Naïma El Kadi, My Olive Tree, Memouna

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2021 (here). Softcover (17 × 24 cm), 56 pages, with 34 photographs. Includes poems by the artist. In an edition of 100 copies. Design by Studio Asja Keeman. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Naïma El Kadi is a research-based artist, and usually works on long term projects, exploring personal stories connected to family relations, identity, and social issues. El Kadi moved to Belgium when she was ten years old; she was born in Rabat, Morocco, her parents having relocated from Ait Addoul, a small, remote village in the Rif Mountains, just before her birth. Feeling at home at both places but also not fully belonging to either, El Kadi turned to photography to find her lost balance. 

Her first self-published photobook, titled My Olive Tree, Memouna, translates her search for identity and homeland (and different elements that connect to the idea of “home”) into images, in particular physical landscapes and people. Trying to understand and learn more about her home country and the place where her ancestors came from, El Kadi traveled to Morocco, back to the village where her parents were born. 

My Olive Tree, Memouna is a relatively small and thin book, and it immediately feels intimate and personal. A small Polaroid image of an olive tree is placed on the center of the cover, and the title appears in Arabic above it. The photographs vary in their size and placement on the subsequent pages. Two poems by the artist, printed on olive green paper, lie at the center of the book and interrupt the visual flow. “My Olive Tree” in the book title references olive trees that grow in the region, where they are considered the source of life. And Memouna was the name of the artist’s grandmother. 

Most of El Kadi’s photographs are dreamy and blurry, based on distant feelings and ephemeral notions, and the overall flow is unavoidably dominated by instinctual sensory perceptions. The book opens with dreamy slightly out of focus landscapes, followed by a spread with fold outs showing another set of hills and valleys. They symbolize the process of going back to fragmented memories, but also appreciating the beauty of Moroccan nature. Then there is a photograph of the artist as a young girl (the very first passport photo of the artist), and here it is intentionally blurred, again playing with the idea of fading and unclear memories. 

One spread with fold outs opens to a photograph showing a woman in white clothes walking outside in a rocky area, near the ruins of an old structure. The old Polaroid on the right, faded and distorted, shows misty silhouettes of an adult and a child, perhaps the artist and her parent. Placed together, these images try to link the past and the present. 

In the first poem, El Kadi shares memories from the day her grandmother unexpectedly collapsed in the bathroom and died, when the artist was only four years old. “Nobody told me that grandma died // the only thing I knew for sure was that // I would never see her again”. The words are followed by black and white full bleed spreads of nature, the color drained away. The second poem in the book is about her first experiences in Belgium, followed by images shot on expired Polaroids. El Kadi photographed her daughter, connecting three generations of women, and the distortions create a dreamy atmosphere, again emphasizing the elusive quality of memories.  

A number of photobooks published in recent years have explored incomplete family histories, searching for one’s roots and reflecting on the idea of home. Tarrah Krajnak turned to unorthodox portraits, translations, and archival recreations to dig into the circumstances of her own birth and adoption (reviewed here). Diana Markosian reenacted a family migration story using a soap opera in her photobook Santa Barbara (reviewed here). And more recently Jeano Edwards offered a tender and intimate vision of his native Jamaica in EverWonderful (reviewed here).

Seen together, El Kadi’s photographs have an almost mysterious sensibility. My Olive Tree, Memouna is a modest and simple publication, yet it is a thoughtful and personal photographic project, engaging with childhood memories and unanswered questions. It is a visual diary that pays tribute to memories, people, and the land. As we follow El Kadi’s meditative visual process, the journey becomes just as important as the result, becoming a personal story with a universal dimension.

Collector’s POV: Naïma El Kadi does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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