French-Moroccan artist/photographer/filmmaker Leila Alaoui died on January 18th, one of 30 victims of terrorists’ bullets in Burkina Faso. The tragedy of her death is not only the senseless killing of a vibrant, intelligent young woman, but also the too-soon extinction of an artistic voice steeped in compassion, curiosity, and fearlessness. Her work explored issues of cultural diversity and identity, challenging the viewer to see the humanity in every face, to see ourselves in the experiences of others. She was in Ouagadougou on assignment with Amnesty International.
Bursting onto the contemporary photography scene with “The Moroccans”, Leila devised a travelling photo booth to cross the country in search of individual identity. The resulting portraits are fiercely vivid, brilliant color and white surging from deepest black. She is also known for a series of black and white portraits of the country’s leading artists, and a beautiful series known as “No Pasara”, the result of months spent among the emigrant communities in northern Morocco, where sub-Saharan Africans risk their lives to cross the Straits of Gibraltar.
Leila’s seminal triptych video installation Crossings plays across 3 screens, exploring the lives of sub-Saharan migrants desperately trying to reach the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. contrasting the faces with symbolic images of the sea and the forests of Morocco, Leila’s childhood home and the source of much of her artistic inspiration. Filmed from the imaginary perspective of the migrants, Crossings incorporates voice-overs inspired by their stories, delving into the trauma of crossing borders into the unknown. The installation, shown at the Marrakech Biennale in 2014, “allowed us for a few seconds to experience the point of view of migrants,” said Alaoui. “As a photographer, I was interested in the contemporary language of video art, to go beyond a traditional documentary approach and to avoid any representations of misery. ” Beyond the images, the installation questions the utopian Nirvana of Europe in today’s collective African imagination.
Born in 1982, Leila studied film and photography in New York before returning to Morocco in 2008. Her work has been exhibited internationally since 2009 and has been published in newspapers and magazines, including in The New York Times and Vogue. She lived between Morocco, Lebanon, where she was the artistic director of Station Beirut, and Paris, where her work was recently shown in the first Biennial of Arab Photography. She is survived by her parents Christine and Aziz Alaoui, her sister NY-based artist Yasmina Alaoui, brother Suleiman, and companion Nabil Canaan.