Seif Kousmate Waha (Oasis)

    Seif Kousmate, Untitled (Portrait of Mustapha, the man responsible for the distribution of water in the oasis.), January 2021, Tighmert, Morocco. ©Seif Kousmate. Courtesy of the artist
Seif Kousmate, Untitled (Portrait of Mustapha, the man responsible for the distribution of water in the oasis.), January 2021, Tighmert, Morocco. ©Seif Kousmate. Courtesy of the artist

Waha (“oasis” in Arabic) is Moroccan photographer Seif Kousmate’s three-year–long research-based project that explores the consequences of climate change and rural exodus on Morocco’s oasis ecosystem. Beginning in 2020, Kousmate traveled across the country, meeting with local communities to generate dialogue around the oases’ future and environmental issues, shifting attention onto its consequences for the ecosystem’s southern regions, routinely overlooked by Western media and politics.

Seif Kousmate, Untitled (Portrait of Ali, one of the last craftsmen in the Akka oasis to continue the traditional cob construction.), February 2021, Akka, Morocco. ©Seif Kousmate. Courtesy of the artist

For centuries, because of the trans-Saharan trade caravan routes, Morocco’s oases have been home to human settlements, commerce, and agricultural activities, which have each contributed to a significant architectural heritage. Today, close to two million inhabitants contribute to both local and national economic and cultural development. Due to a process accelerated by environmental shifts in the recent decades, two-thirds of Morocco’s oasis habitat and biosphere reserves have disappeared, dramatically decreasing their surface area. These consequences of climate change, including drought and silting cycles, have a direct economic impact on the region’s human and animal populations, endangering inhabitants’ livelihood alongside the fragile biodiversity of their surroundings. Despite their efforts, communities end up deserting their lands, migrating towards bigger cities in search of better opportunities.

Seif Kousmate, Untitled (A landscape of the Akka oasis), February 2021, Akka, Morocco. ©Seif Kousmate. Courtesy of the artist

Moroccan oases are also suffering from unrestrained tourism practices, which not only endanger the vulnerable ecosystems, but also disseminate idealistic depictions rooted in colonial image-making practices. Kousmate’s photographs counter the Eden-like, Orientalist representations of the region, instead focusing on the extinction of the oases and its effects on their communities. As a former engineer, the artist experiments with his images by adding organic elements including soil and remnants of local flora—such as dry dates and dead palm tree leaves—to his prints. Alluding to the rapid degradation of these once-fertile areas, he also incorporates acid and fire into his process. Through this practice, his subjects merge with the materiality of each photograph, emphasizing the industrial globalization affecting the individuals and territories. Visible burning and corrosion overtake the images with saturated purple and orange sparks, emphasizing the urgency of the climate situation. In his own words, the artist intends to “recreate the deterioration of the environment on the photographic material to build an emotional narration.”

Seif Kousmate, Untitled (Hassan (left) and Abderrahman are brothers from the oasis of Tighmert. After their father passed away in 2013, Hassan left school and took on the responsibility of the family. Abderrhaman, the youngest, dreams of leaving the oasis to join his two older brothers abroad. He sees his future elsewhere and considers that the land of the oasis does not pay for the efforts one invests in it.), September 2020, Tighmert, Morocco. ©Seif Kousmate. Courtesy of the artist

By incorporating short personal stories from his subjects in the work, Kousmate completes his portraits by allowing his intimate documentation to give a voice back to the local communities. In an effort “to make the energy and the environment of these places palpable to the audience,” Waha provides a poetic and sensory interpretation to the global debate around climate change.

Curated by Gaëlle Morel

Presented by CONTACT. Supported by PATTISON Outdoor Advertising

Seif Kousmate (b. 1988, Morocco) is a self-taught photographer whose practice extends the traditional boundaries of documentary photography. Since leaving a career as a Project Manager in the civil engineering sector in 2016, Kousmate has been working on different long-term and immersive series on migration and youth in Africa, including the migration of sub-Saharans on the land border between Morocco and Europe and traditional slavery in Mauritania and Rwanda. A National Geographic Explorer since 2018, Kousmate was selected as a 6×6 Global Talent Program by World Press Photo (2020) and was awarded a mentorship in the Arab Documentary Photography Programme (2020), organized by The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, the Prince Claus Fund, and the Magnum Foundation. His photographs have been exhibited in Europe and Africa and published in international magazines and newspapers including The New York Times, Newsweek, The Guardian, and El Pais. Kousmate is the co-founder of the KOZ collective, comprising four Moroccan visual artists engaged in research-based projects.