Mother tongue, 2002

3 plasma screens 27”, 3 headphones, 3 videos,
PAL, colour, sound, 5’ (Arabic, Eng. and Fr.).
Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris (France)

Mother Tongue is a video triptych in which Zineb Sedira questions the relationship between her mother, her daughter and herself, introducing the variable elements of language as primary forms of communication. The characters stand out like distilled, purified images against a neutral background in short sequences in which, the artist and her mother, then her daughter, and finally her mother and daughter come together to exchange a few words in a conversational tone about childhood memories. In the first video, Mother and I (France), Zineb Sedira questions her mother on her past. She questions her in French and her mother replies in Arabic. The questions asked by Zineb Sedira relate to a time in the not-so-distant past that she seems to have nevertheless forgotten. The viewer who does not speak Arabic cannot understand the answers. Nevertheless the flow of the dialogue paradoxically enables the viewer to guess what the mother is saying. In the second video, Daughter and I (England), Zineb Sedira continues to talk in French but her daughter speaks in English. The questions are the same as those Zineb put to her mother in the previous film, but are this time asked by her daughter. The artist tells of her life both in and out of school. The French and English dialogue is strangely more difficult to follow than its French and Arabic predecessor. We realize that Zineb Sedira understands what her daughter is asking, since she replies, but the viewer may wonder if the girl understands what she is being told. Grandmother and Granddaughter (Algeria), the third video, features the grandmother on the right and the granddaughter on the left. The old lady begins by asking a question in Arabic, the girl does not reply and just looks down. For a few moments the dialogue is left floating in the air, nonexistent, with the child not replying to any of the questions asked. The grandmother smiles revealing a great loneliness. It is at that moment we grasp the skill with which Zineb Sedira analyses the relationships determined by language and its comprehensibility. The grandmother continues to smile, but we are able to read on both faces the distance between them caused by frequent blank moments. The silence is all the more audible. The grandmother's past proves to be the most inaccessible. The historical distance also alienates the sense of language and reunites the Arabic tongue with its ancestral origins that existed long before the grandmother ever went to France, or returned to Algeria and long before she and her granddaughter ever met there. With precision and simplicity, Zineb Sedira illustrates the crossover between the cultures to which she belongs and which gives rise to her multiple identity. Remembering her mother tongue becomes, in the artist's work, a translation in the making and a reconstruction to occupy the present moment.

Elvan Zabunyan

Translated by Diana Tamlyn