Installation view of ZINEB SEDIRA’s exhibtion “Sands of Time" at The Third Line, Dubai, 2015. Courtesy The Third Line. 

ZINEB SEDIRASeafaring, 2013, 15 glass bottles with cane sugar on a wooden shelf, 50 × 12.5 × 12.5 cm. Courtesy The Third Line, Dubai. 

Sands of Time

Zineb Sedira

The Third Line
United Arab Emirates

“Sands of Time,” currently on view at The Third Line in Dubai, is artist Zineb Sedira’s first solo show to be held in the region. Through photographs, sculptures and video installations, the London-based multimedia artist of Algerian descent explores various aspects of the international sugar trade and the cargo vessels that facilitate it. The exhibition is divided into two sections; prints and sculpture fill the main gallery space while a video installation can be found in the Project Space up a small flight of stairs.

Eight of Sedira’s large-scale photographic prints open the exhibition. Hung on white walls, the Sugar Routes (2013) series documents a sugar silo in France’s Port of Marseille. Mountains of the cultivated material merge, ready to be sold on the international market. In Sugar Routes (1) and Sugar Routes (2) (both 2013) the sweet substance flows like sand, millions of morsels from far corners of the world mixing together, leaving no trace of regional uniqueness. Heavy vehicle tire tracks on the floor remind viewers of the mass production of this commodity and the associated industrialization.

Table sugar, or sucrose, is produced from leafy sugarcane crops and sourced globally—from Africa and the Caribbean to Latin America and Oceania. Yet along the ocean trading routes the sugar cane extract’s origin and individuality disappears, and it’s singular identity becomes lost in transit. A diptych piece by Sedira, Sugar Silo (2013), emphasizes the massive scale of the sugar business, with one panel depicting a pyramid of raw, golden crystalline powder piled as high as the ceiling of the warehouse it’s stored in, while the other shows the same building, but now empty. Side by side, the stark contrast illustrates the immense quantities of refined sugar powder necessary to fulfill our global needs. With all of their granules mixed together, the ancestry of the sugar canes—and the people behind their cultivation—is completely lost.

In the small-scale installation Seafaring (2013) Sedira attempts to reclaim the identity of this global sweetener. Documenting the distinct origins of various types of cane sugar, the artist presents varying strains in 15 small glass bottles on a wooden shelf, their differing shades of brown demonstrating their individual uniqueness. Vastly in contrast with the huge photographs depicting the production process of sugar, Seafaring is an indication of each type of sugar’s migration across the world before it is amalgamated into the massive mountains captured in Sedira’s photographic series. Seafaring compels viewers to consider the historical importance of the “white gold” that has been traded among civilizations for centuries.

ZINEB SEDIRASugar Routes (1), 2013, digital C-print, 144 × 180 cm. Courtesy The Third Line, Dubai. 

ZINEB SEDIRASugar Surfaces (1), 2013, digital C-print, 144 × 180 cm. Courtesy The Third Line, Dubai. 

Sugar Surfaces (1) and Sugar Surfaces (5) depict emptied warehouses with layers of sugar residue clinging to their walls, the grains leaving their own legacy on the sides of silos. Perhaps a symbol of the toll that sugar has had on humans, Sedira’s empty warehouse images suggest the displacement of millions of people—forced out by (or, worse, enslaved as labor for) the development of sugar plantations during periods of colonization.

In the upstairs floor of the gallery is Transmettre en abyme (2012), a three-channel video installation screened on two walls. It documents an archive built by the late French photographer Yvon Colas—under the pseudonym Marcel Baudelaire—who obsessively photographed each and every boat that entered and departed the Port of Marseille over a 50-year period during the mid-20th century. This ship-spotting archive is currently managed by Helene Detaille, who is seen on one screen discussing the trove of photographs and lists of names of ships that passed through the port. A pair of videos on the other wall layers Colas’s photographs, like cards being counted one by one, calling attention to the sheer amount of documentation that exists in the archive. The pile of images accumulates steadily, photograph after photograph of the ships, each one having transported products as well as human livesTaken together,Transmettre en abyme conveys the extent and impact of international trade.

Preserving history and commenting on human impact, Sedira’s “Sands of Time” successfully conveys the multifaceted sugar trade. The show is a visually engaging look at a commodity that we all take for granted. Once a luxury, sugar is now seen as a necessity in many consumer driven cultures. Today, the demand for sugar continues to impact environments and human lives just as it has done in centuries past.

ZINEB SEDIRA, Transmettre en abyme, 2012, still from three-channel video installation. Courtesy The Third Line, Dubai. 

Zineb Sedira’s “Sands of Time” is on view at The Third Line Gallery, Dubai, until June 6, 2015.