The Moroccan-Belgian photographer Mous Lamrabat speaks with Rebecca Anne Proctor on uniting east and west, subverting North African stereotypes, and why humour in art is a necessity
The highly in demand photographer Mous Lamrabat has garnered attention across the Middle East and internationally for his unique manner of marrying eastern and western cultural references in a playful manner infused with contemporary culture. His hybrid images subvert North African stereotypes and combine aspects of Moroccan heritage with Muslim faith and western pop culture in a joyful and happy way even as they question tradition and its place in contemporary culture. This eclectic cocktail of cultural references exemplified through bold and dreamy subjects makes his work not only irresistible to view, but also cleverly thought-provoking. Mous Lamrabat is represented by Loft Art Gallery, Casablanca.
Rebecca Anne Proctor [RAP]: What prompted you to become a photographer?
Mous Lamrabat [ML]:
I was greatly inspired by the work of French street artist and photographer JR. I saw a documentary he was working on which was one of his first projects called 28 Millimeters. For the project he shot portraits of people from risky neighborhoods in Paris, and he shot them on the street in some of the city’s fanciest neighborhoods. The scum of Paris became art and I loved that. I didn’t know much about photographer then nor that you could do projects such as this that would be so powerful to view. The next day I took a train to Antwerp to a photography store to buy a secondhand camera and start shooting and experimenting. That was the beginning of everything. JR made me do it!
[RAP] Who were some of your first subjects?
[ML]: Then I started experimenting with photography, taking mostly shots of my family. I could work more easily with them at first because I knew them. I could annoy them. I couldn’t annoy people I didn’t know on the street. I then needed to study whether I pursued interior design or photography and I loved photography so much that I was scared of going to school and being sick of it because of all of the assignments etc… I decided it was really an artistic discipline that I wanted to discover on my own. I wanted to decide what was good and not good. I don’t want a teacher to decide it. So, I studied interior design but continued to take a lot of pictures. Then one day I was headhunted to work for a big architectural firm, but I couldn’t bring myself to work there. It didn’t feel right and so I decided not to go. From that day I decided to follow my passion for photography and to assist a local photographer in order to learn a bit more about the craft.
[RAP]: You have worked a lot in fashion producing work for the likes of Balmain, Burberry and YSL Beauty for publications such as Vogue Arabia and Vogue Italia. What prompted you to work in fashion?
[ML]: I felt it was the place where I could be most creative, most free. I worked for five years straight in fashion, producing work for numerous magazines and it went so fast. But still it wasn’t enough. I still take on a few fashion shoots because I enjoy it. The cool thing about fashion photography is that anything can be fashion. You can ask a war photographer to shoot fashion and it will be fashion at that point. Anything goes and this is what I loved about it.
[RAP]: As an artist how do you know when you have found your own voice?
[ML]: I think the hardest part for any artist is finding your own voice. I took some time off to find my voice. My agency at the time had asked me to send them new work from the past three months and I couldn’t send anything because I was not proud of it. At the point I decided to stop photographing for some time—8-10 months. I travelled much more. I went back to Morocco more often and to Ethiopia—which is so beautiful, I love the people and the culture. I even came to Dubai once. And then at some point all the pieces came together for me. I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to do who I am. I travelled around Africa and fell in love with it. I visited all of these places with a lot of varied culture, and I decided to photograph in my own way.
[RAP]: You yourself have many different homes; it seems. You’re Moroccan but were raised in Belgium. How has this influenced your work?
[ML]: I am 100 percent Moroccan, but I was raised very traditionally—my mom and my dad are very Moroccan. They didn’t have many hobbies outside of the home or Belgian friends. They are Moroccan through in through. Outside of the house I was in Belgium but inside the house I was in Morocco. That is who I am. My style is just me—me as a person. And I finally did not care what people thought.
[RAP] Everyone seems to find something they can relate to in your photographs. How would you describe your style?
[ML]: There is a little bit of nostalgia in my work. In the beginning, I did not know how to describe my work. It was only two years ago that I had my first exhibition. At first, I thought it was a big ego thing—having an exhibition. Why would people come and look at my work? It seemed to me to be a way to show off. But then I finally agreed because it was in the city I grew up in and I wanted my parents to come. Then I saw the diversity of people that came together for my show: old and young, coloured and white, eastern and western. I realised that in every image I shoot there is something someone likes. It’s really important for me to find connections in my work. They may not at first visually make sense but for me they do when I put them together. There’s a tension in the images too. They portray ideas and issues that I am also exploring or struggling with. I try to work in layers through my images. I try and have at least one or two messages. I feel like I find a way to steal people’s attention, like using a logo that people are familiar with. I want there always to be a message in my images.
[RAP]: Your first solo show was titled Mousganistan: Moroccan-Belgian. What does Mousganistan mean and what is the strong message it hoped to relay?
[ML]: My images, where Western and Moroccan elements simultaneously exist and at times even clash, form a unique universe called Mousganistan. Many North Africans and Africans share lots of frustrations as to how they are being depicted and represented. When I was young, I always wanted to change how we were perceived. I can’t do it on my own, but at least for me it is a little obligation that I have for myself. I want to make “us” look cool, look good. And I will keep doing it. Why can’t we all just get along? Life should be easy. Why do we make it so hard?
[RAP]: Your images of women completely draped in a head-to-toe veil are beautiful but also seem to hold a lot of tension?
[ML]: The first series of the veiled women was quite simple. I wanted to make photographs of subjects with no faces because a face takes so much attention away from the overall picture, in my opinion. This is also proven scientifically. When you see a cover with a face you look first to the face. It is always the eyes that take all of the attention and I want to choose where the attention goes. Not showing the faces of these women create mystery. People want to know where to put you. Often times we see a face and we immediately think, “you are into this or that.” You start to judge. Some people laughed about the faceless women. But then a woman came to me on the opening of the exhibition that showed the veiled women. She started crying because the faceless women brought up something within her. People, like this woman, was putting her own face there. They were reflecting their own realities onto my work. My work merged briefly with their life.