MARRAKESH, Morocco–Saad Alami and Othman Zine of the local artist collective the Zbel Manifesto glance through a foggy window, out into the busy streets of Marrakech. Their eyes meet the steadfast gaze of the late French-Moroccan artist Leila Alaoui’s Les Marocains, a series of photographs revealing the diversity of Moroccan communities.
The gaze of Les Marocains that lingers through the rainy nights and sunny afternoons is one that the Zbel Manifesto created as a personal tribute to their lost friend.
Interrupting a wide boulevard of the Gueliz neighborhood, the installation stands upright, alongside the abandoned Art Deco building housing the L’Blassa Gallery. Made of four portraits pulled from Alaoui’s series, stretched to a height nearing 20 feet, facing four directions, the viewer is forced to look up to view each of the unique Moroccans. The photographs are flanked by clear plastic bags, littered with recycling at the bottom. Like a gradient, the clutter fades away as the viewer gazes up at each emboldened face, and into the portraits’ piercing eyes.
During the day, the sunlight shines through the faces of Les Marocains, revealing the structure’s inner skeleton. At night, lit from within, the installation casts a dreamy glow upon the busy Marrakech intersection and brightens the intimate setting of the neighborhood.
This untitled work acts as a “kind of bridge between the earth and the sky,” says Zine. It also behaves as a lantern, beckoning pedestrians toward the entryway of Alaoui’s exhibit at the Sixth Marrakech Biennale, an annual art festival funded in part by the Moroccan government.
The curators dedicated this year’s Biennale to honor the passing of Leila Alaoui, a French-Moroccan photographer who was tragically shot on January 15 and died on January 18 during the terrorist attacks in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso while she was on assignment for Amnesty International. At age 33, her work was exhibited internationally since 2009; she was in the prime of her career.
Members of the community had known her for years, as she developed her creative passions while living in Marrakech. The impact of her passing was felt strongly by those who grew up with her. Zine acknowledges that Alaoui was not just a name in the art community, “she was like my best friend.” Echoing these sentiments, and noting the far-reaching effect of Alaoui’s work, her sister Yasmina, also an artist, opened the Marrakesh Biennale on February 24th speaking on her late sister’s dedication to the pursuit of art in the context of human rights.
In the days that followed, tourists, locals and curious passersby entered numerous exhibits held in various public spaces throughout the city—for the first time, free of charge. Running from February 24th to May 8th, guests can explore paintings, sculptures, photographs, performances and films that “respond to socio-political urgencies, representative of ‘living art,’ an art that is in the service of people and society, while harnessing poetics,” according to the official website and pamphlets of the Marrakech Biennale.
Throughout the festival, specific programs and exhibits will be dedicated to Alaoui, commemorating her role in the artistic community and her activist artwork.
Her work focused on issues of cultural identity, diversity and social justice issues. Amine Kabbaj, President of the Marrakech Art Biennale, told the Moroccan publication TelQuel,
“Leila Alaoui died defending the values we hold to heart,” he said. “She has dedicated her work to the creation of art and human rights.”
Alaoui sought to use her work to emphasize the humanity of the victims of global crises and human rights abuses, while also shedding light on underrepresented communities.
According to her artist statement for Les Marocains, Alaoui wrote, “rather than being objective, the series adopts the subjectivity of my own position as both an insider and native Moroccan, and simultaneously an outsider as the critically informed documentarian.”
While Les Marocains itself is not at the Biennale, Alaoui’s two other series on display at the L’Blassa Gallery use a similar artistic method. Three flights of winding stone stairs open into a white, sun-filled room, where select photos from No Pasara, Alaoui’s series of photographs documenting the lives of young Moroccans migrating across the Mediterranean, line the walls. A single image hangs over the dilapidated fireplace, a black and white photograph of numerous handprints smattered across a cement wall. At the end of a narrow hallway, behind heavy, light-canceling curtains in a pitch-black room, lies Crossings, a three-screen, multimedia video installation that delves into the heart-wrenching experiences of Sub-Saharan migrants.
According to London based artist Jessica Carlisle, after admitting to watching the video twice through, “I think a lot of video art is kind of lazy, but I think that, [Crossings] to me was really poetic, and was a lot of creative input, and not just documentary input.” Carlisle continued “it is video art as it should be done.”
At the L’Blassa Gallery there was little recognition of Alaoui’s death or of the decision to make this year’s Biennale a dedication to her work, leaving the average festival goer virtually unaware of her affiliation with the Biennale. A small line of text tucked inside of a book outside of No Pasara was the only indication at the gallery of her death. An event volunteer who was working at the L’Blassa gallery on the opening weekend tried to offer assistance, saying, “I’m sure you could ask her [Leila] your questions.”
Walking around the Biennale, many were quick to claim that they had heard of Alaoui’s name, yet those who knew her best, who were still reeling from this tragic event, were more shy to talk. Saad Alami, a friend of Alaoui and member of the Zbel Manifesto, admits that he has been unable to step foot into the building of Alaoui’s exhibit because “it was too painful, I just passed by.”
Across the globe, there are many tributes to Alaoui’s work, but, Zine states, “most of the tributes I’ve seen are just people talking about her work.” To create something unlike the others, the Zbel Manifesto described the photographs they used for the installation as “looking at Leila, because she took the photos.”
The installation acts as a means for the art group, made up of four of Alaoui’s childhood friends, to interact with Alaoui and her work in order to “let her go,” said one member, Katia Sahli. As honking cars and pointing pedestrians wonder at the installation, Sahli continues, describing her efforts in building the installation: “I am really tired. It is physical to work in. It’s emotional; all the people asking you, turning around with the cars, and the energy that they give you. So my experience with that was really profound and deep and emotional.”