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Feb 13 2020

France’s Venice Biennale Representative Refutes Accusations Over BDS Ties

by Ophelia Lai, HG Masters, and Kylie Yeung

ZINEB SEDIRA, France’s representative for the 2021 Venice Biennale, has spoken out against the “defamatory accusations” surrounding her alleged links to the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. Pictured: The artist at her first solo show at Institut Valencià d’Art Modern (IVAM). Courtesy the artist and IVAM.

The French-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira, who in January was named France’s representative artist for the 2021 Venice Biennale, has released a statement defending her nomination after criticism over her alleged support for the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, a global campaign aimed at “pressur[ing] Israel to comply with international law,” “ending its occupation” of Palestine, and upholding the rights of Palestinians, according to its mission statement

The backlash gained traction after French writer and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy tweeted: “How, after the moving trip by [French president] Emmanuel Macron to Israel, can France choose as its representative for the Venice Biennale an artist-activist of BDS, an advocate for the boycott of Israel?” In the post, Lévy included a letter by Jacqueline Frydman—director of the organization Isart, which promotes French-Israeli artistic exchange—denouncing Sedira’s nomination. Dated January 25 and addressed to French culture minister Franck Riester, the letter centers on Sedira’s request to remove her work from the 2017 Mediterranean Biennale in Sakhnin, a majority-Arab city in Israel’s Northern District, on the grounds that it was included in the festival without her consent. Several other artists—Bouchra Khalili, Walid Raad, Akram Zaatari, and Yto Barrada—also requested to have their works removed from the Biennale, which loaned the works from the collection of the FRAC art center in Marseilles without informing the artists. 

Frydman claimed that Sedira co-signed a Facebook post demanding withdrawal from the Biennial that referred to Sakhnin as “Occupied Palestine.” The now-deleted Facebook post, a screenshot of which was included in Lévy’s tweet, appeared on a page called Campaign to Boycott Supporters of Israel-Lebanon and included the hashtag “BDS.” In her letter, Frydman accused Sedira of being a member of “an organization . . . whose artists have anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic leanings.” Frydman’s sentiments were echoed in an op-ed by Maya Nahumin for the right-wing French online publication Causeur on January 28.

As reported by ArtNews, Sedira responded to the uproar on January 29, telling Agence France-Press (AFP): “I have never had acquaintance with this movement. I also firmly condemn any boycott and I cannot be associated with or support 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.” 

In her most recent statement, published in full by The Art Newspaper on February 11, Sedira claims AFP “misrepresented” her position via an edited version of her earlier message that “[reduced her] beliefs to a sheer condemnation of BDS” while neglecting to include passages in which she lent her “full support to the aspirations of the Palestinian people for self-determination and the protection of their existence and their rights.” Sedira slammed the “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 concluded: “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.”

The BDS campaign and the French culture ministry have yet to comment on the controversy.

Born in Paris to Algerian immigrants, Sedira is the first artist of Algerian descent selected to represent France at the Venice Biennale. Now primarily based in London, where she studied at Central Saint Martins School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art, Sedira has held recent solo exhibitions at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh, Beirut Art Center, and Kamel Mennour gallery in Paris. 

Ophelia Lai is ArtAsiaPacific’s associate editor; HG Masters is deputy publisher and deputy editor; Kylie Yeung is an editorial intern.

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