With a unique style that merges Western symbols with Moroccan imagery, Mous Lamrabat is creating a precious universe of his own. By pairing love with humour, his images convey messages of respect, acceptance, and dialogue between cultures. “I am a mix”, he says while admitting to having tried to choose between his Arabic roots and his Belgian upbringing. “Apparently, I wasn’t the only one”, he concludes when speaking about how much people engage with his work. Expect djellabas with McDonald’s logos, Kim Kardashian’s ‘break the internet’ Paper cover but dressed in a burqa, or headpieces where Spongebob Squarepants meets Jesus’ thorn crown.
You moved to Belgium and started studying interior design, where you discovered art and began to use your cultural experiences to pursue a career in photography. What made you switch from creating spaces to creating images? In what way did your studies in interior design influence the imagery you create today?
The reason why I switched is that with interior design, you have to spend a lot of time in one project. In architecture, a project just takes too long. By the time I had finished mine, I was already sick of it. Plus, with my interior design projects, I didn’t get to be creative all the time. Photography looked way more attractive to me because you are able to be creative every day. For instance, if you shoot an idea, you have the result the same day. I loved studying interior design. I mean, I would never do it again because it was so much work, but it opened so many doors in my mind. I learned to link up ideas within different brainwaves. This is basically my philosophy about creativity – the way thoughts link and connect through your brain.
Photography is a fast medium and it forces you to be creative every day as you say. It is a way for people to express their emotions and feelings. How do you express yourself through your camera lens? How does photography allow you to see the world around you?
That is the beauty of photography. I love being creative every day. The only ‘bad’ thing about it is that your brain is trained to work extra shifts, so it never stops. When I get in bed, it takes me so long to shut it down. I express myself in many ways I think, but for the outside world, it’s mostly through photography. Showing them how my mind is occupied with various things. I love sharing that with the world and, even more, I love the fact that people appreciate it as my ‘art’. Photography allows me to create a world just like a kid creates his universe in his room. It is a fantasy world where you feel at home. I wish more people took care of their inner child and didn’t go along with society’s rules. The world would be so much more interesting and unique in my opinion.
Your style is a perfect combination of Western-culture-meets-Morocco; the two visual worlds mix, clash, are twisted and fused to create your own unique universe. How do you make it? What inspires you the most about both these two different cultures, and how do you find a midpoint between them?
Well, the answer to that is quite simple: I am both! I am a mix. For many years, I’ve been fighting with myself by trying to make decisions that either made me become a Westerner or helped me to keep my roots alive. That’s where I started mixing these frustrations into my work. And look… Apparently, I wasn’t the only one. I think the reason that people like this universe is that they feel at home in it. It’s beautiful to create this certain place for all these people.
The message I want to share with them is: having this mix inside you doesn’t mean you have to choose one or the other (this is what most people think); you have to see it as a blessing. It will only make you stronger in what you do. It’s like choosing between peanut butter or jam: if you make a sandwich of the two, it’s much more delicious. The midpoint is on the balance, on making both groups feel attracted to the idea. There is enough of the West to get their attention, and the same goes for the other part of the mixture. And when you have both their attention, then you should send them a message.
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Earlier this year, you had a solo show in your hometown, Sint-Niklaas (Belgium), titled Mousganistan. In the press release, it reads: “Moroccan-Belgian: it is a contradiction where the hyphen often seems to be a bridge, but is sometimes a delicate fracture.” Do you feel this hyphen is more of a bridge or a hyphen now? How did you come up with the name?
The hyphen of ‘Moroccan-Belgian’ is there and will always be there. In Morocco, it is hard to be thought of as a Moroccan and in Belgium, they won’t accept me as their own. So what will we do about this? It is a sad world where we have to put a label on everything. But I got over that part. I am a child of God and I am blessed to be alive. I am a citizen of the world. ‘Countries’ or nationalities too have become a label to put on someone. It’s one of the first moments when you come into contact with racism. It’s a horrible thing when a pure soul doesn’t know better than feeling that he or she is different and less than someone else. Sorry, I guess you can hear that this is still something hard to deal with for me, even today.
To all these people: welcome to Mousganistan, where no one is better than the other. Where ego’s don’t exist. Where your heart becomes softer again. I got the name through a song by M.I.A., whom I really admire. She says something like this: “This is for all my people of the Republic of Swaggerstan”. Looks like she also created a universe for her people.
There is a particular image of that exhibition resembling/remaking the painting The Lovers by Belgian painter René Magritte.
I’m scared to say this, but I know so little about art. I love being artistic but I don’t know much about what is happening in the art world. So here it comes: I didn’t even know about this particular artwork by Magritte. I don’t know if I have to apologise for that, but I am going to say sorry anyway. At least, a sorry for the fact that I didn’t know about his beautiful work. And a bigger sorry as well for not knowing about many other great artists of the past who have opened the doors to many artists today. I used to see it as a handicap, but in a way, I am happy now that I’ve lived in a kind of bubble. I feel that I get inspired by the things around me and not by what other successful artists have already done.
I love making photographs of people ‘kissing’. For me, it is a sign of peace and love – the purest form of existence. And most of the time, I hide the face. I’ve realised that when you hide the faces and only show an emotion, people tend to recognise themselves in the image. I saw people in the exhibition laughing, smiling, crying, or being scared by it.
In some of your artworks, you combine traditional garments like the djellaba with logos and pieces from luxury and contemporary streetwear brands or even fast food chains. Is there a specific thought behind portraying parts of these highly commercialised fashion and food brands?
I started as a fashion photographer, and I think I can still call myself one because I’m not an artist yet. I love fashion but I do see a lot of similar images in magazines. I call them disposable images. That photograph will be up for an edition of a specific magazine or a certain campaign, and after that, it often gets thrown away. I wanted to create my own fashion. By just throwing a label there, I made it accessible to the fashion world. I think we could go much further than just portraying a girl dressed and styled nicely.
What I mean is that fashion is also an artistic sector. So inspire people and make them look up to what you do! Make work for a magazine that could also be easily shown in a gallery. Sorry if you think I am bullshitting, but this is something I really wish for. The fashion and the music industries are very interesting because ‘the sky is the limit’. But why do these industries have such a bad reputation? And then, we have the McDonald’s logo. I used to work in the local one in Belgium. As a student, I always loved that logo because my name starts with the same letter, so I am trying to adopt it for myself.
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You once said: “I’m a Moroccan Muslim, and if I see someone with a similar background like me, who gets respect for what he or she does, it makes me proud of where we come from and who we are.” The fashion industry has become more diverse and more inclusive, but still has its flaws. Same goes for art. What is your opinion on this?
It’s very nice that it’s evolving. I just hope it doesn’t become a hype. Like, let’s use a black model because everyone else is doing it. Yesterday, for example, someone sent me a message on Instagram saying: “You are so corny, why do you use only black models? You are trying way too hard!” No one would have ever sent me this if I had used only white models. It just proved to me that people will always see colour. I try to make a difference but I cannot lie, these reactions are really getting under my skin. It feels like sometimes you can never do good. I call them ‘frogs’ – you hear them a lot but you never see them.
Although, honestly, I love how the fashion industry is changing. Not only diversity-wise but also the kind of photography, for instance. A few years ago, I would have never imagined that my work would be featured in a magazine like Vogue, for example. The fact that it’s possible now means so much. I shoot in a very simple way and I barely use Photoshop – it didn’t use to be like that though.
You once mentioned – and now you’ve just said it again – that you are trying to make a difference in how people look at ethnicities or fashion. “I really want to show the creativity that lives inside the culture where I come from. It runs through our veins. But sadly, that is not what people associate us with. And this exactly why I push myself every day to show them wrong.” What is the most important impact you’d hope to have on society, on a social and/or political level?
The impact I hope to have is seeing that everything will work out in the end. That everybody respects each other because no one is better than the other. I know it might sound cheesy and you would probably think that I am running for Miss Universe, but these are the things that I wish for everyone. That life is easy.
I don’t think that’s cheesy! I think it’s great that you feel like that.
I work a lot with a friend of mine. His name is Artsi. Artsi is a Jew, gay and above all, he’s my friend. We work a lot together, but sometimes, I think we do more than just work. Our minds are not occupied with the fact that he is a Jew and I am Muslim. Or that he’s gay and I’m straight. No. We connect on things that go beyond that. In a way, I think everybody on this planet is able to find a connection with anyone, somehow. But to find such a connection, you should be able to forget many things and behaviours that you’ve learnt and that others put inside our heads/minds. That is also the reason why I want to add and therefore show a lot of humour and love in my work. To make different cultures more accessible for a lot of people.
“Photography allows me to create a world just like a kid creates his universe in his room. It is a fantasy world where you feel at home.”
“By eliding photography’s rich history, and the avalanche of images with which we are confronted daily, he prompts an emotional response in his viewer”, says Maisie Skidmore about you on the British Journal of Photography. What reactions do you want your images to evoke? What do you want the audience to feel when looking at your creations?
To be honest, I don’t know. I can sell you a very good sales talk right now, but like I’ve said, I learn so much through the peers. For example, with what Maisie said. I never see these kind of things, but after reading them, I learn something new. She is right about the emotional part. I like to put a kind of emotional aspect into my work because emotion is the ingredient that keeps the audience triggered to look at my pieces longer. I have the feeling that for every piece of work, people feel fifty per cent the emotions I try to convey, and then add the other fifty per cent themselves. This results in a beautiful cocktail of emotions. If this happens, I feel like I’ve been doing the right thing. But it doesn’t work on everyone. Some people will just appreciate the aesthetics or the light, or nothing at all maybe, which is also fine, of course.
Your photography is not only beautiful at first sight but it also has a second layer that makes you look at it twice while questioning the message behind it. The fashion visual culture of your imagery contains a vibrant combination of playful, powerful, rich and extremely authentic elements. How did you develop this particular way of photographing? How do you merge photography and styling?
I love the way you formulate the first sentence of the question. I am obsessed with the whole ‘layering-game’. And I am happy that you notice it and ask me about it. The first layer is the aesthetics. The second one is the underlying emotion behind it. It depends on the number of layers, but I like to talk about its last layer as it contains the message. For me, it is important to work like this because it allows me to practice and work with the things I care about and love. I love beauty, humour and comedy. And by using these elements as a person, I am able to speak my mind and get the message across within my work.
I see a lot of beauty in things that people don’t pay attention to anymore. The normal things. In Morocco, almost all the aesthetics have something beautiful. There is so much to work with. A lot of things they use in their everyday life become ordinary to them, so I’ve been lucky to travel there instead of living as now I am able to see something beautiful and fall in love with these so-called ‘normal’ things. It is easy to make a good-looking, beautiful photograph. But that it’s just the minimum for every photographer. I used to work like this too but there was a point when I realised that it wasn’t enough. And that’s when everything started. The layering game became something very interesting but also very challenging as well.
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In your creative process, do you think of a story first or do you have certain conceptual starting points in mind before you start shooting? And in your perspective, what makes an image good?
I work in two different ways. The first one: when ideas come up, I write them down. I have a small book where I write them all down and, when I have the time – when heading back to Morocco, for example –, I immediately photograph these ideas. I like to shoot there because I have more possibilities and everything goes by very fast. A couple of phone calls during the day and you can be shooting that evening right away. Generally, in Belgium (and in all Europe), things are slower in comparison; it takes too much time to produce because mood boards and ideas need to be discussed beforehand – often via email.
My second way of working is that when I see something interesting, I just start to experiment and play with it. This is very nice as the outcome is always a surprise. Most of my work is loved and shared because of this characteristic. For me, the definition of a good image is when it contains an emotion. A good image is when it’s not just being flipped over. I have a lot of respect for creatives that are able to stay loyal to their own brainwaves whereby they’re able to create a type of universe.
How do you think the fashion and art industries will look like in, let’s say, five years? Will inclusivity and diversity be the norm?
In about five years, I hope there will be a change in the way people respect brands, artists and designers for what they stand for rather than the looks only. Of course, society will be speaking their mind more in five years as well. People are very tough on people who just simply ‘try’ things. But I think if we all stand together, maybe we would be able to shut all those people their mouths.
Where will we find you next? Any plans or projects for the near future we can keep our eyes out for?
First of all, I wanna say: Al Hamdoulilah, which means ‘All Praise to God’. Al Hamdoulilah for everything that I have been able to realise already. And for the future, I don’t know yet. I have so many projects… Especially in parts of the world that are still new for me, like Los Angeles and Abu Dhabi, for instance. So we’ll see what the future brings me. The most important thing is that I will be able to continue inspiring the youth and that I will be able to keep doing what I like doing the most – I have so much fun.
‘Inshallah growth’ will still be a part of it although I do believe that everything I will be doing will come naturally. People should keep their eyes open for anything that’s coming. I must say that there is a new wave full of young amazing artists from the same background who are creating things that I’ve have never seen before. I call them aliens. So look out for them.
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