Mauritania via Shoreditch

Published on Culture 24

Currents of Time: New work by Zineb Sedira, Iniva at Rivington Place, until 25 July 2009

From the window of Rivington Place, three photos offer a mirthless reproach to a comedy café opposite. Boats sink into a menacing sea. Time and the elements blacken what remains. The camera freezes each vessel in a watery grave, just off the coast of Mauritania. It’s part of the world we would rather forget about.

Inside the gallery are more photographs of dereliction. Oil tankers sit stranded, leaking toxic waste onto the beach. Heaps of scrap are left to warp and rust in the desert sun. Boats have become environmental hazards with a lyrical, haunting quality.

The focus of this show by Zineb Sedira is a fragmented video installation called Floating Coffins. Some 14 screens display scenes from this inhospitable stretch of coastline in North Africa. There are more deserted boats, as well as crumbling buildings, lonely salvage workers and, lo and behold, flamingos.

Mauritania appears to be more than a dumping ground for ships. It’s a birdwatcher’s paradise. Which gives us the sad spectacle of gulls flocking in front of a decommissioned tanker and pelicans hopping around an oil-stained beach. With so much sun, sea and sand, it’s almost idyllic.

But what really darkens the mood is the astonishing soundtrack by Mikhail Karikis who, in collaboration with Sedira, collected sounds over a period of time spent on location. Eight spherical speakers hang from the ceiling and together they make the darkened auditorium shudder like a vast ship pulling into its final berth.

It’s a sound that hints at the deadliest side of life here. The coast is a treacherous departure point for many who leave Africa in search of work in Europe. Mobility, migration and displacement are key themes for Sedira, who grew up in Paris as a second generation Algerian.

Floating Coffins is her most complex work to date, but it should have broad appeal. “We expect people to come who’ve never heard of the artist,” says curator Tessa Jackson. “and for them to be able to engage with the work.” It’s recommended, even if you’ve never heard of Mauritania.

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