Somerset House invites you to be guided virtually by the award-winning Ekow Eshun around the first major UK retrospective of works by the late French-Moroccan photographer and video artist Leila Alaoui.
Acclaimed for her social reportage and stunning portraits of vulnerable citizens displaced by conflict and humanitarian crises, Alaoui’s work has appeared in the likes of Vogue and The New York Times, and is now more important than ever.
Alaoui regularly worked for NGOs, giving a dignified voice to the voiceless, with artistic brilliance. To spend time with her subjects and gain insight into their cultures and situations, she travelled into the heart of communities and set-up makeshift studios. From refugee camps in Lebanon to traditional villages in the Atlas mountains; from North African ports to the suburbs of Paris, wherever she went Alaoui looked through a compassionate lens. Her work projects delicate sensitivity onto brutal circumstances and fragile existence.
The exhibition entitled Rite of Passage opens with Les Marocains (2010-14). Striking near-life-sized portraits of the individuals she met whilst exploring her home country of Morocco, exemplify her celebration of cultural diversity. Presented on uniform black backgrounds, the shots demand focus on the details of traditional costume and colourful features of cultural identity.
Created in 2008, ‘No Pasara (Entry Denied)’ was commissioned by the EU and reflects another key theme of Alaoui’s work: migration. In this moving collection of poetic black and white images you’re asked to consider the bleak reality of those young souls attempting treacherous journeys from North Africa towards Europe.
Next on the tour is ‘Natreen (We Wait)’, Alaoui’s 2013 series, which was commissioned by the Danish Refugee Council to raise awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis. Our gaze is drawn towards the individual’s faces full of fear and hope, and the stories just behind their eyes.
The exhibition also includes Alaoui’s final work, ‘L’Île du Diable (Devil’s Island)’, which explores the lives of dispossessed migrant workers in Paris. The film remains unfinished due to Alaoui’s tragic and unexpected death in 2016 following a terrorist attack in Burkina Faso where she was working, bravely as always, on an Amnesty International assignment. A brilliant life cut short.
The Leila Alaoui Foundation continues to keep ‘Leila’s work and spirit alive’; created to preserve her work, defend her values, and inspire and support artistic engagement.