Review of the Leila Alaoui: Rite of Passage exhibition at Somerset House

The late Leila Alaoui’s work looks back at you. Her subjects’ eyes gaze out and lock with yours from frames and screens made on a much grander scale than the little boxes on Zoom. At the start of November 2020, I went to see an exhibition of her photographs and film at Somerset House, just before the second lockdown came into effect.

I have the place to myself. I can’t avoid my reflection in the shiny black backgrounds of the larger-than-life Les Marocains portraits, and I can’t avoid the eye contact with her interviewees on the enormous TV screen playing L’Île du Diable. They stand almost completely still for long moments at a time, eyes meeting Alaoui’s; but since she is no longer there, they are fixed on ours.

Alaoui was a French-Moroccan photographer, who was born in Paris in 1982, the year before I was born in London. She grew up in Marrakech, then studied photography in New York. Alaoui died in January 2016, aged only 33. At the time of her death, she was on assignment in Burkina Faso’s capital. She was shot multiple times during a terrorist attack, and died in hospital three days later.

Three of Alaoui’s collections are grouped together in Leila Alaoui: Rite of Passage, at Somerset House. They are: No Pasara (“Entry Denied,” 2008), Les Marocains (2010–14) and Natreen (“We Wait,” 2013), as well as her final unfinished video work L’Île du Diable (“Devil’s Island,” 2016).

The first room is dedicated to the huge, elegant Les Marocains photographs. The portraits loom over me as I walk round. They show local people in traditional Berber and Arab dress, posing in front of pitch-black backgrounds that heighten the bright colours of their clothes. Alaoui was trying to catalogue the diverse and fast-disappearing cultures of Morocco.

In the corner of the room, there is a video on a loop, showing how Alaoui worked with her subjects in her makeshift studio. In the footage, she is alive again, welcoming each person and talking to them, relaxing them. It is hard to watch for long.

The next room contains Alaoui’s first collection, No Pasara, which examines borders, crossings and stasis with a journalistic eye. The stark black-and-white pictures were commissioned by the European Union, and show young Moroccans who left home for Europe, but didn’t quite make it. Alaoui’s work focuses on one person at a time, shining a light on a life that has stagnated, on the dreams that are crumbling like the ruins framing her subjects in the pictures.

Alongside No Pasara hangs the Natreen collection, a commission from the Danish Refugee Council. Alaoui has captured moments from the lives of Syrian refugees in a Lebanese camp. The backgrounds show flimsy-looking makeshift buildings and arid hills rising in the distance. These photographs are closer to documentary style than Les Marocains or No Pasara, but share with those works a concentration upon one face at time. The expressions — some directed to the camera, some not — are complex. There is apprehension there, weariness, forbearance. They look as though they could be on the verge of speaking to us.

These photographs made me think of a quote from then-prime minister David Cameron, speaking in a 2015 ITV interview. He said: “This is very testing, I accept that, because you’ve got a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain.” In the same year, Alaoui told Al Jazeera: “Throughout my adolescence in Morocco, stories of migrants drowning at sea became regular on the news. In my eyes, these stories were constant reminders of deep-rooted social injustice.” No Pasara is Alaloui’s attempt to rewrite these stories with images rather than words.

In the last room, there is a large flatscreen TV, playing Alaoui’s final work, the one she didn’t get to finish: L’Île du Diable. It’s the story of what happened to the 1960s migrants who avoided the fate of the subjects of No Pasara — exile — but found their own version of erasure through working in factories on the grey outskirts of Paris. The screen is often filled with their faces, their unrelenting eyes. I find myself holding my breath for the long moments that each mournful gaze looks into the space where Alaoui once stood in front of them, seeing them in a way that few people bother to do.

There’s no escaping the fact that it is very sad to be able to walk through most of an artist’s life’s work in so few rooms. At 33, Alaloui clearly had much more to do. She leaves behind her an arresting body of work that makes her intent clear: to find the real, lived story behind the stereotype.

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