M'hammed Kilito Interview - The Hopper Prize

M'hammed Kilito

M'hammed Kilito on early turning points, understanding oases in the face of climate change, & exploring new perspectives.

How did you get into making art?

The first turning point came one day in 2007 in Ottawa, when I received a scholarship to take photography courses through a portfolio programme at the Ottawa School of Art. One night, around midnight, while I was working on my prints in the darkroom to prepare for my first small exhibition at a coffee shop, I met Mauricio, a photography professor who ran the darkroom in the school. He came to see me and told me that he found my images thought-provoking; they were staged photographs. At that time, I was very influenced by the Spanish photographer Chema Madoz and I can certainly share with you how badly I imitated him.

That same night in the darkroom, Mauricio started talking to me about Peter Greenaway, Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes and I had no idea who they were. For example, it was through Sontag’s writings that I discovered the work of Diane Arbus, Kertesz, Man Ray and Robert Frank, and it was only later that I saw their photographs. A few months passed and I ended up taking a class with Mauricio who was the first important person to encourage and push me to do photography, to lend me photo books and to guide me. He was certainly an influence and a decisive encounter in the path I have followed until today.

I also had this very instructive experience by being part of the Montreal Photobook Club, where I learned a lot by exchanging with other photographers as passionate as I am about photo books. I began to discover new photographers, to better understand the importance of long-term projects and the construction of a sequence of images. The club members were so fascinated by the artistic approaches of the photographers, the textures of the book covers, the paper used and the editing of the images. They saw the books not only as photobooks, but as art objects.

Little by little photography started to take up a lot of space in my life, I spent all my time reading about photography. Sundays were for learning and getting inspired by walking through the galleries of Montreal. Weekday evenings, I used to shoot fashion in a studio I had access to and did some street photography. One day, I realised that every time I had a creative idea it was related to Morocco. My native culture was catching up with me and I felt more and more the need to leave everything and go back to Morocco to work on a photo project. The real turning point came one day, after finishing work, I summoned up all my courage and decided to leave Canada after living there for almost 15 years and return to Morocco to dedicate myself to photography.
Photography has always been a very serious and obvious career choice. Lack of financial security and fear of failure do not make the choice easy and are often major obstacles to overcome. Those who succeed, in general, are not necessarily the best, but those who believe in themselves and dare to take the risk. If they succeed, it is finally thanks to quality work, perseverance and a great discipline.

Afterwards, I worked really hard and had the chance to participate in different programs and festivals such as the Arab Documentary Photography Program, Addis Foto Fest. I also did an assignment with Magnum Foundation and The Washington Post, and was selected to participate in the Eddie Adams Workshop. All these experiences allowed me to meet and work with great photographers/editors and to better understand their work process and ethics. Then, there were decisive encounters with actors of the industry that helped me greatly and still help me in becoming a better photographer today.

What are you currently working on?

I’m contimnuing to work on ‘Before it’s gone’ series. During the last three years, I have mainly documented life in oases, shared the stories of their inhabitants, shown the beauty of their landscapes and the effects of global warming such as desertification, drought and fires. For the continuation of this long-term project, I intend to better understand the specificity and organization of different oasis spaces and local communities in the face of climate change. My research will also aim to learn more about best practices and different approaches and programs applied to the valorization, conservation and sustainable development of oases.

In an attempt to make their voices heard, I would like to show that several actors on the ground are fighting to preserve these islands of greenery in the middle of the desert. I would like to end this project with a message of hope.

I intend to better understand the specificity and organization of different oasis spaces and local communities in the face of climate change.

M'hammed Kilito

What inspired you to get started on this body of work?

I participated in 2016 to Caravane Tighmert Residency, an art residency held in Tighmert oasis. Meeting with the population there allowed me to better understand the importance of the stakes which these ecosystems are confronted with. I realized that desertification, recurrent droughts and fires, changes in agricultural practices, overexploitation of natural resources, rural exodus, and the sharp drop in the water table are all imminent threats to the existence of oases.

I also realized through several field trips and research, the historical importance of oases. They have been bridges between Morocco and the rest of Africa, including commercial, religious and political ties that have strongly influenced the forms of social, political and economic tribal organization, and their territorial management. Oases are characterized by their rich tangible and intangible heritage, including mud buildings, local arts, crafts and dances, clothing and linguistic diversity.

I started photographing after the fires in Tighmert oasis. On August 25, 2020, a fire broke out and burned several houses, hundreds of date palms, orchards, vegetable gardens and more than 400 heads of livestock. The increase in temperature and water stress has a considerable impact on the vegetation of the oasis, which, when dried out, becomes more likely to catch fire quickly. For ten years, the fires have increased from year to year, endangering an already fragile ecosystem. I realized the near absence of media coverage and decided to go there with a colleague. We both photographed and wrote an article in one of the most read magazines in Morocco and that was the beginning of ‘Before it’s gone’.

Do you work on distinct projects or do you take a broader approach to your practice?

I work on different projects at the same time. The project on oases in Morocco has become a larger project where I am documenting oases in the WANA region, I just came back from Saudi Arabia where I spent 3 months in residence in AlUla which is an oasis city and I have to go in 2023 to Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to work on other oases.

I am also working on a more personal project about my grandmother as part of a commission with the VII agency. In December, I worked on a fabric installation using photogram techniques on cyanotype. Each fabric piece represents a vegetation stratum existing in the oasis: the tree layer, the shrub layer, and the herbaceous layer. I brought an oasis inside of an art institution.

Today, I am broadening my artistic expression and exploring new perspectives through different mediums such as video, archives, drawing, painting, installation, and sculpture. The process is that the idea will dictate the appropriate medium. Working across a variety of mediums allows different degrees of proximity and sensitivity towards the subject I’m studying. In this way, my multi-disciplinary work on a specific theme will allow for various levels of comprehension and connections to be made by the audience in order to have a better understanding of what I’m intending to express.

Mohammed and his father in Skoura oasis, Morocco, in April 2022. Every Sunday morning, very early Mohammed the potter goes to collect wood to be able to cook all the work of pottery on which he worked all week.

What’s a typical day like in your studio?

I don’t really have a studio, I just moved a few months ago from Rabat to Casablanca and I am slowly settling in. I will have a space for my books and archives, but most of my work is done in the field, traveling and talking to people. The light dictates my schedule. I usually wake up at 6am and photograph until 10am and then I come back to the hotel to answer my emails, continue my research and then in the afternoon I start photographing from say 3pm until sunset.

Who are your favorite artists?

This is not an easy question, because there are many. My influences I would say come mostly from cinema and not photography for example. I like Carlos Reygadas, Chris Marker, Eric Rohmer, Emat Escalante, Philippe Grandrieux and Elia Suleiman. All these directors have developed their own forms of narration that go against the dominant forms of narration found generally in cinema. I am fascinated by it.

Horse grazing at the oasis of M'hamid, Morocco, in April 2020

Where do you go to discover new artists?

Galleries, museums, art centers, art fairs, internet.

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