Leila Alaoui :: “Out of Place”

The death of a child, of a young person, always seems insupportable, even though we know full well that death is part of our fragile destiny. And when, on top of that, the death of a young person is not something irremediable but is caused by the folly of other human beings, then what is inadmissible also fills us with despair and revolt. The recent deaths at the Bataclan, in Bamako, in Ouagadougou, and so many others that I do not mention here, all provoke this twin feeling of despair and revolt.

So why talk about Leila Alaoui?

First of all, because I love Leila. I am among those who had the privilege of meeting this radiant young woman and from the start I was captivated by her aura. Yes, I love Leila. She reminds me of my own daughters. On January 2nd, 2016 I invited her to dinner at the Café Marly. She had just been in Beirut, spending Christmas with her fiancé, Nabil Canaan. Beirut where, in November 2015, I showed her first video in the exhibition MEMORY & OBLIVION at Station Beirut, alongside work by some fine contemporary video artists including mounir fatmi, Ali Kazma and Shaun Gladwell. She and I were both very happy. That night she was ravishing, wearing a dress that was red like the walls of the Marly. We admired the Louvre and its Pyramid and she spoke freely about her personal life, Christmas in Beirut, her many artistic projects, the reasons for her various commitments, and her doubts. About how, in the near future, she hoped to balance her work with having a child. She told me about what she was going to do for Amnesty International in Burkina Faso. And, more particularly, we spoke about the project for ‘L’Île du Diable’ (Devils’ Island), which Leila had been working on since March 2015: portraits and videos of men who, over the decades, had worked in the Renault Billancourt factory on Île Seguin. She had spent days and weeks on that island, immersing herself in her subject, just as she always does. We were planning to go there together, soon, because I wanted to get a better understanding of her way of working in the field. I was really looking forward to it.
And when she showed me the first portraits made on the island, I found them so powerful that I immediately suggested to Paul Ardenne that we include them in the Photaumnales 2016 in Beauvais. The theme he has chosen for this photography festival in Beauvais, which he is curating (I am associate curator), is LOVE STORIES, and I felt that Leila Alaoui’s photographs expressed the “love story” these men had with their past, their factory and their work - the “love of their life,” in fact - in an exceptionally powerful and original way. For Paul and for me, including these photographs in the Photaumnales seemed the natural thing to do. We had already shown her video ‘Crossings’ in Beirut as co-curators. Paul says he finds its images “magnetic”.

It seemed just as natural, indeed, for the curators of the Marrakech Biennale, to show ‘L’Île du Diable’ last February 2016.

But let’s go back to the Café Marly. Leila explained to me why she now prefers video rather than photography as the medium for her portraits. Video, she said, gives more room to the subject: their moving image expresses the nuances of their personality better than the still photographic image. Also, it includes sound: the artist can let the “model” speak. This way of doing things fits better with Leila’s artistic ethos, which places great emphasis on fidelity to the other. I was delighted to hear what to she had to say. More and more, I find myself studying, watching, exhibiting, sharing and promoting video art.

At the end of the evening we made a formal decision to work together. We kissed goodbye and as I walked home through the empty streets of Paris on that night of January 2nd I thought to myself: how lucky I am to be able to work with magnificent artists like Leila – passionate individuals, full of dreams and creativity. How lucky I am that Leila wants to work with me, I who so love to work with people I love.

And there’s no way you can’t love Leila. She unites personal freedom, a deeply respectful and committed humanity, with artistic and creative talent. She has in her person what is most beautiful about youth: power, pride, sensuality and desire – desire for everything. The desire to be herself, to progress, to work. And all of this irrigated by doubts, by fundamental questions about human life in general and her own in particular, about her work. These doubts make her even stronger, since they save her from self-indulgence and complacency. Leila’s personal rigour makes her even more magnificent. The day after our dinner at Café Marly she mailed to apologise for talking about herself so much. Don’t, I said, it was such a pleasure to listen.
Thank you, Leila. I’ll never forget that evening with you.

But if it is important to talk about Leila Alaoui, this is also, and perhaps most of all, because of the promise she represents. A future great artist. Because those who don’t know her yet need to know about what she did have time to do, time to imagine. Because we are going to have to learn to dream, without her, of her future creations. Just as we dream of the books that authors who died young might have written. It is important to talk about Leila’s work, not only the work we already know, but also the work that was gestating. In a way, I feel invested with this responsibility. Leila entrusted me with several texts about her projects. She wanted my feedback, my appreciation. I am thinking, especially, of the text she wrote about her project “Out of Place,” a triptych, the first part of which was ‘L’Île du Diable’, at the crossroads, suspended between the life of Leila Alaoui and her death. She still had work to do on the sound. Then she had to make the sequel to ‘Out of Place’. That is what the artist was dreaming of: ‘Out of Place’.

“As a Franco-Moroccan artist working on questions of identity and migration in the Mediterranean area, today I feel a real responsibility to talk about the contemporary reality of immigration in France. I am currently working on a project which reflects on the relation between individual memories and the collective history of the first generation of immigrants from the former French territories and colonies, the better to understand the struggles of the later French-born generations. The ‘Out of Place’ project also explores the consequences of a fragile colonial past, notions of reconstructing identity and belonging in a society where communities are withdrawing into themselves as fear of the other becomes increasingly acute.”

“‘Out of Place’ is a visual experience which comprises photographs, video installations and also archive documents. Behind its images are several months of research and exchanges with members of Parisian communities of immigrant origin. The photographic images comprise portraits, recreated scenes from everyday life and fragments of the past. In order to recapture the effect of ordinary life, the images are presented alongside recovered photographs, texts, letters, maps and other symbolic objects. Likewise, the video installations integrate interviews, voice-overs, archive sounds and recreated sounds based on true stories.”

“The project is divided up into three bodies of work pertaining to different aspects of immigration in France: the first generation of single male workers who came after the Second World War; the women and children who came during the process of family reunification in the 1970s; and the new generations of French citizens with immigrant backgrounds.”

“The first series, ‘L’Île du Diable’, goes back over the stories of the former specialist workers (O.S.) who were recruited in large numbers by the automobile industry, and particularly the Renault Billancourt factory, to offset the labour shortage during the postwar years of economic growth and reconstruction in Europe. Located on Île Séguin, in a western suburb of Paris, the Renault Billancourt factory, a legendary bastion of the worker’s movement in French social history, was closed down on 31 March 1992. In the hundred years before that, a million blue-collar workers had been employed there. Many were men from other countries living in precarious conditions who, for long years, were given arduous, repetitive work on the assembly lines. These immigrant workers never returned home and Île Séguin was etched into their memories, for this was also where they campaigned for better working conditions, where they were forged fraternal bonds with their comrades and overcame the sufferings of exile and solitude, far from their home country and from their families. Orphaned by the demolition of the factory, these men cannot keep their pasts from being erased. Returning to the island for the first time since the factory closed, they still hear the deafening noise of the machines.”

“The second series, ‘Les Oubliés’ (The Forgotten), is inspired by the stories of women who took their children and went to be with their husbands during the process of family reunification allowed by the French state so that immigrants could have decent lives. Unfortunately, this period of family reunification coincided with the beginning of an economic crisis that made many immigrants redundant. Moreover, where the men had achieved a certain kind of social life and integration with their workmates, women were often left at home and had no way of connecting with their new environment. The images in the ‘Les Oubliés’ series therefore speak of solitude, suffering, exile and disappointment on discovering the reality of country they had dreamed of: the hard and uncertain living conditions and the difficulty of reconstructing a normal family life after so many years of being apart.”

“The last series, ‘Les Enfants de l’Empire’ (Children of the Empire), evokes the identity issues of the new generation of French citizens born to North African immigrant workers. It looks at the sociocultural rifts between children and parents. Born in France and raised in different environments, the children of immigrants rebelled at the silence of their parents, who for so long lived in submission and the fear of being singled out, or even expelled. That fear turned into a feeling of hatred among the younger generation and a muteness that prevented any kind of dialogue within their families. Today, these rootless generations of citizens are fighting to rebuild their own identities: between a country where they still don’t feel accepted, despite the fact that they were born there, and a homeland that is often alien to them.”

“In light of the current situation, with the attacks that took place in Paris in January 2015, and, even more tragically, on Friday 13 November, ‘Out of Place’ tries to bear witness to the reality of immigration through a work of contemporary visual art that goes beyond the purely documentary.”

I appreciated this project, but I also criticised it. I said that, for me, she didn’t say enough about the way the images were constructed, the way she went about actually making this “work of contemporary visual art.” I felt that those who read the project would not want to know only about the project, but also to understand the photographer and video artist’s relation to the image. How did Leila create the magnetism of her images? How did she approach the framing, the composition, how did she edit them down? I wanted to know.
To share ‘Out of Place’ is an incomplete but necessary way of giving body and reality to Leila’s projects. Of preserving the body and reality of Leila herself, for she still has much life to bring us, many questions to ask us. She will continue to make us face up to the world we have created, the world we must live in as individuals.
Leila Alaoui speaks to us of suffering, but always with beauty. Such will our memories be: memories of suffering and beauty. Let us continue, however we can, along the path that Leila Alaoui traced for herself, and that she invited us to follow with our gaze. MEMORY, no oblivion.

Barbara Polla

Festival du film et forum international sur les droits humains
web: www.fifdh.org
website of Leila Alaoui: www.leilaalaoui.com

Geneva, 4-13 March, 2016