Leila Alaoui's retrospective reveals intimate tales of migration

The photographer, video artist and activist Leila Alaoui is the focus of a new retrospective at Somerset House, in which three series of images created over a period of six years are brought together. The show, Rite of Passage, also features her last, unfinished video work, which she began in 2015 – a year before she died of a terrorist attack in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, aged 33, on Amnesty International's behalf.

The French-Moroccan artist was known for her sensitive portraits of people from regions affected by conflicts and unrest in the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East. Alaoui worked regularly with NGOs and used her photography to reveal human narratives in crisis, migration and displacement.

Above: from the Natreen series, 2013. Above: from the No Pasara series, 2008. All images by Leila Alaoui, with the kind permission of the Fondation Leila Alaoui and the Galleria Continua

Alaoui's first series from 2008, No Pasara (Entry Refused), a group of young Moroccans waiting to travel to Europe from the port cities of Nador and Tangier in their homeland, followed on behalf of the EU. Alaoui's calm black and white portraits in front of the Mediterranean promenade contrast ruins and rough landscapes with expansive, calm waters and dreamlike touches and symbolize a hopeful future that awaits them across the sea.

Alaoui returned to Morocco for her series Les Marocains, created between 2010 and 2014, which is based both in name and spirit on Robert Frank's key book The Americans. However, Alaoui's travelogue on Moroccan life is arguably more intimate than Frank's due to her personal connection to the country and the proximity of the mobile studio environment she used for the series.

Alaoui spent time learning about her subjects, representing different cultural identities in Morocco, before photographing them against a black background that allows the nuances and distinctive clothing of each person to come to the fore.

Tamesloht, 2011 from the series Les Marocains by Leila Alaoui

Tamesloht, 2011. Both pictures from the series Les Marocains

Khamlia, south of Morocco # 1, 2014

Also on the show is her 2013 series Natreen (We Wait), which was commissioned by the Danish Refugee Council. Natreen is set in Lebanon and documents the lives of refugees who fled the war in Syria through impressive portraits that serve as an antithesis to many common media portraits of refugees.

As her career progressed, Alaoui began to experiment more with moving images, one of which is on display at Rite of Passage. Launched in 2015, L & # 39; Île du Diable (Devil's Island) is an unfinished video based on photos, videos, sound and testimony that reveals stories of migrant workers who worked at a car factory in Boulogne-Billancourt, west of Paris during the post-war years . The factory has since been demolished, but through their project the people who worked there – like everyone represented in Alaoui's archive – are now irrevocably embedded in history.

From the Natreen series, 2013No pasara from Leila AlaouiFrom the series No Pasara, 2008Natreen by Leila Alaoui, 2013From the Natreen series, 2013

The rite of passage runs through February 28th at Somerset House. somersethouse.org.uk


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