Zineb Sedira

Mother Tongue 2002

“Sedira’s video work “Mother Tongue” looks at three generations of the artist’s family, each communicating in their own ‘mother tongue’, but unable to communicate directly through words. “Mother Tongue” features documentary-style interviews that the artist conducted with her mother and her daughter. The multilingual nature of the dialogues—in Arabic, French and English—connects past and present, revealing bonds that are subtle yet resilient. About the work Sedira states:

“Lack of communication is also a way of conveying meaning. My mother never learned French properly because she wanted to show her rejection of the French language and behaviour after the war of independence, even though she and my father lived in France for economic reasons—North African immigrants were used as cheap labor. They experienced a lot of racism, and my parents felt a sense of failure that they had to bring up their children in that culture. They were angry that the French had managed to divide their Arab identity too, setting Algerians against each other by giving French citizenship to Algerian Christians and Jews but not Muslims, so that Arabs and Algerians would turn against each other.”

—Amy Brandt, Exhibition Assistant, Global Feminisms


I really resonated with this piece in relation to how language and the mother-daughter relationship is portrayed. The dynamic of being multilingual is something which plays out in most of my family experiences and I think this is something prevalent in my piece through my recordings with my mother. Personally English is the language which I am most comfortable with but I felt that by having my mother tell the story in English, which isn’t her mother tongue, it would make the piece detached from its origins in Senegal. Initially, my mother chose to tell the story in French and I think this is partly due to my younger sisters who were also present for the recording not being able to speak Wolof, which was the language my mother was told the story in. French is also colonial language deeply integrated into Senegalese society, and I’ve found that dissimilarly to Sedira’s mother, she didn’t reject the language. Instead, I feel she takes ownership by using the colonial language in order to convey a narrative relating to Senegalese heritage.


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