Hassan Hajjaj's Empowering Pop-Art

For over 20 years, Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj has dedicated his life’s work to depicting Arab women and men, many of whom are his own friends. And most of the time, the international artists and musicians depicted in his artworks, such as rapper Cardi B, singers Rachid Taha and Keziah Jones, as well fashion designer Amine Bendriouich, amongst others, are featured in a controversial, pop-art influenced way.

An exhibit of his work is currently on display at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris. With “Carte Blanche to Hassan Hajjaj,” the artist redefines the visual impressions that stayed with him from childhood. “I especially love Morocco's light and colors. I love all colors, but especially when the colors are mish-mashed: I've learned not to be scared of mixing everything together,” he mused at the opening of his show. Hajjaj uses kitsch elements like oriental food cans, Fez hats, camel pics, Coca- Cola ads, and images of counterfeit luxury goods found in the medina of Marrakech to adorn his photos. Overall, Hajjaj creates a visual celebration of Arabness. At the same time, his creative process deconstructs the Occidental stereotypes of North Africa by offering a visual narrative of contemporary Arab culture.

And today, contemporary Arab culture is the subject of hot debate in France and beyond. As the French intelligentsia continues to advocate the principle of secularism, and constantly questions – and criticizes – the representation of women and femininity within the Muslim population in France, Hajjaj’s exhibition can be viewed as a liberating tribute to the Arab woman. An ode to Maghrebian femininity, which, thanks to this exhibition, can finally express itself freely within the French capital. Women of Arab origin photographed by an artist of Arab origin is a subtle way of denouncing French society’s judgmental look at Arab femininity. 

“I wanted to show the world what I saw of the country and its people, the energy, the attitude; the inventiveness and glamour of street fashion; the fantastic graphics of everyday objects and products; people’s happy outlooks and strength of character,” he added. Overall, his aesthetic celebrates the mix of traditional garments and the contemporary elements of North Africa. At the same time, his work empowers Arab women by creating a visual parody of people’s interpretations of Arab femininity, whilst highlighting the strengths of female Arab culture and the contradictions around it.

In this context, his artwork references – with a good dose of irony – the regular fashion shoots that take place for glossy magazines in the medina of Marrakesh and Casablanca. However, instead of the Caucasian models who are usually photographed for such editorial shootings, Hassan Hajjaj presents a series of portraits of Moroccan women from the medina, wearing his own designs, which are most often influenced by traditional Moroccan clothing and twisted in a contemporary way. His so-called “Kesh Angels,” an ongoing photographic project which involves Arab girls riding motorbikes, made a particularly strong impression. “It's about veiled girls on bikes,” Hajjaj continued, conscious of the empowering undertone that is implied by such an art piece. “Kesh is short for Marrakesh, and Angels is obviously a wordplay on Hell’s Angels,” he explained with a cheeky smile on his face.

The portion of the exhibition dedicated to Hajjaj’s fashion design features gender-bending, handmade, and unique pieces that are co-created with artisans from Marrakech’s medina, using up-cycled materials. However, it has to be noted that Hajjaj is not a newbie to up-cycling – nor has he just jumped on the bandwagon of the sustainable trend. In fact, his willingness to explore traditional materials, which he up-cycles with a contemporary twist, goes back to the early 80s when he created his fashion label, R.A.P. This label features customized creations that weave together Moroccan influences and other music and fashion-related inspirations that Hajjaj has encountered along the way. Music is very dear to Hajjaj. One of his video projects features selected performances by artists such as London-based Moroccan musician Simo Lagnawi, a Gnawa performer (editor's note: Gnawa is traditional form of African-Islamic spiritual music). “Music is also very important to me, and I listen to it while I work. Maybe you can tell – the images and the frames have a kind of rhythm,” concluded the artist. And indeed, his unique sense of beauty and rhythm can be felt throughout the entire exhibition – an exhibition that is not to be missed.

Hassan Hajjaj currently lives and works between London and Marrakech. His photography and video work are featured in the permanent collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the LACMA in Los Angeles, the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the MAXXI in Rome, and the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, amongst other prestigious institutions. He has had solo exhibitions at the Rose Issa Projects gallery in London, the Taymour Grahne gallery in New York, The Third Line Gallery in Dubai, as well as the ARIA Art Gallery in Florence as part of the Middle East Now Film Festival. His current retrospective at the MEP in Paris is on until November 17th.

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