Artists from the top of Africa are helping transform the fashion industry with their unique lens on the world.
In fashion, Morocco is no longer just a backdrop for western shoots, where skinny European models climb desert dunes or lean vacantly against the ancient walls of the medina. As haute couture as an art form enters a new global era, Morocco is producing increasingly powerful voices in the cult of high fashion. Designers and photographers from this part of Africa are helping transform an industry that has become sadly over-obsessed with the sales ledger, in a time when creative risks are rarer than ever.
OkayAfrica spoke to some of the most forward-thinking photographers Morocco has to offer.
Artsi Ifrach is head designer and photographer at Maison Artc.
Photo: Artsi Ifrach
Artsi Ifrach, a Jerusalem-born son of Moroccan Jews, is the head designer, photographer, and creative director of Maison Artc. He has established one of the world's most exclusive fashion houses in his home city of Marrakech. It is made up of unashamedly bold and provocative work that is built on pride. “My blood and creative DNA is 100% Moroccan,” he tells OkayAfrica. “Everything I do is personal.”
Ifrach believes that he deals in the sublime and has grown to lament that designers no longer possess the influence they once had. “The mania of celebrity and branding is completely stunting the fashion world,” he says. “I don't want to be the designer that dresses someone who’s famous, even if many famous people choose to wear my clothes”.
Maison Artc produces completely sustainable fashion. Using raw materials and vintage finds, the former ballet dancer creates one-off pieces. “I want to make something that will last forever; my work already carries memories,” he says. Ifrach believes that when people buy his clothes, regardless of how much they cost, it is not coming from a desire to show off their wealth but “from a place where they get to show that they have good taste”. He laughs out loud as he adds, “How many handbags do people actually need?”
Maison Artc were not slow in showing support for Ukraine but overall Ifrach believes that he is out of step with a fashion industry that “sells clothes to people and then forgets them.”
With roles as creative director of House of Art -- “An art foundation to elevate voices from across the Arab world” -- and ‘I came for Cous Cous,’ an independent magazine that will do the same, this tireless firebrand is certain to be kept busy for years to come.
Mous Lamrabat is an artist that gets pleasure from creating in the moment.
Photo: Mouslam Rabat
Mous Lamrabat, arguably Morocco’s hottest commercial photographer of the day, calls in from Dubai. In two days, he is to shoot someone so famous that he can’t even say who it is. “I won’t capture him as an African American, he says. "Instead we have chosen to re-imagine his roots as right here in the Middle East, away from the western gaze."
Born in a village near Al Hoceima in the north of Morocco, Lamrabat came to photography in his late 20s. It was Helmut Newton that inspired him to do it: “He was always bragging that he could use any camera with a pop-up flash, put it in automatic and get the shot. It stopped me from being insecure about not being technical."
Lamrabat is an artist that gets pleasure from creating in the moment. “In Africa we see that creativity in everyday life." It was in Lagos, Nigeria that he was recently inspired by “kids doing things their own way, not looking to the west for confirmation." He accepts that the worlds he creates do not exist in reality. Frustrated by how people from Africa or the Middle East are fetishized in the fashion world, compared to how they are portrayed in the news, his work is an attempt to find what disparate cultures have in common. “I try to put our differences together in a way that it works,” he says. “That’s how I grew up." With most of his life spent in Belgium, his photos of women in hijab are considered beautiful in art galleries but his own mother is still shouted at in the streets for covering her face with one.
Far from being an agitator, Lamrabat may be gentle but he refuses to be neutral. “How can we ever effect change if we don't step on people's toes?” he says. “This industry can be like a death by a thousand cuts - having one Chinese and one African girl in a shoot doesn’t change anything if you’re just ticking boxes."
With upcoming shows in Amsterdam and Casablanca, he is driven to “make hearts weaken in a second” but for Lamrabat, what is more important is setting up schools to allow children across Africa free access to the creative arts. “Death is the only thing that is promised to us” he says. “I want more for my legacy."
Karima Maruan pledged to follow her passion as a photographer in the wake of her boyfriend's passing.
Photo: Karima Maruan
Karima Maruan deals in unveiled, raw emotion. The viewer is confronted by it throughout her work. The models sweat, unsmiling, intense. Simmering eroticism might not sit comfortably within Moroccan society, "but I think that's why I do it," she says.
Born in Amsterdam to Moroccan parents, Maruan grew up struggling with her identity. As a young woman from a multicultural city, she lived with the strict expectations of a family from Asilah in Northern Morocco. "From 16 to 40, I had a real problem with the culture," she says. "Moving to Marrakech changed some of that for me."
One day, sitting at the desk of her unbearable office job in the Netherlands, she was shocked to learn of the sudden death of her boyfriend. Stunned, she pledged from that day forth to only follow her dreams, making moves in the fashion industry -- first, as a make-up artist, and now, as a photographer. Relentlessness, for anyone, need not be marked by spite or the ugliness of ambition. With a single-minded confidence, she has not only achieved independence but manages to work with a big smile on her face. “It has to be a good time but then again, I am also very particular on who I choose to work with."
Maruan's goal is to make a culture yield for its own good. "I want my models, mostly girls, to show their power. To deliver the emotion that sits under their skin," she says. "Women should not be afraid to say that we can stand alone, or take care of ourselves. Our supposed weakness is only something that has been imposed upon us."
Working with haut monde magazines and receiving commissions from international brands has made her hip and comfortable in Marrakech. "I was waking up to the sound of birdsong in a perfect white house in paradise but then...Corona." Freshly motivated by the need to capture what it is to be human, she is currently shooting women who struggle to leave Morocco, Gnawa musicians and soon, the locals of Sao Tmé island in West Africa.
"I don't overthink, I don't ask questions I just do it," she says. Since the Moroccan borders have opened again her phone has been tirelessly ringing, proffering work. "The industry is filled with agendas but I don’t need to talk about diversity and feminism when I can just show it in my work."
Ismail Zaidy takes photos of Morocco in another dimension, using his phone.
Photo: Ismail Zaidy
Ismail Zaidy revels in the swirling concepts of his own mystery. His photographs are beautifully staged shots of Morocco in another dimension. This dimension is North African sci-fi, where aliens try to wrap their antenna around the human concept of love.
The 24-year-old works with a Samsung smartphone. It is less about gimmickry and more about the possibilities of shooting in the saturated magic of Marrakech’s sunlight. “I use photography to give life to feelings I can’t easily express” he says. “It is a process of transferring my love into colors."
Zaidy, or L’4rtiste as he likes to be known, uses this color and tone to tell stories that he struggles to contain within him. It is intimate and yet embodies his compulsion to be alone. Models, always friends or family, are often seen clutching at each other, bound in complicated knots; rarely making eye contact with the viewer. He makes work that is as bold as it is evasive, evaporating in the heat of any attention. Rather than pore over who he is or what he does, he prefers that his photos remain the questions and the answers alone.
“As a child I was fascinated by the women in Marrakech, how the fabrics they wore flowed as they moved through the streets." It is an obsession that runs throughout his work. When cloth is wrapped and draped around his subjects, it is not just around their bodies but their faces too. Barren landscapes scorched by a violent sun are often the backdrop for his models, as they pose on North Africa’s clay-like earth. It is where beauty becomes overwhelmingly oppressed.
Praise from the fashion press, such as Vogue and GQ , throws up as many problems as it does advantages for him: “I don’t see myself as a commercial photographer” he says. “I am happy to just continue to be inspired by the people around me."
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