At the end of last month, France announced that Zenib Sedira would represent the country in the 2021 Venice Biennale. While receiving the prestigious commission is usually a cause for celebration, not long after the nomination the French-Algerian artist was targeted by activists who declared that she was not a suitable choice for the pavilion because of her alleged connection to the Palestinian-led BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement.
While the pushback was sparked by a tweet accusing Sedira of supporting BDS posted by French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy last month, it has since gained momentum. ISART, a group that promotes cultural exchange between France and Israel, and other activists have since been urging French Culture Minister Franck Riester to rescind its offer to Sedira to represent the country.
At the center of the conflict is the reason behind Sedira’s decision to withdraw her work from the 2017 Mediterranean Biennial in Sakhin, Israel. Critics of the artist are claiming the move was in solidarity with BDS, and allege that this is evidenced in a Facebook post, which the artist co-signed. While the post has since been deleted, it supposedly called Sakhnin “Occupied Palestine.”
Sedira says that she pulled her work, along with artists Yto Barrada and Bouchra Khalili, because the biennial organizers did not have the artists’ approval to include their pieces in the exhibition. She is also arguing that their statement is being misread and that its message is being conflated with a Facebook post associated with BDS that mentioned her name. Lévy later tweeted that this post was published without her knowledge and said that Sedira denounces “BDS and all forms of discrimination and hate.”
In a statement published by the Art Newspaper, the artist fiercely defended her nomination: “I felt honored at receiving the news to represent France at the Venice biennale 2021. I recognized 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.”
She continued by saying that the situation was made worse by an article published by AFP (Agence France Presse), an international news agency headquartered in Paris, which only used a part of her statement condemning the allegations being made against her. She says that AFP edited out her declaration of support for the Palestinian people and her opposition to any form of injustice and neo-colonialism, further misrepresenting her beliefs.
“As an Algerian-French woman, I have been given an opportunity, a voice to continue being critical of all forms of hatred and racism,” reads Sedira’s statement. “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 decolonized art world and art histories.”