about colonial history. At 13, French pupils are told about decolonisation but never about the violence and unfairness of the French Empire. They are told about the horror of Nazism, and how terrible it was for France to be occupied for a few years, but never how terrible it must have been for a quarter of Africa to be occupied by the French for more than a century.
Worse, the children of the former empire were close to invisible in any representation of our contemporary culture. There are no heroic African-French actors and no mention of Arab or Muslim or Berber artists in the elite, in schools and even less in the art world. They came to me only through popular music: French hip-hop, North African raï and African music. I learned really late that one of my favourite French actresses, Isabelle Adjani, was half Algerian, because in French we don’t speak about ethnicity. “We are all equal”, by nature, not matter the social reality.
Thanks to the brilliance of the French educational system, Parisian museums, and cultured friends, I always had access to art, even if my parents belonged to the immigrant working class in practice. I was lucky, but I never saw any sons or daughters of immigrants exhibited. At 19, I passed the test to enter the prestigious Ecole du Louvre, dominated by male, French artists and lecturers. Spending times in art galleries and art fairs a decade later as a young journalist, my education into African and Middle-Eastern artists only came through American and British institutions, writers and fairs.
No work of an African artist ever came to me on the walls of the FIAC art fair in Paris. Between 2005 and 2009, I was often banned from reporting in my old suburbs, to film a television package in a Native American community near Montreal when I won a grant to travel to Quebec, to write about police brutality against the second generation of immigrants.
I saw these artists in London, at the Tate, Saatchi Gallery, Frieze Art Fair and later the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair. I was lucky enough to be able to travel to New York City and visit the MoMA, to live as a foreign correspondent in Miami, and to attend multicultural art events and travel to Haiti. I moved to London to join the BBC World Service then Nairobi, and then only did I report on art and music from Africa.
In the UK, the Windrush generation has suffered tremendously in the past few years, while deportations of Jamaican people are still taking place after the tragedy of Grenfell. Yet, in the past three decades, many black artists have managed to create a space for themselves in British culture, from Steve McQueen to Chris Ofili, Lubaina Himid, John Akomfrah, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Sonia Boyce herself. Artists of Algerian and other African backgrounds do exist in France, but they are not given the same space to grow and certainly not the same level of recognition.
In France, women, children of the former empire, and especially women of colours can testify that such progress might require at least another decade. The history of Algeria and the Algerian war - and colonial history in general - are hardly ever addressed in France’s visual arts, literature or cinema. And when they are, it’s mostly by people defending France’s point of view only, like the aforementioned Bernard Henry Lévy or novelists like Leila Slimani.
Things are changing a little, as people learn to be vocal about colonial issues and traumas. It’s never easy, however, as most French academics decry post-colonial studies as propaganda tools from American decolonialist activists. But voices have emerged after the ones of Françoise Vergès, Pascal Blanchard, Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, Etienne Balibar, Pap Ndiaye, and Kader Attia.
In this time of ecological consciousness, the role of the Global South is key to redress our mistakes. I believe that children of colonialism in the West have a major role to play. Hopefully the work of Zineb Sedira will shine a new light, able to reach even the most resisting French deniers of both women’s rights and postcolonial issues, just like Sonia Boyce’s art has in the English-speaking world.
Melissa Chemam is a journalist, researcher, lecturer at UWE Bristol, writing on African-European relations, migrations and multiculturalism. She is also the author of the book Massive Attack – Out of the Comfort Zone.