The Magpie Anthology

Rite of Passage by Leila Alaoui

By Juliet Bawden

Rite of Passage is a small exhibition and the first major UK retrospective of Leila Alaoui, photographer, video artist and activist.  There are three series within this exhibition – The Moroccans (2010-2014),  Natreen ‘We wait’  (2013) and No Pasara ‘They did not pass” (2008) – together with a fragment of the project L’île du Diable ‘Devil’s Island’(2015) incomplete at the time of Alaoui’s death.

Devil’s Island documents the experience of migrants from North Africa who reached Europe in decades past. Her intention was for their stories to sit alongside those of their children, many of whom grew up with a sense of displacement.

In No Pasara, Aloui spent time with young Moroccans living a suspended existence, having abandoned impoverished lives in the hope of reaching Europe. Some were waiting, poised for an opportunity to take the perilous journey across the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain, others had recently returned from failed attempts.

In Natreen ‘We wait’ Once again we are drawn to those displaced from their homeland. Commissioned by the Danish Refugee Council, Alaoui photographed Syrians living in refugee camps in Lebanon, capturing faces so often seen fleetingly in news reports but which remain anonymous. These intimate images reveal the burden of the situation, and the dignity and resilience of those who persevere, however uncertain and precarious their futures.

Alaoui was born in Paris in 1982, she spent her childhood in Marrakesh before studying photography and anthropology in New York. Her cinematic work included collaboration on films by Spike Lee. Illustrating both documentary and aesthetic sensibilities, Alaoui’s photographs appeared in The New York Times and Vogue but were also commissioned by humanitarian agencies.

Returning to Marrakesh in 2007, Alaoui became aware of the deep-rooted problems of her homeland. Keenly attuned to those living on the margins, her sharp focus on individuals provides a counterpoint to fast-paced new reports in which individuals are often mis-represented or lost amidst chaotic and distressing scenes of conflict. While working on women’s rights campaign with Amnesty international in 2016, Alaoui was wounded during a terrorist attack in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. She died three days later.

Acclaimed for capturing the unseen stories of individuals and communities displaced by conflict and unrest, Alaoui’s photography offers an intimate portrait into the rich cultural identities and resilience of societies facing 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.

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.

11 Oct 2020 – 28 Feb 2021 :Tue – Sun 12.00 – 18.00

Pay what you can : Terrace Rooms, South Wing

In line with the new government guidance Somerset House is closed to the public from Thu 05 Nov until at least Wed 02 Dec 2020.

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