When the April blue sky turned grey and rain began to fall in Manchester it didn’t really matter anymore, we were off to the opening party for Seba Kurtis and his latest body of work Kif exhibiting at Manchester Photographic.
Curated by Andrew Moseley, there were a selection of works present, including a wall-mounted light-box displaying two X-ray scans of a human torso filled with small packages of drugs, which form two thirds of the Inside sub-section of Kif. The other images on display were from the Rif and Expulsion sub-sections of the project. These framed digitally printed photographs, equally elegant in composition and colour surrounded the space, yet never did a single image trespass on the next.
With a large crowd in attendance mingling freely, there was an electric atmosphere made all the more urgent by the DJ and courtesy Argentinian beer. Of course the blue-labelled beer reflected more than a comfortable and lively experience being that it and Kurtis himself had both left Argentina and ended up in the UK. And it is this subject of transportation that is at the core of Kif; a melancholic story about Dodo, a young man who was to die alone in Barcelona, Spain not long after completing the journey Kif is based on.The remarkable thing about Kurtis’ work is his mix of enthusiasm for the medium of photography as well as his passion for the subject he continues to explore. Having a background in journalism, experiencing the devastating throes of economic decline, and his own emigration leading to an “illegal” status in Europe has no doubt informed his work and his work ethic alike. The sad little shoebox of water-damaged photographs that were all his family owned after his father’s business went bust and everything was repossessed, acts as a reminder to strive for the best personally, but it also initiated an entire personal aesthetic that continues today. So it is impossible to separate the art from the man, and certainly in this case to separate Kurtis from the story of Kif.
Kif is a local word for hashish, produced in the Rif mountains of Morocco, which goes on to be smoked in every suburban housing estate from Madrid to Berlin to London. While the name may change over distance and time, the same routes are used for smuggling from the same places such as Chefchaouen, the northern Moroccan province where 90,000 households are modestly sustained on the cultivation of cannabis resin.
Kurtis had lived with his best friend Dodo in Spain, both under the illegal immigrant stigma for a number of years. Following a backbreaking stint as a labourer, Dodo decided he would take his chances and travel as a drug mule. This journey he did not document, instead reciting his adventure to Kurtis upon its completion. After Dodo’s subsequent and untimely death, Kurtis took his notes and retraced the journey, creating what Harry Hardie of Here Press (who published Kif in book form in 2013) describes as “a love letter to his friend”.
Indeed, while the project may be seen as a love letter, the kind sent back to a comrade from the front, it does not try to hide the elements of risk and suspicion that exist on that front. The colourful and washed-out ancient Arcadian landscapes, the seemingly peaceful painted stacked houses and descending streets all suggest a rich source for dreamy back-packer tales. This may be so, but the portraits tell another story, and that side of things looks more ominous.
Kurtis remarked during the artist’s talk the day after the opening night, on how difficult it was to gain the trust of these men depicted in Kif, “I just had to drink with them all day to get them to feel comfortable” he explains, “but they could drink quite a lot and I had to keep up, so some of the pictures didn’t come out as I would have liked”. Having only seconds to compose a one-off portrait of each of these strangers with his large format camera, there is an unnerving slant to the images. With their dark eyes staring from beneath heavy brows, the hoods or unbalanced angles add to the tension within the work. One such image depicts a slightly blurred portrait of a local man, which on the surface may seem ad-hoc, but alludes all the more to this underlying sense of anxiety. Far from being imperfect, then, these portraits and the manner with which they were constructed give a more honest portrayal. To what extent of suspicion is a photographer, let alone a foreigner held in such places?
We must not lose sight of the fact that, cultural differences aside, the transportation of drugs is an illegal act just as the movement of individuals between continents can be an illegal act. This symmetry lurks behind the story of Kif. In some ways Dodo himself was the illegal package, furthermore containing contraband. All of which raises questions about individual freedoms, such the freedom of movement or choice or what constitutes a democratic society when such freedoms are spoken of only in name but not in deed. The so-called drug war is essentially a global cash cow that has always been scape-goated for various societal ills yet never abates; there is a long history of government involvement from the Chinese Opium Wars of the 19th century to today’s cocaine trade in the Americas, it has always remained within the political realm due to its necessity to control important trading routes through violence and money. The drug war, just like with oil in the Middle East, is about power; hence Kif is about power – or the powerless, depending of your standpoint.
When we talked about existing imagery surrounding the subject, Kurtis pointed out that by telling the story the same way over and over, people eventually tune out. This is no doubt a real and persistent problem with documentary photography, that in some cases it actually has the adverse affect to the initial intention when the audience becomes desensitized to the plight depicted. Kurtis’ argument, however, is answered in his work with which he seeks to communicate the same information from a more inventive and poetic position, while retaining the original urgency. Describing the effect the project has had on him, Kurtis remarked somewhat poignantly that “now when I think about Dodo, the images from Kif are in my head, they are the memories.” On the one hand this is a sad thing to be aware of, but on the other hand it serves as testimony to the vitality of the images, that they have now become supplanted memories; and in many ways this has always been the power behind art – that it acts as a vehicle for the transportation of ideas, for good or bad, across borders and through time; kif is not the only three letter word that requires a strong stomach and innovation.
To purchase a copy of the Kif photobook visit Here Press.
All images ©Seba Kurtis