Kawtar Ouh

KHAMSA talks to Kawtar Ouh about her artistic style and inspiration.

Kawtar Ouh (@kawtarouh on Instagram) is a Moroccan photographer born and raised in Belgium. From Rifian parents, a region located in the North of Morocco, she has always wanted to pay tribute to her roots by celebrating them through her photography.  Inspired by traditional Moroccan dress, Moroccan architecture and Amazigh women, Kawtar Ouh tells colourful and vibrant stories filled with political symbols through a pronounced aesthetic. Meet an artist who seeks to immortalize Rifian culture through art, one who KHAMSA had the pleasure of interviewing.

١. How do you approach your multiculturalism in your work? 

I grew up in a Rifian family in Brussels. My parents were born in Morocco and came to Belgium at a very early age. I went to a Flemish school, but I’ve always been attached to Brussels. My parents come from Nador, a town in northern Morocco, next to Melilla, an enclave colonized by Spain. There are still Spanish influences in Nador that you can see on old Spanish houses, old Spanish churches and many Hispanic influences in the Rif language. I took a series of photos called ‘Are you Moroccan or Amazigh?’, with Kawtar Ehlalouch, a Moroccan presenter, who works on Belgian radio. I combined Moroccan clothes with Amazigh accessories in my photos to express this multiculturalism.

٢. How do you reconcile your political values and your art in your photos? 

Being Rifian carries a lot of history that you take with you every day. Unfortunately, it’s a history that has been forgotten, especially in the process of migration to Europe or to other countries. Our previous generations forgot who they were, just by the fact of leaving that region. The history of our region is disappearing, our language is disappearing, and our music too. There is only the old music that stays, but, for example, traditional music called Izran, is almost gone. Thanks to photography and art direction, I can combine these archives, these moments of history, and immortalize them in my pictures.

Today, it has become trendy to work around Morrocan culture, with Moroccan pieces, or Maghreb culture in general. I’m happy about that, but I tried to link the political part to it. It’s not only pictures linked to Morocco, to my roots, it’s about history. The fact that people do not know a lot about Amazigh and at the same time talk about it more. People find it interesting saying, “I like the jewellery, the tattoos they do, I’m going to take it, and I’m going to use it.” It’s taken out of its context and I tried to put it back in its context and educate people in a soft way, in an aesthetic and pleasing way, the way that it should be. 

٣. Can you tell us about your latest photo series in Marrakech, titled ‘The Street is ours’? 

Through this series of photos, I wanted to link the traditional Moroccan women in everyday life and in streets that are dominated by men. I took a photo of a woman in the middle of our streets to show that the centre of our streets are not only men, but also women. It’s my own way of expressing myself artistically and creatively.

٤. How did you start photography?   

I’ve always been fascinated by photography, especially in movies. From the age of eleven, I wanted to take photos, so my father gave me a camera, and that’s where it all started. I went to Morocco to visit my uncle, we went to the mountains of Jerada and took photos. I was really stimulated by my roots, but I always said I didn’t want to work with it. 

My first photos in Morocco were taken through the window of my parents’ car during a road trip. I didn’t dare show myself as a photographer because I didn’t consider myself as such. I used to take photos hiding behind my father, taking pictures of architecture, families, alleyways, a bit of everything. It’s something I still find in my photos today.

As I grew up, I became more and more concerned by certain current events, so I used to go to protests. It was all about defending my values and what I stand for, like Free Palestine, defending women wearing the hijab or the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013. It was during these demonstrations that I started doing street photography, which is what gave me a taste for the histories of people in my photos.

٥. Traditional Rifian and Moroccan dress play a very important role in your photos. Could you share with us what this symbolizes for you?

I’m inspired by traditional clothes, their colours and symbols. Some people give me certain traditional pieces to support my creative process, but I usually resource pieces and work around them in my photos. My love of traditional clothes comes from my grandmother, who used to look for fabrics herself to make her dresses, which she would then take to the dressmaker’s. It’s handmade work of the highest quality. I remember always going to the dressmaker’s with my mother.

The first series of clothes I photographed was made from my grandmother’s dresses, but also her jewellery. I tell my grandmother’s story through them : What fascinated me about her, the way she wore the hijab, her approach to fashion. Today, in my photos, I combine Moroccan and Rifian architecture with the story of my roots. I’m also inspired by the history of accessories and the history of dresses. For example, Moroccan women wear seven gold bracelets, not three or four. Where does this number come from? 

I use colour combinations that are common in Nador and in everyday Moroccan life, such as pink with blue, yellow with blue, pink with mauve. These are fairly flashy colours that are found everywhere in homes, and I also try to combine them in clothes. 

٦. What do you think of the role of art and social networks in representing Amazigh cultures in the West? 

When I was a young artist of 17, there were no museums or exhibitions where I could go and feel represented. I couldn’t say, “Oh yes, I’ve seen that before in my life.” Thanks to my social networks and my photos, I can show that there is another way of looking at art. These are the moments for me to use and talk about political things, but also aesthetically pleasing things where people can recognize themselves. 

Our generation is more and more searching for its roots. They really want to represent their identity, they’re not going to hide behind a white identity because it’s easier for them. They’re not ashamed of where they come from, they’re proud of it, and they’re going to dress how they want, they’re going to talk about their history with pride. Art really helps the younger generation to express themselves and look for their roots.

Selma Chougar is a French independent journalist of Algerian origin who writes for several magazines based in Paris, London, and Dubai. Culture and societal phenomena in the Arab world are her areas of expertise. She contributes to both French and English-language magazines.