Earlier this week came the announcement that Zineb Sedira would become the first artist of Algerian descent to represent France at the Venice Biennale in 2021. Now the news has been mired in controversy, as the London-based artist faces allegations that she supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement calling on the Israeli government to grant equality to Palestinian citizens. Sedira, who was born in Paris to Algerian parents, has denied the allegations, saying that they largely rest on a misunderstanding of a stance she took several years ago.
On Saturday, shortly after the African affiliate of the French-language publication Le Monde announced Sedira’s representation of France at the Biennale, Jacqueline Frydman, the director of ISART, a group that supports artistic exchange between France and Israel, sent a letter decrying the news to the French culture minister. Her complaint focused on a choice by Sedira to pull her work out of the Mediterranean Biennale in the Arab city of Sakhnin in Israel in 2017. Sedira withdrew (along with fellow artists Yto Barrada, Bouchra Khalili, Walid Raad, and Akram Zaatari) with a claim that she hadn’t been notified that her work would be shown in Israel, where many Arab artists have decided not to exhibit their art. The curator of the show, the Israeli artist Belu-Simion Fainaru, told Haaretz at the time that BDS had influenced their decision to remove work from the show.
“This controversial and divisive decision doesn’t fit within the logic of quality and universality that one expects from the French Pavilion at the Venice Biennale,” Frydman wrote in her letter, which was posted to Twitter by the pro-Israel French philosopher Bernard Henri-Lévy. His tweet included a screenshot of a since-deleted Facebook post by BDS that said the movement stands “in solidarity” with Sedira, Barrada, Khalili, Raad, and Zaatari’s decision to pull out of the Mediterranean Biennale.
Frydman’s letter has kindled further controversy in France. The right-wing publication Causeur published an op-ed that labeled the selection of Sedira for the Venice Biennale “disastrous and highly political,” adding that “in a time of deadly anti-Semitism, the choice of Zineb Sedira is a moral error.”
On Wednesday, Sedira sent a statement to the Agence France-Presse in which she denied any relationship to BDS. She called the allegations against her “unfounded and slanderous accusations,” and she went on, “I have never joined this organization, I have never had acquaintance with this movement. I also firmly condemn any boycott and I cannot be associated with or support the BDS. I oppose BDS and any global boycott that would have the counterproductive effect of affecting and paralyzing women and men who want to live in peace.”
ARTnews has reached out to Kamel Mennour gallery, which represents Sedira in Paris and London, for comment.
Sedira is not the only artist to have been the subject of controversy because of alleged ties to BDS. In October, the city of Aachen in Germany was to give Walid Raad a prize for his photography, then rescinded the award upon learning that he had signed a letter put out by an art-related offshoot of the movement in 2014. (Raad has never publicly stated that he supports BDS.) After reports of the withdrawal generated ire in Germany, where support for BDS is illegal, the city decided to give him the award anyway.
“The withdrawal of my work was instrumentalized by BDS,” Sedira wrote in her statement. “All my work shows my will to be part of a peaceful relationship between men and women.”