Critics’ Picks

Leila Alaoui, Chefchaoun, Nord du Maroc (Chefchaoun, North of Morocco), 2010, digital photo on Baryte paper, 59 x 39”.

Leila Alaoui, Chefchaoun, Nord du Maroc (Chefchaoun, North of Morocco), 2010, digital photo on Baryte paper, 59 x 39”.

Paris

Leila Alaoui

Maison Européenne de la Photographie
5/7 rue de Fourcy
November 12, 2015–January 17, 2016

In 1978, philosopher Edward Said published Orientalism, an analysis of the West’s distorted representation of the Orient and its inhabitants as a tactic used to assert its dominion over that part of the world. To this day, the book’s core ideas percolate through much of the art produced in the Middle East and North Africa in the postcolonial era. Oscillating between fine art and documentary photography, Leila Alaoui’s “The Moroccans,” 2010–, is an ongoing project that seeks, from her vantage point as a native Moroccan portraying her compatriots, to rebuke the orientalist discourse.

Inspired by Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958), and using an aesthetic akin to Richard Avedon’s, the artist journeyed across rural Morocco with a portable studio to photograph Berber and Arab men and women. Printed at a nearly life-size scale, the images lack spatial context, forcing the viewer into an intense vis-à-vis with the subjects standing against a black background.

In the photograph titled Chefchaoun, Nord du Maroc (Chefchaoun, North of Morocco), a woman with bronze-colored skin, draped in lilac, burgundy, green, and white fabrics, creates a buoyant color symphony while looking at the camera, her gaze powerful yet serene. In all these works, one detects a certain defiance in the eyes of Alaoui’s subjects. They do not seek approval, nor do they exude any aggressiveness. They are proud, noble. And in the face of those who have relentlessly labeled them with countless derogatory terms, they stand as witnesses to a culture that continues to survive, despite decades of “exoticism” poisoning its narrative.