In 2016, celebrated French-Moroccan photographer Leila Alaoui was on assignment in Burkina Faso investigating women’s rights in the country on behalf of Amnesty International and UN Women. She had the misfortune to be sitting in a parked car outside the Cappuccino café in the capital Ouagadougou when the café was attacked by Al-Qaeda gunmen. She was seriously wounded and died three days later. She was 33.
A precocious talent, Alaoui had already established a reputation for herself in commercial photography for such prestigious publications as Vogue and the New York Times. Yet it was assignments for human interest subjects that were closest to her heart.
Among these were three series she devoted to people on the fringes of society including from her own country, Morocco. Upon these a new retrospective exhibition Leila Alaoui: Rite of Passage draws. It’s part of the current 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair at Somerset House in London.
As you walk into the splendidly parquet- floored exhibition room of Somerset House’s south wing, you’re greeted by a striking set of life-size portraits from Alaoui’s series Les Morocains (2010-14). To get away from the clichéd depiction of Morocco as a country of markets and spices, Alaoui set out to create an authentic depiction of its people, in particular of the small and diverse ethnic communities under threat from globalisation.
Her portraits reveal a richness of culture, colour and sumptuous detail as she focuses on individuals, as above, by highlighting their faces, the vibrant aesthetic of their traditional dress, their instruments and their tools. Alaoui took with her a mobile studio into which she invited men, women and children whom she had befriended to build trust, to photograph them behind a plain black background.
Here, the spectator is gazing at a portrait of a Moroccan water-carrier with his stunningly-elaborate woollen headdress and holding the tools of his trade including a bell to herald his arrival. Alaoui drew inspiration from influential 20th century photographers Richard Avedon and Robert Frank whose seminal works captured the overlooked margins of American life. The eight portraits in this series were selected from those Alaoui took to represent communities in the Atlas Mountains and on the north and south Atlantic coasts. I only wish there’s been room to show more.
No Pasara (Entry Denied) (2008) was Alaoui’s first photographic series made when she was 25. It was commissioned by the European Union and documents the predicament of those living on the margins and who had become stuck in their journeys of trying to reach Europe from the Moroccan port cities of Nador and Tangier.
It differs from Les Moracains not only because it’s in black and white but also because of its melancholy tone. It’s full of young men with looks of disappointment and despair as they sit among ruined buildings dreaming of a better life beyond the barrier of the Mediterranean Sea. There are silhouettes of boats at dusk trying to evade the authorities. In another, a boy sits out of focus on a sea wall with the focal centre a barred fence symbolising his entrapment.
In similar vein, Natreen (We Wait) (2013) focuses on individuals in Lebanon who have fled the violence and chaos of the civil war in Syria and have ended up in refugee camps in Lebanon. Once again, as in the photo above, Alaoui has captured the intimate gazes of those having to adjust to life in limbo. In others, children play among the makeshift tents, women in black stand waiting at a barrier with expressions of longing but also of resolution. The face of the refugee in the topmost image is worn but dignified.
Rite of Passage culminates in a video documentary entitled L’Ile du Diable (Devil’s Island) which was the nickname given to a former Renault factory sited on an island in the River Seine in Paris. It explores the experience of a generation of migrant workers mainly from North Africa and South-East Asia who came to France to support the rapid growth of industry there after World War II. There are lingering close-ups of workers amidst urban decay overlaid with the speeches of union leaders decrying factory conditions and offering reminders of colonial massacres. Alaoui had intended to interview the children and grandchildren of the original migrants but she died before she could finish it.
Still, it’s an indication of the direction in which she was travelling before fate intervened. It was a sign of the esteem with which Leila Alaoui was held that, following her death, the King of Morocco, Hassan VI paid for her remains to be flown back to the country in which she was raised.
Leila Alaoui: Rite of Passage is showing at Somerset House until 28 February.
All images are courtesy of Fondation Leila Alaoui and Galleria Continua.