Photographer Leila Alaoui was 33 years old when she was fatally caught in a terrorist attack in Ouagadougou, while working for Amnesty International in Burkina Faso, west Africa. In the two years since, her mother Christine, with the help of Leila’s younger brother Soulaimane, has established the Fondation Leila Alaoui to continue her daughter’s message of cross-cultural understanding, expressed through photography. Today, Christine is exhibiting her own photographs in an exhibition titled Christine Alaoui: Life Line at London gallery Sulger-Buel Lovell (until Thursday December 21), in aid of that budding foundation.
Twenty-five mostly vintage images show scenes of a New York long gone – serene streets and ad-free sidewalks – and Marrakech alleyways, dusty and unhurried, heavy with palms. The prints come in two sizes, either 40cm x 60cm, priced at £700 each, or 55cm x 80cm, which go for £1,250. Half the pictures were chosen by Leila days before she flew to Ouagadougou, when she was at home with her parents in Marrakech, encouraging her mother to finally exhibit her 1970s photographs. So Leila is listed as co-curator of the show, alongside her elder sister Yasmina, an artist who lives in New York and picked up what Leila had started.
Christine captured the images as a young Frenchwoman in America, and then in Marrakech, after she relocated with her Moroccan husband Aziz, who she’d met in New York. In Morocco they lived at Bled Roknine, an art deco gem and one of the first houses to be built in the Palmeraie, then an out-of-town oasis, where Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Bergé, Bill Willis and Serge Lutens often gathered to lunch and swim. One photograph, named after the house, shows a shadowy path in the gardens there, entreating the viewer to follow through the trees. This is the garden where Leila played as a child, and the personal stories that spill from the image can only be imagined. All the pictures seem to capture a carefree charm now wistfully out of reach.
Although Leila’s own photography was very different to what’s on show here, her commitment to highlighting the meeting of cultures comes through in how the images are hung to gently juxtapose Morocco and the US. Leila held both a French and a Moroccan passport, enabling her to move liberally as a European, while witnessing and empathising with the restricted position that global geopolitics places on citizens such as many from Africa, including Morocco. Her efforts to represent the face of “the other” to the Euro-American gaze in a respectful and sympathetic light meant that her death at the hands of an anti-western group was laden with heaviest irony.
For this exhibition of her mother’s, Guillaume de Sardes, a Paris-based writer, curator and art historian, composed the hang as well as the thoughtful accompanying text. In that text, he points out that “While Christine Alaoui was making these photographs near the end of the 1970s, Roland Barthes wrote his famous essay Camera Lucida. In those pages, he defines photography by the phrase: ‘this-has-been’.” De Sardes manages to articulate something of the feeling around how the photographic poetry in Christine’s images connects with the tragic circumstances under which it has come to appear. “By capturing a person, by fixing his or her image at a precise moment in time, a photograph bears witness that this person ‘has been’ alive,” he writes, continuing, “but it also implicitly suggests that this moment belongs to the past, and that this same person is, perhaps, alive no longer.”
The host gallery, Sulger-Buel Lovell, was established in London and Cape Town by Christian Sulger-Buel and Tamzin Lovell Miller in 2014 to contribute to “a new approach in understanding the trajectories of contemporary art from Africa and the diaspora”. In support of the Alaoui family, the gallery covered production costs associated with this exhibition and all proceeds from sales will be donated directly to the Fondation Leila Alaoui. “What happened to Leila was such a tragic story, which deeply touched the whole community of artists across Africa,” says Sulger-Buel. “She was so talented, and this talent was cut short so violently, that we wanted to do anything we could to help the foundation in distributing her work and continuing her message”.