Hassan Hajjaj (b.1961) is a UK based artist originally from Morocco, and was the initial inspiration to #OCCUPYARABART’s steadfast growing love of contemporary Arab art when we first came across his work in the early 2000’s.
Hajajj moved to London in the 1970’s at first working in the music scene promoting bands and nightclubs and in the 1990’s Hajjaj spent time in New York diversifying his creative talents into interior design, film making and furniture design. Hajjaj’s works arise from the experience of moving countries of residence and in a conversation with the artist in New Vision Hajjaj talks of identity and heritage and how this comes into play in different locations across the world, “Everywhere you go in the world you end up finding your own village. You can be from any background, religion or culture and you end up meeting your own kind of people.” This idea of identity and of those you identify with was a concept explored by Hajjaj fifteen years ago when the artist returned to Morocco, he described this journey as “I rediscovered my roots and my work became a personal journey of self-discovery, defining myself”, and began to focus on the street culture of Morocco; toying with perceptions of Arabic identity and the relationship between East and West.
Hajjaj deals with the portrayal and understanding of social identities in particular how these arise from overlapping cultures in an increasingly globalised world. He approaches the expression of this via fashion, pop art and photography exploring the effects of global capitalism and traditional influences on a contemporary Moroccan society.
In the Kesh Angels series the photographer take to the roads of Morocco with the motorcycle gangs of Marrakech. These women who have normal jobs go about their daily lives wearing a mix of traditional cloaks, kaftans and veils modified with fake designer fashion brands, sports brands and logo covered clothes. Bright colours, polka dots, camouflage and heart shaped sunglasses. East meets West in a clash of visual signifiers of contemporary culture whilst the subjects of the photographs pose confidently and provocatively on street corners with their motorcycles and mobile phones. The images question the audience’s ideas and preconceptions of Arab women, their poses juxtapose their robes which in turn are in fabrics and patterns that oppose expectations. Their composition calls upon stereotypes of Oriental exoticism.
Edward Said’s Orientalism written in 1978 completely challenged the term “Orientalism” here the Palestinian American literary theorist founded the critical theory field of Postcolonialsm. Saids Orientalism refers to the longstanding imposing and patronising Western attitude towards Islam, the Middle East and North Africa. Focussing on 19th century European colonialism, discourse and art reproductions that imposed an identity on the East. The West viewed these societies and backwards, undeveloped, primitive and one that needs to be studied analysed and represented.
As a result, when one in the West considers the idea of art from the Arab world a collection of images are formed. Expected representations of harems, savages, opulence and calligraphy are ingrained in a mindset formed over many years of colonialism and an Orientalist interpretation of a region seen as separate and as ‘the other’.
The topic of reclamation of identity within the genre of contemporary Arab art is particularly relevant in relation to the current reoccurrence of negative cultural perceptions of the Arab region defined as neo-Orientalist. Contemporary Arab artists like Hajjaj are faced with the need to reclaim identities in three spheres. Firstly, their Arab identity in the post-colonial era in reaction to previous Orientalist representations. Secondly, personal identities in home lands of changing politics set to a backdrop of religious and cultural traditions. Thirdly, as a diasporic expression of identity for those living and working internationally. Contemporary Arab artists such as Hajjaj are embracing visual signifiers as an extremely effective tool in expressing culture and identity and that this is most successful when explored and exhibited on their own terms.
The role of women within this is extremely relevant. Traditional 19th century representations of Orientalist women come in the forms of imagery such as Odalisque, who was known as a concubine in a Turkish harem, images like this reoccur during this period of colonialism in the Middle East and North Africa, women draped on traditional furniture, eroticized, hypersexualised, dominated and in need of liberation. These types of depiction are seen time and time again, the women are portrayed with no personal identity, only that of being reclined, submissive and .sexualised. Created for the male gaze the subjects are objectified nudes that make no eye contact with the viewer.
Hajjaj’s photographs, including his version of Odalisque boldly challenges these images, with his 21st century interpretation; no longer are the women of the Arab world an object to the Western male gaze, instead they are confronting you. Clothed and even veiled they look directly at you; the women are independent, working and active. The confident and confrontational way the women pose heightens their independence and their unique identity of punked up designer logos and brands that cover their traditional clothes confirms their character. They are representing themselves.
The audience at first believe they are viewing a recognisable ‘traditional’ image but this is at once challenged by the visual signifiers of modernity as Hajjaj incorporates text indirectly via branded logos and internationally recognised symbols. As he discussed in our interview with him Hajjaj chooses to use text as a visual marker as opposed to for its translated meaning or expression of tradition responding that “the power of brands globally is that they can be read easily and in any language”.
Hassan Hajjaj, Kesh Angels, 2010 Hassan Hajjaj, Nisrin, 2010
Text through iconic brands, such as coca cola in Arabic, surround each work providing a literal and figurative framework to the images enclosed, arranged in the form of Islamic tiling and traditional mosaics. Hajjaj believes that the inclusion of Arabic text within contemporary art is significant and in our personal interview with him wrote that “it is something that is very important thing to keep doing in the future”.
The language of brands and text that transcends language through its visual expression mirrors Hajjaj’s early experiences in London, those of a young Moroccan knowing no English but recognising brands and exhilarated by the newness of the city, its music and its pop and street cultures. His own identity developed as one of a mixture of Eastern and Western influences, describing this period to Kelly Carmichael in her Contemporary Practices conversation with the artist he states “It’s tough when you’re a teenager who doesn’t speak English, is trying to fit in and “figure out what it means to be a streetwise Moroccan kid in London”. This fascination with street culture is clearly present in his work, whether it be the streets of Morocco or London, Hajjaj’s work is a celebration of its vibrancy and personality. Text and logos in these works decorate and frame this street life, and signify the shared elements of pop culture in both societies. This clear affiliation with pop art and the underlying narrative expressed through his work is the reason he is coined as the “Andy Warhol of Marrakech”.
Hassan Hajjaj, LV Posse, 2010
On studying the series I propose that these images are an unapologetic and bold way to show an alternative and individual contemporary culture unfamiliar to the Western eye. Hajjaj confidently destroys stereotypes and as described by Kelly Carmichael, his approach is to “ toy with the perceptions of Arabic culture and the relationship between East and West, recasting iconic images and allowing shafts of 21stcentury light to reenergize the encounter… [while] his practice on inclusion and contrast rarely offers just one aesthetic of theoretical opinion.” I argue that Hajjaj is essentially saying, look at us, we have a contemporary identity, one that developed from our traditions and was touched by global references to create something unique, relevant and ‘cool’.
At #OCCUPYARABART we are proud to dedicate our first blog post to Hassan Hajjaj, an artist who has been carving an international reputation. His work has been exhibited in solo shows and group exhibitions, to name a few; Taymour Grahne Gallery, New York. Rose Issa Projects, London, UK. The Third Line, Dubai, UAE. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK. Matisse Gallery, Marrakesh, Morocco. Athr Gallery, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. OltreDimore Gallery, Bologna, Italy and Freies Museum, Berlin, Germany.
We will be updating you soon on more of the artist’s latest collections.