ON JANUARY 26, 2016, Zaha sent me a text saying, “Stevie Wonder, we must meet to celebrate forty years of friendship.” I hosted her and Thom Mayne at my apartment in the West Village two months later, on March 16.
I am still in shock over Zaha’s sudden departure from this world. I loved her deeply and valued our friendship beyond words. Here are a few projects in chronology:
The Launching Place—Unit 9, the Architectural Association London: Malevich’s Tektonik was made to sing, bridging the Thames. . . . Birds were astonished. Elia Zenghelis, Rem Koolhaas, and I lunged forward in our jury chairs.
Undulant ripple of the Museum of the Nineteenth Century climbing up and over. Struggling for independence in new space.
Irish Prime Minister’s Residence feeling the wall’s deep tendency to fly. Black and celadon green swirl with cobalt blue making new journeys from painting into architecture.
The mountain’s stratified layers explode into a suprematist geology; with the Peak, in Hong Kong, Zaha leaves this Earth in astonishing new space. Rhomboids fly toward unreachable centers. Floor plans leap and thrust, making a new right of way. An eye-wide hillside of tomorrow leaps with confident joy.
The World (89 Degrees): An amazing painting summarizing Zaha’s then seven-year journey. Already leaving our planet via paintings of astonishing architecture.
New York, Manhattan: A new calligraphy of plan departing from Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse for Manhattan correcting for the multilayered . . . compression and density, black with white flying lines, untwined confetti dream-level beginning.
Kurfürstendamm constraints become Berlin IBA Housing sheet-metal wedge-shaped lofts . . . stupor of yes and no. Stepping slowly into the physical from the painted dream.
Tokyo Tomigaya and Azabu-Jyuban releasing space in Blade Runner spirit piercing the Earth, slicing the landscape, toppling conventions . . . bird-future aleatory “breath light and air into the urban condition.”
Fire and ice of Moon Soon in Sapporo, Japan. Glacial tables drift across space. . . . A whirling fire swarms above. . . . Orange-red peeling, microspatial in a self-starred soul spiral.
Weil am Rhein Vitra Fire Station . . . the promise of new space in concrete full of inspiring detail! The hope of real joy of realization! The fire engine’s red lines written on the asphalt. We all attend this special opening. Philip Johnson is amazed and so influenced by Zaha he copies her geometry for a new pavilion at his Glass House.
“The Great Utopia”: Guggenheim design for an exhibition of Russian Suprematism and Constructivism circles back to Zaha’s launching place with Malevich at the AA in 1977.
Cardiff Bay Opera House, a winning competition design: a new bursting open of opera-house activities “like jewels in a necklace” bulging and joined together, dismantling taboos of architecture . . . flashing before the eyes then smashed by a pitchfork, niggling.
Luxembourg Philharmonic Hall, a landscape of volumetric compositions erupting in separate rounded volumes. A precursor of the opera house to be realized in Guangzhou.
Doha, Qatar, Museum of Islamic Art, a wholly original imagination of space and geometry . . . a landscape painting setting a new path for architecture like no other architecture to this day. Fluid and calligraphic.
Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, Cincinnati, an urban carpet folding upward intersecting blocks of concrete. The push and pull of the paintings of Hans Hofmann.
MAXXI: Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome, a turning linear urban texture; vectors of movement drawn in concrete. The competition—among seven—was fierce. At the end of the presentations, Jean Nouvel, Zaha, and I met for dinner at one of my favorite Roman restaurants, carved into the foundation of a two-thousand-year-old theater. I made a toast prediction: “The winner of this competition is sitting at this table!” I lost the competition by one vote but made a speech in praise of Zaha at the MAXXI opening in October 2009.
Phaeno Science Center, Wolfsburg, Germany: For science diagonal volumes floating in the shadows . . . monolithic curvilinear concrete whorls . . . dissolving the block, sliced-cone rooms turn inside-out. . . . Spatial wormholes are driven through, taking science for a flight. Architecture? It is a beautiful gift to culture, not a profession.
“Poetic activity is revolutionary by nature; a spiritual exercise”
—Octavio Paz, The Bow and the Lyre, 1973
Zaha was extremely loyal to all her old friends, paying visits to their studios, offering humorous critical remarks: “Stevie Wonder, that looks like a watermelon with a stick in it!”
When I walked inside the Guangzhou Opera House I was astonished at the liquid space of this large “house.” Photos cannot express the fluid theatricality of this spectacular space. The scala, that stalwart of opera-typology models, is nowhere in this rippling golden volume stippled with star points. The space renews the very idea of opera, giving it a twenty-first-century space of great acoustics and comfort. Instead of a choppy wood of Disney, a golden new fluidity.
Heydar Aliyev Center, Baku, Azerbaijan: Curvilinear stitches of landscape rise up pitching the curves in waves of open space. Everything is joyfully limp. Against the box blocks of Baku, this white cloud flashing with inner light, pointing to some new world in the distant beyond.
Dongdaemun Design Park & Plaza, Seoul, Korea, a blurred zone of park space, plaza space, public space, and new spatial space.
Serpentine Sackler Gallery, a floating fabric shapes space where light enters at the support structure. A cloud overhead opens through the hole, the sun shines in.
She said she did not really enjoy a big office. Dissipation? The swell and euphoric lift is eternal in the early and middle works.
Zaha’s space = a new optimism for twenty-first-century architecture. . . . The eclecticism launched by postmodern cynicism is over. She found a new path and forged it. Propelled by her teachers Elia Zenghelis and Rem Koolhaas, she swirled past them in inventive space.
Swept along, inhabiting radical spatial paintings of her own invention, she created in a very different way than the collage-sketch beginnings of Frank Gehry. When I asked her what she thought of Bilbao, she replied, “like a turkey popping out of an oven with foil peeling off.”
Her spatial horizon was much wider, aching for the light. Le Corbusier wrote in the last year of his life:
Over the years a man gradually acquired through his struggles, his work, his inner combat, a certain capital, his own individual and personal conquest. But all the passionate quests of the individual, all that capital, that experience so deeply paid for, will disappear. The law of life: Death . . .Thought alone, the fruit of labor, is transmissible.
Zaha’s spatial thoughts open doors to a new world . . . a ferry crossing from darkness . . . from oblivion of postmodern words . . . a new journey!
What space Zaha imagined! What cities, what marvelous geometries she invented! The most amazing architect of her day, and with such human kindness she lived her life—now suddenly gone—but her gifts will constantly move us in the new spaces of the transparent future.
Steven Holl is an architect based in New York and Beijing.
For additional Zaha Hadid Passages, see the Summer issue of Artforum magazine.
ACCORDING TO LEGEND, in 1978 Marlene Marder quit Nasal Boys—one of just a few bands in Zurich’s tiny punk scene—because the fame-seeking Boys thought the saxophone was uncool. But for Kleenex, her new band, she immediately gave it up to play guitar and sing, which goes to show that her break with them wasn’t really about the sax. She sought freedom generally, in principle, to do whatever. A few other young women from the group’s ever-shifting lineup were responsible, over the next five years, for the controversial instrument’s haywire presence—as a growling texture or startling punctuation—in amazing, clamoring compositions, such as one of my favorites, “Hitch-Hike” (1980). The song also incorporates a crossing-guard whistle and either a flute or an oboe into its brightly melodic, rhythmically precarious lattice of sound. Rising from the ashes of punk (if we accept 1977 as the genre’s initial death date), Marder’s so-called post-punk girl band began as a lark and ascended to fame on jagged beams of cartoon sunshine (her guitar), contagious call-and-response gang vocals, and a feral but stylishly restrained stage presence.
Kleenex/LiLiPUT, “Hitch-Hike,” 1980
Bold amateurism is at the heart of the Kleenex origin story; only Marder had played as a teenager and knew a few chords. And yet their music isn’t simple. In recordings, the women sometimes linger on a spare groove or a Ramones-y riff, but it always serves to throw their complex, expansive, no-holds-barred genius into relief. Interlocking parts chase the beat, and percussive shouts cascade like the urgent communications of friends running for a train or chasing a ball onto forbidden turf together. Wordplay, absurdism, and simple stories drive their difficult-to-discern lyrics across three languages. Lauded early on by John Peel, the tastemaking BBC Radio 1 DJ, Kleenex was shortly picked up by the legendary London label Rough Trade, then threatened with legal action by the band’s namesake (the preeminent tissue brand). So they rechristened themselves LiLiPUT.
I first heard of the band more than a decade after they broke up, their song titles handwritten on twice- or thrice-dubbed grunge-era mixtapes circulating in my Pacific Northwest feminist milieu. While Riot Grrrl is known for presenting a disunified aesthetic and political front against sexist exclusion in local underground scenes, it’s less frequently understood within a hard-won musical matrilineage. The movement’s pre-Internet participants often devoted themselves to searches for female precursors in record stores and the annals of punk, embedding tributes to their emboldening discoveries in new experiments. Kleenex/LiLiPUT’s influence, both acute and atmospheric, can be heard in pretty much all of my post–Riot Grrrl contemporaries, from Erase Errata’s queer poetics and puzzle-piece rock to the take-me-to-the-Kunsthalle electro-conceptualism of Chicks on Speed. And for sure my own band Le Tigre took the lessons of Marder et al—in instrumentation, arrangement, fashion, and freedom—to heart.
News of her death—she was only sixty-one—delivered a sharp pang. I didn’t know Marder personally, though. I only have the information available to the whole world, and thanks to the 2001 rerelease of the Kleenex/LiLiPUT catalogue on the independent label Kill Rock Stars and to the advent of YouTube, that’s kind of a lot. One need not rely on fanzine rumors and warping cassettes anymore. Watching footage online now, I get a sense of her—as a performer, at least. She’s unfeminine. In a corrugated paper skirt-form, blue Mylar, or leopard-print jeans, she inhabits a dandy, not a girlish, persona. Stage right, close-cropped hair, un-eyelinered, and looser than her bandmates, she appears as an inspiring, low-key leader, shouting her parts precisely into the mic, with a black guitar and a singular lust for life.
Slideshow: Marlene Marder at Zurich University, 1978. Photo: Ueli Frey/www.drjazz.ch.
Anita Brookner, 1986. Photo: Peter Jordan / Alamy Stock Photo.
ANITA BROOKNER, WHO PASSED AWAY ON MARCH 10, came into the limelight when her novel Hotel du Lac was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 1984. It was hailed instantly as a masterpiece; it would be followed by many more.
For the most part, Brookner created haunting, introspective portraits of women coming to terms with the loneliness of middle age and how the world around them was vanishing. She created an original voice, elegiac yet incisive, in which one can sense echoes of her own life. Even as she got older, she continued to gain critical acclaim. Yet for most of her life, Brookner taught art history at the Courtauld Institute in London. It was Anthony Blunt, former surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, who took her under his wing. He would end his life in disgrace when he was exposed as a Soviet spy. Nonetheless, Blunt had a formidable presence, and Brookner’s years at the Courtauld were happy ones. She remained there until her retirement.
The granddaughter of Jewish immigrants, Brookner was born in South London in 1928 and brought up in a large Victorian house in Herne Hill. Against her parents’ wishes, she studied art history at the École du Louvre in Paris. She felt elated by her newfound freedom, spending days looking at art, studying, and writing. After returning to England, she taught art history at Reading University before moving to the Courtauld.
Specializing in eighteenth-century France, Brookner wrote elegant monographs on Jean-Antoine Watteau, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, and Jacques-Louis David. But her love of nineteenth-century French novels brought her closer to focusing on the relationship between writers and artists, from Denis Diderot to Joris-Karl Huysmans. David, who witnessed the French Revolution and the collapse of the Napoleonic empire, was a pivotal figure for Brookner. After the Congress of Vienna, hope in reason and rationality was abandoned forever—only to be replaced by spleen and nostalgia. The central figure in this modern age was Charles Baudelaire, the “man in the black frock coat.” For Baudelaire, the greatest art critic of his time, imagination was the sovereign faculty, which allowed us to transform the experience of reality into an expression of the Ideal.
Baudelaire was quite aware of the physical and moral evils of mankind. Such a realization had religious undertones; the nineteenth century’s sense of mourning coincided with a taste for what is considered ugly and horrible, as though the creator had abandoned mankind and inflicted moral suffering upon him. As Baudelaire dreamed of finding redemption, art can be seen as a search for (and means of) spiritual perfection.
When Baudelaire wrote his tribute to Eugène Delacroix, he still thought he might be able to free himself from evil through this ideal of universal harmony. But in later years, he saw life as a mere form of exile, one which offered no harmony. Both Brookner’s novels and her art criticism are filled with such a vision. She could be scathing in her criticism (of Michael Fried’s much-discussed Absorption and Theatricality, for instance). Generally, she was a beloved mentor to a generation of art historians such as Neil MacGregor and Norman Bryson. I was fortunate enough to be her student just before she retired.
In a rare interview, published in the Telegraph in 2009, Brookner reminisced about her years at the Courtauld: “Teaching. Students! Lovely people! Then I did feel integrated. I felt I was doing what I most enjoyed. I loved the company. I loved the ideas, the images. And I loved the conversation! The exchange was valuable. That was authentic. Everything else was made up.”
By nature a shy and reserved figure, Brookner had a great flair for self-analysis. She also understood her students and their motivations with keen psychological insight—she encouraged the viewer to articulate his own feelings, as well as a vision based on his own character. The work of a particular artist, say, David, had to be analyzed within the larger framework of historical circumstances; yet subjectivity could not be avoided. In the case of David, she saw the revolutionary hope of creating a world of higher morality and virtue dashed as the artist anticipated the Romantic ideal by relinquishing intellectual control. Most crucially, Brookner believed that art had to be emotionally alive, and she advocated Baudelaire’s “impeccable naïveté,” which she termed the “ability to see the world always afresh, either in its tragedy or in its hope.”
Her advice was invaluable. Nearly every sentence she uttered is engraved in my memory. My fellow student Cornelia Grassi remembers the last thing Brookner said to her before our written exams: “Art doesn’t love you and cannot console you.” As Baudelaire recognized, it provides temporary solace, at best.
Olivier Berggruen is a writer and art historian based in New York. He is curating a retrospective of Picasso’s Neoclassical period to be held at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome next year.
Zaha Hadid, 2012. Photo: Yvette Wohn.
I AM IMMENSELY SAD about the loss of my friend and long-term collaborator Zaha Hadid, who was a trustee of the Serpentine Galleries for twenty years. Her contribution to architecture cannot be overstated. She once told me “there should be no end to experimentation,” and it’s this principle that drove her buildings to make a significant impact on cities all around the world.
I am honored to have collaborated with Hadid on numerous occasions. When I visited her for the first time, at the end of the 1990s, I was still living in Paris. A typical London cab picked me up from the airport and brought me to her (at that time, quite small) studio, in which, supported by her young team, there was an atmosphere permeated by futurism. It must have been the same among the Russian avant-garde at the beginning of the ’20s, when they not only started to reshape art, but also society. Three months later I visited her again, since I was working intensely on a project at the French Academy in Rome with an installation by Hadid in the garden of Villa Medici. I realized that the same cab driver picked me up. When, some time afterward, I saw him for the third time at the wheel, I asked about this strange coincidence. He explained to me that Hadid had bought herself a cab that was only there for herself and her guests.
Hadid’s work was so far apart from all artistic and architectural conventions and norms that it took some time for her to find the recognition she deserved. Her first building in London, where she had been living for years, was the pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery in 2000 commissioned by Julia Peyton-Jones, which launched the Serpentine’s tradition of having a temporary structure built by an architect each year in Kensington Gardens. It was followed by a second pavilion, Lilas, in 2007. In 2013, she completed the dramatic extension for the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, one of Zaha Hadid Architects’ first permanent buildings in central London. She also participated in the Serpentine’s Interview Marathon in 2006 and 89Plus Marathon in 2013.
Hadid was not only a great architect, but also a great artist, and she leaves behind an extraordinary body of work. A glowing admirer of Russian Constructivism, she made paintings influenced by Malevich, Tatlin, and Rodchenko. Among the many lesser known facets of her work are the free calligraphy drawings in which she often explored the ideas that would later be transformed into architecture. Drawing was at the very heart of her practice, and these projects contained all the lightness and weightlessness of her buildings, which seem to float, then to land on the ground. Once she told me that she put all of her creative energy into the attempt to override nature’s principles of gravity and death.
In 2011, when Hadid’s Chanel Pavilion of 2007 was relocated to the Institut de Monde Arab in Paris, Karl Lagerfeld asked me to conceive an opening event. I decided to make it a celebration of poetry and invited three poets each to write an ode to Zaha. These were Adam Zagajewski, Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Esber), and Etel Adnan. What follows is an excerpt of what Adnan wrote.
Model of Chanel Contemporary Art Container. Courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects.
Hans Ulrich Obrist is a curator and artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries in London.
ZAHA HADID’s ENTIRE OEUVRE is an invitation to take a trip. One might think of Baudelaire’s “L’Invitation au voyage.” Hadid is a poet of forms and of the materials that give presence to these forms; one must admire them close up and from afar to discover, in this woman who built on solid rock, a permanent nostalgia for departure. Everything she made seems to always be the day before a departure, a permanent invitation to the imagination, and to the imaginary.
In this way, there is something magical and at the same time absolutely right about the fact that it is the Institut du Monde Arabe that shelters the first work by Hadid in Paris, not only because of her Iraqi origins, but because of the thinking that gave rise to that structure.
What surprised me most in Hadid’s pavilion is its very unexpected intimate character, arriving as if in counterweight: She created a place you want to enter. First, from the outside, a site that is not only visual, but tactile: You want to touch it, caress it, you feel it very spontaneously connects with all your senses, those that have a name and those that do not have one. Once you have entered, you find yourself inside of a secret, a thing to be discovered, a temptation, a promise of adventure. You are in an architecture of great and subtle seduction.
Zaha Hadid, Chanel Contemporary Art Container, 2008, New York. Photo: John Linden.
The prototype of this adventurous construction was a mobile creation, a structure that could be dismantled and was destined to be put, if one so desired, in different places: a roof, a terrace, an empty lot, a field. We are indeed at the beginning of a movable architecture, a revolution in the concept of an art considered historically to be the apogee of stable permanence, but also a reminder of encampments and nomadic tents.
The Arab world contains the oldest cities in the world, but its culture, or cultures, are essentially nomadic. And Hadid’s architecture is in the process of becoming “nomadic”—in spirit, first and foremost, and sooner and sooner in fact. That “object” that you see might be a shell that the waves will carry and place elsewhere, just as it might very well be a modified tent, a vessel.
But let us be careful: I am not saying that that wonderful construction will, by the stroke of a magic wand out of One Thousand and One Nights, fly away into the air, disappear! It is made of steel. It will last. But it has a poetry, a spirituality, such that in sheltering us, it makes us dream, it sets us off on a journey.
Etel Adnan is an artist and writer based in Paris.
Translated from French by Molly Stevens.
For additional coverage of Zaha Hadid, see the upcoming Summer issue of Artforum magazine.
CERTAIN ARTISTS TEACH. Every time I encounter a painting by Ellsworth Kelly, I learn this lesson again: A painting is not just an image, or even an object; it can also be a kind of architecture. I’ve always felt a compulsion to look closely at the edges of Kelly’s paintings, carefully examining the various ways in which he continues the painting beyond its front edge. Each time I lean into a wall in an attempt to look behind one of his works, I am left with the sense that even though I can see the way he has built the painting, I still do not fully understand how it is that the painting appears to be not quite in the same room that I am in.
Many twentieth-century painters put forth the framelessness of the canvas in order to expose the furthest frontier of paint, emphasizing the border between support and the action that takes place on it. But in Kelly’s work, the lack of obvious framing device reveals something different: It is as if the painting continues on, toward the invisibility of what is behind it. Sometimes this manifests itself in that the color simply continues seamlessly around to the back of the painting; equally intriguing are the works made in parts, not diptychs or triptychs and so on, but rather paintings where the image is created as a construction, assembling distinct elements directly abutting one another, edge to edge, though not completely joined. I have often found myself pondering the same mystery: Just how is it that he creates the sense that the painting is not confined to its own dimensions, its own boundaries? Even though each work ends sharply, as it were—in a hard edge where a frame should be—its shape somehow does not end the painting but rather emphasizes that the world it depicts continues on independently of what I can see in front of me.
Recently, I have felt like I have understood a little more, particularly during the process of making an homage to Kelly’s “first object,” his marvelous 1949 painting Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris. His painting has a winning self-reflexiveness: Not only is it a picture of a window, but it is built like a window. (My attempt at revisiting this work was constructed as a reverse window, using mirrors to create an object that looks back at you instead of offering a view out.) It is in fact a piece of architecture, made using separate parts for the dark window frame and for the glass panes; most significantly, it is divided in two sections vertically, like a casement. Here, frame is both place and an image of place, an orientation and indication of where he saw from and where we see from. The frame, image, and object all become one thing, propping one another up. Many of his works resonate in great part because of the way that they carry these investigations further, from Sculpture for a Large Wall, 1956–57, which looks like the windows of a building, to his monochromatic panels, each of which is like a window into whatever wall they hang on.
Window is typically seen as a break or rebellion, a “blow he had dealt the pictorial tradition,” as Yve-Alain Bois puts it. I find this hard to understand: To me, the painting teaches us just how apt the Renaissance metaphor of painting as window still is, how it is perhaps even more important as a poetic construct today. If the function of a picture is to provide clues to how we might look, as an act of engagement with what is outside ourselves, then the frame, as photographers have always known, is what makes it possible to see the world not as a reflected in the inside of the eye, but as image of a reality outside the body. In other words, framing is seeing. It was one of Kelly’s gifts to show us how we can never leave the frame behind, but we might incorporate it, in every sense of the word.
Josiah McElheny is an artist based in New York.
Leila Alaoui. Photo: Art Factum Gallery, Beirut.
LEILA ALAOUI’S BEST-KNOWN WORK is a series of photographs called “The Moroccans” (2010–14). Each picture shows a man or woman wildly dressed, dramatically lit, and set against the same black background, eyes locked on the camera. As portraits go, the images in “The Moroccans” are intense. Alaoui’s subjects stare down the lens with a look of playful or defiant challenge. They rarely smile but always sparkle—whether in the confidence of their pose, the glint in their eyes, or their dazzling array of costumes and accoutrements. Taken together, the series offers a jumble of facts and attitudes to counteract some of the more orientalist fantasies and colonial fictions that have plagued the history of image making in Morocco for well over a hundred years.
Alaoui was born in Paris and raised in Marrakech, where her family lived in a grand old Art Deco house in the heart of the Palmeraie. She studied photography and anthropology in New York. She worked on films by Spike Lee and Shirin Neshat. According to those who loved her, Alaoui never set herself above the most menial tasks. She was as happy to carry a pile of cables and a light-box as she was to entertain a crowd of restless children enlisted as extras. When the time came for Alaoui to focus on her own work, she returned to Morocco and traveled around the country with a mobile portrait studio. In rural villages, on market days, she would set up her equipment and wait.
To this day, outside of major cities, Moroccans are still largely suspicious of photography. In Abdelfattah Kilito’s The Clash of Images (1995), a gorgeous story collection describing his childhood in Rabat, a character bamboozled into sitting for a passport photo calls photography “a diabolical invention,” the stealer of souls, “a hoax, a vain copy, an insidious reflection and satanic artifice, showing water where there was only a mirage.” When Alaoui’s subjects shied away from her setup, she invited them over, prepared a great feast, sat with them, ate with them, lived with them—until the moment came when they were comfortable enough to stand before her camera and give her the look she wanted, the look that runs picture to picture through “The Moroccans.”
“The Moroccans” was inspired by Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” as well as by the work of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. It shares certain affinities with the studio portraiture of Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, who passed away last week. Had she lived a little longer, Alaoui had hoped to spend time in the archives of the Arab Image Foundation, researching links from North and West Africa to the rest of the Arab world. In the history of art, and photography in particular, there are ample examples of work made on assignment or enabled by funding structures that have long been forgotten or surpassed by the images themselves. “The Americans” is one, made with a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. Walker Evans’s collaboration with James Agee is another, a commission from Fortune magazine that fell apart and yielded Let Us Now Praise Famous Men instead. The Farm Security Administration’s photography program is itself another still.
Those projects are now widely appreciated. Less attention has been paid to the costs of working this way, inherited from an earlier era but grossly altered in our own. It has become so familiar for any number of artists, writers, and independent curators today to live project to project, forever on assignment, piecing together their best work on the side while traveling for campaigns and organizations that depend upon freelance labor but do not necessarily lend institutional protection to the freelancers themselves. For Alaoui, it was normal. She did editorial work for the New York Times and Vogue. She used funding from the EU and the Danish Refugee Council to create series such as “No Pasara,” about young men stuck in Morocco, and “Natreen,” about families displaced in the Syrian civil war. It was normal until it was deadly. In January, Alaoui was killed in Burkina Faso while on assignment for Amnesty International, taking portraits of young women for a human rights campaign. A group affiliated with Al-Qaeda attacked a hotel known to be popular with foreigners in the capital Ouagadougou. Alaoui was sitting in a car parked outside. Thirty people lost their lives. Alaoui was shot multiple times and severely wounded. She died of a heart attack three days later.
Leila Alaoui, Souk de Boumia, Moyen Atlas, 2011, color photograph, 59 x 39 1/3". From the series “The Moroccans” (2010–14).
Leila Alaoui, Tamesloht, 2011, color photograph, 59 x 39 1/3". From the series “The Moroccans” (2010–14).
Leila Alaoui, Place Jemaa El Fnaa # 3, Marrakech, 2011, color photograph, 59 x 39 1/3". From the series “The Moroccans” (2010–14).
Leila Alaoui, Khamlia, Sud du Maroc # 1, 2014, color photograph, 59 x 39 1/3". From the series “The Moroccans” (2010–14).
I met Alaoui when she moved to Beirut in 2013 with her boyfriend (later her fiancé) Nabil Canaan. They had just opened an art space called Station in a disused factory that belonged to Canaan’s grandfather. It was perfectly placed between the Beirut Art Center and Ashkal Alwan, two of the city’s most active and respected cultural hubs, all of them now overshadowed by the cranes and scaffolding of the area’s baffling gentrification. Station was not an art space in the strictest sense. Alaoui and Canaan organized exhibitions, but they also threw parties, offered classes, held markets, and hosted DJs. I went to hear the Syrian musician Hello Psychaleppo play there two weeks before my first daughter was born, and the low-slung roof had been totally transformed into a booming club.
For the space, the city, and the future, their enthusiasm was infectious. You felt it. They had come to Beirut to work. “She had an incredible energy to produce,” Canaan says. They had also hoped to marry and start a family, to live in a neutral city and settle into a place where Alaoui felt safest. I didn’t know either of them well. I would see Alaoui around and I was slowy learning more about her work. One does not habitually consider the consistency or coherence of so young an artist’s oeuvre. One imagines there are decades to come. Alaoui was killed at the age of thirty-three. Her death was horrific, seemingly so random, and a tremendous shock to anyone who knew her at all. Sadder still is the fact that her passing has made it possible to see the completeness of her work, how serious she was, and her commitment to using the mechanisms of multiple worlds—contemporary art, photojournalism, NGOs and development agencies—to create one major, long-term, multifaceted project about the plight of marginalized people, whether the Sub-Saharan migrants who pass through Morocco to be smuggled across the sea and into Europe, or the children of such migrants, who are now consigned to a life of hardship, low-wage labor, and alienation in France.
Alaoui spent much of last year in Paris working on the first chapter of a three-part project tentatively titled “Out of Place,” taking an old Renault factory on an island in the Seine (known by factory workers as Île du Diable, or Devil’s Island) as a kind of archeological ground. She took photographs, recorded videos and sounds, gathered documents and testimonies and other materials related to the lives of retired workers. She had wanted to do the same with their wives and children, many of whom are now disaffected young men prone to the insane, cultlike promises of groups such as the Islamic State. She was moving away from straightforward photography and experimenting with video and installation. Yet for all that she didn’t really see herself as an artist. “She used the tools she knew to pursue the causes she cared about,” says Canaan. “She used art to sensitize people [but] she worried a lot about the aesthetics of misery. She wondered if should do more hardcore photojournalism.”
Canaan is himself a gifted storyteller, and he plots Alaoui’s work along a narrative of migration, a subject that is central to another two Moroccan artists and formidable women, Yto Barrada and Bouchra Khalili. (Perhaps it speaks to the depths of the problem that so urgent a theme is treated so differently among them.) “She had done the journey,” Canaan says, pointing to Alaoui’s three-channel video Crossings, 2015, about the clandestine passage to Europe. If that was the middle of the story, then the end, where the migrants went, was in the work clustered around the old Renault factory, an emblem of France’s postwar industrial prowess that was also a hothouse of trade union activity. (The factory closed in 1992 and was demolished in 2005.)
The beginning, where her subjects were from, was in the former colonies of Africa. It’s now anyone’s guess where the work in Burkina Faso may have gone. There’s a heartbreakingly cheerful post on Alaoui’s Facebook page, where she wrote, on January 11, “Off to Burkina Faso!” followed by David Bowie’s video for “Let’s Dance” and a note, typically generous, celebrating a colleague’s work. To the outpouring of sorrows that followed, someone has added another video, shot in 2010, of Alaoui being dressed in a whirl of textiles and accessories in the middle of a Maasai market in Kenya. Her laugh and smile electrify the scene around her.
“Losing her was very harsh,” says Joy Mardini, whose Beirut gallery, Art Factum, began representing Alaoui in 2012. “She was very respected as a photographer. But she is very remembered as a human being. She had a huge impact on people. You would meet her for an hour and all of the sudden you would care for her. She was someone you couldn’t forget.” She was also incredibly consistent, Mardini adds, “in the relationship between who she was and the work she did. She was attachante,” one of two French terms—the other being artiste engagé—that come up again and again in descriptions of Alaoui but translate poorly to English (“endearing” and “committed to a cause” don’t quite capture the full effect).
The photographer and filmmaker Fouad Elkoury, who adored her, was introduced to Alaoui when they were in Buenos Aires for a show. She snuck up behind him, covered his eyes with her hands, and told him she loved his work. He had no idea who she was; they had never met. From then on, whenever they were in the same city, they saw each other every day, meeting to walk and talk and walk some more. Elkoury affirms that Alaoui didn’t consider herself an artist per se. She quietly but firmly believed that her work could make a difference in the lives of people who suffered, and she insisted on capturing their dignity over their victimhood, their camaraderie over their isolation, their happiness over their misery.
Elkoury is in many ways a reluctant father figure to a generation of photographers in Beirut and beyond. They all belong to a history of photography in the Middle East and North Africa that is extremely interesting but underwritten and poorly exposed. Alaoui was young. She was only just planning her first solo exhibition, scheduled for Art Factum later this year. “The Moroccans” was on view at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris when she died. But for all its popularity, only a fraction of the full series was ever shown. In March, Alaoui’s work was featured in shows at a Dubai gallery and a French monastery. She is part of the next Dakar Biennale, opening in May. It was early days. After her death, the organizers of the Marrakech Biennale and Geneva’s International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights dedicated their events to Alaoui, firm, heartfelt gestures both. But beyond that, the project she had been working on in the Renault factory, and the greater puzzle into which all her work fit, should have been a new chapter in the region’s photographic history. With some fortitude and patience on the part of the foundation established this month in her name, perhaps it still could be—a work cruelly unfinished but defiantly present.
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a writer based in Beirut.