The exhibition Leila Alaoui: “No Pasara” is being presented to commemorate the death of this emerging artist who was killed during an attack carried out by Al-Qaeda in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on January 15, 2016. She had gone there on a photographic assignment for Amnesty International to produce a report on women’s rights. The title brings to mind the famous anti-fascist slogan “¡No Pasarán!” [They shall not pass!] from the Spanish Civil War.
The work of Leila Alaoui, the French-Moroccan photographer and video artist, arose from her critical observation of the world. Alaoui expressed herself through portraits and documentary photo and video essays as she explored cultural diversity and migration around the Mediterranean. From her first project, “No Pasara,” the artist demonstrated her humanitarian commitment and her sense of otherness. This series of twenty-four images commissioned by the European Union in 2008, whose title means “entry denied,” depicts young Moroccans dreaming of an Eldorado on the other side of the Mediterranean. She went from Beni Mellal, in the middle of the country, to the port cities of Nador and Tangier, where she learned about illegal migration. Like an ethnographer, she observed and listened to her subjects carefully before immortalizing their moods. In an effort to understand this need to leave one’s homeland, she even tried to make the boat crossing with three harragas (those who burn borders) who failed to complete the voyage.
Alaoui captures the essence of these desperate young people with an aesthetic filled with emotion, in which a picture is truly worth a thousand words. The sea is ever present in her careful compositions, especially in the background, along with the poverty and aridity of the places she visited. Whether sitting, lying down or standing, her young subjects are often pensive, looking away or with their backs turned to the viewer, becoming so many metaphors for the inaccessible. Others wear shirts with exotic names written across them: France, España, Andalucía. At first, the photographer refused to sell any of these pictures for ethical reasons, not wishing to exploit her subjects. Today, a share of the proceeds from sales is given to the migrants photographed.
This exhibition was organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, courtesy of the Fondation Leila Alaoui, Marrakesh, Morocco; Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, Italy / Beijing, China / Les Moulins, France / and Havana, Cuba; and VOICE Gallery, Marrakesh, Morocco. We wish to thank Youssef Fichtali for his contribution to the creation of this exhibition and BMO Financial Group, the Museum’s Women of Influence Circle and Air Canada for their support.
Opposite: Portrait of Leila Alaoui. Photo © Augustin Le Gall. Courtesy of Fondation Leila Alaoui, Marrakesh, Morocco
See the tribute to Leila Alaoui written by Selwa Abou-el-aazm for the exhibition opening on January 16.
To learn more about Leila Alaoui’s work, see the video.