Indigenous futurism

“I love science fiction”

Futuristic films such as “Dune” often feature desert peoples reminiscent of the Amazigh culture of North Africa — without acknowledging their influence. British-Moroccan filmmaker and designer Elias Riadi, in contrast, is building on the Amazigh tradition of his ancestors to create his very own version of an „indigenous futurism“
Man walking in the desert

Scene from the “Orion Au Sahara 2970” (2023) campaign, shot in southern Morocco


Interview by Atifa Qazi and Ruben Donsbach

Kulturaustausch: Your work as a designer and filmmaker centers on the Amazigh or Berber culture. Is it appropriate to call it “indigenous”?

Elias Riadi: Certainly. If you look back at the origin of North African culture, it dates back way before the Arab invasion of the 7th century. There are ancient cave paintings in southern eastern Algeria that date back 10,000 BC, and the earliest human remains from 300,000 years ago were found in Jebel Irhoud, Morocco. 

Obviously, there have been many colonisers over this time period who left their mark. But the Amazigh are indigenous to these lands. They’ve been here forever, interacting with but also resisting outside cultures and invaders. For a while, you couldn’t register a child with an indigenous name in Morocco. But thankfully, in 2014 this ban was lifted. 

Your father is Moroccan but you grew up in London. How did you get in contact with this Amazigh culture and how has it shaped your views and aesthetic sensibility?

Growing up in the UK, I of course knew that I was partly Moroccan. I spend nearly every summer there, but I wasn’t aware of the deeper implications of my heritage. It lay hidden beneath the more obvious Arabic and Islamic influence. Only as I got older did I explore my dad’s emphasis on our Berber heritage.

When you are young and come from a diaspora, you want to fit in - that’s natural. But when I was 22 years old, during the 2020 lockdown, I had a self-awakening. 

What happened?

I had felt misplaced for quite some time. I did some research, and I slowly started to understand who I was, who my family and community were. I understood how historic, rich and complex the Amazigh culture was. I finally felt at home in the sense that I understood where I belong, and where I needed to go.

On your Instagram, I saw you have two tattoos. One shows the Moroccan Star, the other one is of an Amazigh symbol. How do you synthesize these identities and cultures?

For me, the two aren’t in opposition. The Moroccan Star symbolizes the nation, while the Amazigh symbol represents a free man or free people. It is not only about imagining an indigenous past but also being in an indigenous present.

When did you start to immerse yourself in your culture?

This happened gradually. My summers spent in Morocco marked the beginning. Years of research  culminated in my fashion project Iter Mora and also another project, an Amazigh sci-fi short-film I’ve been working on, that will go to festivals this year.

The team included Moroccans and Amazigh people. For example, Malika Zarra, an Amazigh singer who plays the Guedra in the film, and Salima El Mahraoui, an Amazigh model who worked on both the campaign and the film, as well as many others behind the scenes.

Suddenly, I felt like I was truly coming home. I felt a strong sense of purpose, maybe for the first time in my life. It was the beginning of something bigger than myself, and that was a beautiful and intensive experience.

A man with a jumper with a graphic print on it

“Iter” means “journey” or “passage” in Latin, “Mora” means “time span”: Iter Mora fashion merges influences from across the Mediterranean region

The Amazigh transport their legacy through the means of poetry, dance, or music instead of text. How do these cultural practices influence your own approach to fashion and filmmaking?

My movie, titled The City of Orion, is based on the folklore dance from the Guedra, which is from southern Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania. It is about sending blessings and energy to the past, present and the future, the sun, the moon and the stars. Long before Islam, worshipping the stars in the night sky and related spiritual practices were vital to daily life, poetry and music, as well as to weaving rugs, tattoos or protective amulets.

The Tuareg, for example, use their knowledge of the night sky and the constellation of stars on their journeys through the desert. My film is an ascension story, a tale of an ancient stargate guarded by the Guedra, where the ritual takes place that ascends and connects my protagonists back to their ancestors in the stars. 

The film, and the Iter Mora campaign, are shot at the Stadt des Orion, a towering mud observatory in the Sahara, aligned to the constellation Orion itself.

On the Iter Mora website, you write that your collection is all about connecting the past and the future to create a new present. This sounds somewhat abstract but as a topic it came up in many conversations we had while putting together this magazine. What does it mean to you exactly?

I see it like this: the heritage is like a foundation that makes us resilient. It gives us strength and elegance, akin to the Tuareg crossing the desert. I went on to consider: how do you depict this in a futuristic sense? How do you project this notion in a kind of utopian space?

“Nobody needs more pointless brands that are only produced to be trendy”

I sought to reference the traditional garments, the robes, and the veils, but not using the traditional flowing cotton, but rather a more contemporary technical fabric, that has been refined, modernized and laser cut. This results in strong shapes and silhouettes; the broad shoulders, and padded knees showcase strength.

Then you have the jewelry, which is highly symbolic and connected to the navigation of the stars. Salima has two red lines going down her face, which refer to the indigenous tattoos and makeup. She's also wearing traditional Tuareg earrings, but combines it with a sci-fi headset.

A woman looks directly into the camera, two lines of blood run from her eyes across her cheeks, she wears a spider-like mesh of metal on her head, in the background you can see the desert

Model Salima Mahraoui in the “Iter Mora” campaign (2023)

What is it about the science-fiction-genre that makes it so well suited for your reimagining an indigenous present?

I’ve always loved movies like Dune or Star Wars, all these epic and amazing worlds, that are heavily influenced by North Africa or the Middle East. These cultural spaces have been taken and made into this future fantasy, whether it's the landscapes, the traditional veils or, like in Dune, the blue people of the desert, who are of course inspired by the Tuareg. Even in Star Wars you have the Tunisian Amazigh dome homes.

This projects a tradition that suddenly feels ahead of its time. I think this narrative makes it so appealing and potent.

“It is not only about imagining an indigenous past but being in an indigenous present”

In movies like Star Wars but also in famous fashion collections by designers such as Saint Laurent, the relationship with North Africa and the Near East feels quite colonial and exploitative at times. How can this be avoided? 

Truly understanding and being part of a culture is completely different from just admiring it for its visual appeal. When I'm using certain references, it's about paying respect. I don’t want to create costumes or stories without meaning; we must preserve our cultural history and use it to educate – rather than allow it to be exploited without reference to our origins. 

For this, you need to work with people from the community to tell our stories, like our model Salima whose family comes from a neighboring village to that where my great-grandmother was born. 

The idea of being more connected to the world around us seems very contemporary, not only in an indigenous context. Do you agree?

Most certainly. In western cities like London or New York you are constantly in a rush, and you lack nature which can make you feel utterly displaced. In North Africa, for example, you mostly have a clear view of the sun or the stars. You can see experience the time of day and your own location, making a different pace and way of life. Connection to the earth, the cosmos and the stars above still resonates profoundly with human beings. It gives us direction.

Many young people in the west struggle with being so disconnected. This is represented in fashion itself, which of course is a huge industry, but also offers a very powerful language for social and political commentary.

How so?

Fashion is about representation and identity. It is also a canvas for any kind of message you want to make. Today I feel we don't need any more pointless brands that are just being created to be trendy.

At the end of the day, things should be created with purpose. They should send a reflective message rather than distract us. We seek to create a community rather than to further divide us. For me it is this sense of purpose and connection to my indigenous past and present that keeps me going.