London, Somerset House, 11 October 2020 – 28 February 2021
This October, Somerset House and 1-54 Contemporary African Art fair are proud to present Leila Alaoui: Rite of Passage, the first major UK retrospective of works from the celebrated French-Moroccan photographer, video artist and activist Leila Alaoui.
Acclaimed for capturing and preserving the unseen stories of individuals and communities displaced by conflict and unrest, Rite of Passage offers an intimate portrait into the rich cultural identities and resilience of societies facing difficult and uncertain realities. The subjects of Alaoui’s works are pictured across the contemporary Mediterranean landscape and beyond, from Syrian refugees fleeing civil war in Lebanon to young North Africans seeking an alternative future in Europe.
Tragically, Alaoui was killed whilst working on a photography project for a women’s rights campaign for Amnesty International in Burkina Faso in 2016. She was critically wounded during a terrorist attack in Ouagadougou, passing away from her injuries shortly afterwards at the age of 33.
The Alternative Morocco founder Lahcen Oummad had the pleasure to meet Laila Alaoui back in 2012 when he actively participated in a few years protest against the silver mine in his home town Imider, southeast Morocco. Laila visited the occupied site where local residents gathered on a hilltop above a silver mine to stop the exploitation of precious water supplies and demand a stop to the pollution that results from the mining.
Rite of Passage showcases three of Alaoui’s defining series of photographic works created between 2008 and 2014 – Les Marocains (2010-14), No Pasara (2008) and Natreen (2013).Throughout each series, Alaoui seeks to challenge the often cliched portrayals and exoticisation of North Africa and the Arab world to present a nuanced narrative of the region, its inhabitants and immigration. The exhibition also presents Alaoui’s final unfinished video work L’Île du Diable (Devil’s Island) (2015), which explores the lives of a 1960’s generation of dispossessed migrant workers in France. Showing great sensitivity towards her subjects, Alaoui’s images are both informed yet artistic, giving a human face to the people who often become lost and misrepresented behind waves of news coverage and statistics.
Upon entering the exhibition, visitors are greeted with a striking series of life-sized portraits from Alaoui’s celebrated series Les Marocains. Taken during the artist’s extensive travels across her home country of Morocco, Alaoui drew inspiration from influential 20th century photographers Richard Avedon and Robert Frank, whose seminal works captured the overlooked margins of American life, as well as her own heritage as a native Moroccan, to create a collection of portraits which capture a rich survey of the diverse cultures and ethnicities of the region. Using a mobile studio, Alaoui invited men, women, and children of different communities within busy cities and secluded settlements, with whom she spent time getting to know, as her sitters. Framed against a simple black background, Alaoui captures the innate pride and dignity of her subjects, allowing both the presence of her subjects and the vibrant aesthetic of their traditional dress, adorned with products of a rich artistic culture, to shine. With each portrait, Alaoui creates new transcultural and inclusive social imagery in an attempt to undo the historically misunderstood representation of the region and its communities.
The exhibition continues with works from Alaoui’s first photographic series created in 2008, No Pasara (Entry Denied). The series, commissioned by the European Union, sees Alaoui use her camera to document the often-unseen perspectives of those living on the challenging margins of society. The series follows groups of young Moroccans who have become stuck in their journeys, seeking passage to Europe from Moroccan port cities including Nador and Tangier. After spending time getting to know her subjects, hearing stories of the homes, and the lives and relationships sacrificed in the hope of finding a better life on the other side of the Mediterranean, Alaoui brings the realities and voices of those whose lives have been halted into focus of the frame. Here in black and white, young men are pictured waiting pensively at the waterfront and amongst the ruins of buildings, dreaming of starting a new life across the barrier of the sea.
Echoing the stories of the lives on hold in No Pasara, the 2013 series Natreen (We Wait), commissioned by the Danish Refugee Council, sees Alaoui travel to Lebanon to document and raise awareness for the humanitarian crisis faced by Syrian refugees fleeing chaos and war. Acting further to dispel the stereotypical representations of refugees as shown within modern day media, Alaoui captures the strength, beauty and relatability of her subjects, with each subject holding the viewers gaze to create an instant connection.
Rite of Passage culminates in Alaoui’s final unfinished project, L’Île du Diable (Devil’s Island). In this single-channel video work, which sees Alaoui moving away from photography to experiment with video and installation, Alaoui explores the experience of a generation of migrant workers who moved to support the huge growth in the industry in Europe following World War II. Bringing together photographs, recorded videos, sounds, and testimonies, Alaoui showcases the stories of those who became collectively displaced from their homes whilst working for an automobile factory in France, and its impact on future generations.
Donations from the exhibition go to The Leila Alaoui Foundation that was created to preserve her work, defend her values, and inspire and support artistic engagement.