Moroccan Culture Meets Pop Art with Hassan Hajjaj's Photographs

One part Warhol and one part Sidibé, his work offers vibrant riffs on consumer culture that challenge stereotypes about the Arab world. Photography Hasaan Hajjaj
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Hassan Hajjaj is probably the only artist to ever blow off Louis Vuitton’s invitation to collaborate. It’s not because he doesn’t respect the label. In fact, it’s because he likes it a little too much.

To understand why, one has to take it back to the late ’80s when Hajjaj—an immigrant from Larache, a tiny fishing village in Morocco—opened an affordable streetwear shop in London. He remembers those early years of hustling: “At that time, all these big brands weren’t designing for me and my friends; they were designing for rich people. But we also wanted to be part of that world. We wanted to have money and be able to wear this clothing.”

So he started picking up knockoffs in flea market stalls, cutting off the logos, and stitching them onto clean white tees and the backs of acid-washed jean jackets.

Hajjaj soon became a fixture on the British club scene, promoting underground parties and assisting on photo shoots into the ’90s. Entirely self-taught, he stumbled into his own artistic practice after helping an English photographer on a fashion shoot in Morocco where he observed that his country was being exploited as a flat exotic backdrop against which leggy European models could pose. He knew it was more than that. “I wanted to do something to present my own people who stand between the traditional and the modern,” he decided. ”I wanted to represent my own friends.”

From the beginning, Hajjaj’s photographs took on a distinct structure rooted in the formal tradition of African studio portraiture, but also linked to hazy memories of his own childhood. His shoots have the sweaty, swaying vibe of a neighborhood block party, inhabiting the borderlands between real life and performance art—often with live musicians and dancers involved to set the mood. Subjects dressed in jolts of color pose with attitude against bright mats of the sort his uncle once wove back in the village, and the images are then mounted in frames hammered together with everyday household items from any North African corner grocery.

Whether it’s Arabic Coca-Cola cans, Butterfly matchbooks, cans of coconut milk arranged in a wooden frame, or candy-hued polka dots on a woman’s djellabarobe, the repetition of patterns in his work is subtly grounded in the geometric principles of Islamic art. In the context of Moroccan life, these can be glimpsed in the tile mosaics ornamenting hidden courtyards and often strikingly layered across the domes of mosques.

Hajjaj first became widely known for “Kesh Angels,” an ongoing series in which a badass female motorcycle gang is shot careening, fully covered, through the narrow alleyways of Marrakech. In a riff on Barbie—who can’t get anywhere on her impossible heels—Hajjaj next made the Angels into dolls on bikes.

With “My Rock Stars,” Hajjaj rigged up portrait studios on the streets of Morocco, Kuwait, and London, then shot a global group of singers, songwriters, and musicians. Video installations led the way to a film, Karima: A Day in the Life of a Henna Girl, followed by the series “La Salle de Gym des Femmes Arabes” or “Gym for Arab Women,” a take on the inner workings of a women-only gym.

Today, Hajjaj regularly photographs celebrities—from Cardi B to Will Smith—but he still mostly focuses on everyday Moroccans, democratically dressing all of his subjects in pattern-clashing outfits he designs from fabric picked up in bargain stalls across London, Manhattan’s Chinatown, and the souks of Marrakech. Gucci, Chanel, Adidas, Fendi. The status-crowning logos are flashed everywhere—sometimes surprisingly.

In a portrait of the Afrikan Revolution’s frontman Asheber, the musician’s feet are enveloped in pointy-toed Moroccan babouche slippers, stitched from blue pleather stamped with the signature LV monogram. The brands appearing in Hajjaj’s work speak a shared language of materialism, offering everyone, regardless of background or spending power, an equal entry point.

As part of the collaboration deal Louis Vuitton discussed with Hajjaj, the house stipulated that the artist would have to cease using counterfeit materials and instead incorporate authentic couture into his photographs. Tempting as this was, he couldn’t turn away from his roots. “If I am using the real thing,” he explains, “it becomes more of a fashion shoot. When I shoot it’s about making the person look grand even if the whole setup costs $40.”

It is that friction between counterfeit and couture, street and atelier, the reality of the Arab world and the West’s fantasies of it that make Hajjaj’s artistic practice so intelligent. Remove the fake and what’s left to play off of?

In the tradition of Malian photographer Malick Sidibé as well as America’s darlings David LaChapelle and Andy Warhol, this is pure pop art—rooted in the trends, styles, and personalities of its era. And yet, Hajjaj has earned a place in some of the world’s most elite art galleries, cultural institutions, and private collections. In the last decade, his work has appeared everywhere from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and Somerset House to the Third Line in Dubai, Paris’s Institut du Monde Arabe and LACMA in Los Angeles.

Perhaps people are growing hungry for more nuanced views of the Middle East beyond the guns, bombed-out buildings, camels, and darkly-veiled women pumped out a dime a dozen by opportunistic artists and publicized by a Western media that will stop at nothing to maximize clicks through clichés.

Over a terrible Skype connection from Marrakech, Hajjaj snickers across the choppy line: “Maybe one day I’ll focus on wars and people with sad stories. But for now, this is what I do.” But even though his work is stubbornly uplifting, charming, and even glamorous at times, there is also a political side to what Hajjaj does.

When it comes to fashion history, no other simple piece of cloth has been more divisive, more turbo-charged with assumptions and appropriations than the veil. Within Hajjaj’s vast body of work (particularly the “My Rock Stars” series) women’s faces are not always covered. However, many of his female subjects are wear the headscarf and some cover their faces. His mother wore the veil, and when Hajjaj began shooting women, he suddenly remembered tugging at it and being fascinated by it as a kid. “Women ride motorcycles here,” he says. “Veiled, unveiled, young, and old. In Morocco, the veils are not black like you might see in Saudi Arabia; that piece of cloth can be bright and colorful. It’s something that is already here and I chose to highlight it in a fun and awkward way.”

The women in “La Salle de Gym des Femmes Arabes” appear in the Nike swoosh, Adidas stripes, and even the imperative “Just Do It” emblazoned across their veils. The entire series was conjured in Hajjaj’s imagination over a period of 10 years and was first shown in 2016 to a largely Arab expatriate audience at the Third Line, a hip gallery situated within Dubai’s buzzing Alserkal Avenue arts community.

“Fifteen years ago, before European-style gyms became the rage, I used to go to a very local gym in the medina in Marrakech,” he remembers. “They had different hours for men and for women. I decided to play off of the Western gyms where you have the ball caps, the T-shirts, and the weights.” The women in this series are muscular, jocular, and mobile—kicking, lifting, running, throwing. They have physical parity with men. They take risks in athletic competitions. They Just Do It through life while covered, and the clothing doesn’t hold them back. Instead, it links them to the women all over the world who wear the same logos and sportswear. Hajjaj pokes fun at the sheer ridiculousness of the West’s notion of the isolated and powerless Arab woman.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, European Orientalist painters (Eugène Delacroix and Jacques Majorelle perhaps most famously among them) ventured to Morocco and began imagining the exotic terrain of the harem. The women they depicted had little agency and were posed to imply they only existed to further male pleasure.

More than a century later, Hajjaj depicts women’s spaces, also from his imagination—and yet his subjects are anything but helpless. With Gnawa Impulse beating along in the background, he reveals that next up is a series a decade in the making titled “Photorientalist,” a riff on the European painters, which will allow Moroccans both masculine and feminine to reclaim the sexuality that was once stolen from them by European paintbrushes.

Whether he is in his Shoreditch space, which keeps its doors wide open to the community, or Riad Yima, his Marrakech home and gallery, Hassan Hajjaj is never going to let himself get too far from the streets that informed his work from the very beginning.

Artwork courtesy of Hassan Hajjaj and The Third Line

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