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Hassan Hajjaj

Born, 1961 in Larache, Morocco

Hassan Hajjaj is a British/Moroccan artist who divides his time between the two cities of London and Marrakesh and wherever else in the world his activities take him. He moved to London in 1975 and has gone on to develop and maintain a wide range of activities that broadly encompass the areas of visual arts practice and popular culture. Using photography, found objects and assemblage sculpture Hajjaj playfully reinterprets and represents images and symbols from his native Morocco, mindful of the ways in which orientalism has played such a powerful part in constructing the countries and cultures of north Africa and elsewhere as mysterious and exotic. Hajjaj deliberately plays with such pathologies and stereotypes, as a way of subverting them and disabusing those who might be minded to make problematic assumptions about north African/Moroccan culture and people.

Through his work, Hajjaj asserts that he and other Moroccans inhabit cultural and social worlds that are every bit as complex and multilayered as those lived by people in the West. Simultaneously however, Hajjaj delights in utilising in his art symbols, motifs and icons of his native Morocco that signify difference. Chief amongst these, perhaps, are his photographs of veiled women of different ages and the liberal use of Arabic text and script within his assemblage sculpture and collages.

Several years ago, Hajjaj produced a work that was typical of his playful impulses and yet sought to caution against the stereotype. On a piece of smoothed rectangular horizontal board, with slightly upturned and rounded edges, Hajjaj had printed a portrait of four veiled young Arab women. Perhaps as a direct challenge to the viewer’s expectations, the women each appeared happy, self assured and self-confident. Perhaps most noticeable were the ways in which they each met the viewer’s gaze and returned it steadfastly. The image was hand-coloured, thereby adding a notable element of playfulness. It is perhaps only on closer inspection that we notice or realise that the group portrait has been placed on the underside of a new and unused skateboard, sans its wheels. The underside of a skateboard is perhaps the last place the viewer might expect such an image to be located. It is precisely the ways in which this unexpectedness critiques dominant assumptions of gender, Islam, and popular culture that interest Hajjaj. As Rose Issa has commented: “Feeding off clichéd images, such as the veiled Muslim woman, at first glance Hajjaj seems to be creating Orientalist fantasies. Only on closer inspection do we see that the veils and jellabah worn by his subjects are covered in fashion logos, thus forcing the viewer to question the very nature of stereotyping.”

In 2008 Hajjaj had an exhibition of recent work at Leighton House Museum in London. The exhibition brought together the artists engaging, playful and challenging portraits of Moroccan women. In contrast to the anguished and fractious ways in which the veil has entered public discourse, the women in Hajjaj’s photographs exuded a notable and singular sense of self. In a variety of ways, they declared themselves to be happy blending, combining, balancing those aspects of their lives and culture that were perhaps traditional, with those aspects of their lives and culture that embraced the same sorts of styles, fashions and consumerism more readily associated with London, Milan, Paris and New York. Again, as Rose Issa noted in the Leighton House catalogue, “In one image, Ilham, a woman reclines on cushions in a room reminiscent of an Oriental harem. However, unlike the usually demure odalisques of art history, this one stares back at us, oozing with self-confidence. In Saeda, a pair of heavily made-up eyes gaze at the camera. The remainder of the head and face are hidden behind a ‘Louis Vuitton’ veil. Bejewelled hands painted with traditional henna cover Saeda’s ears. She is confident, relaxed ‘suspended somewhere between the traditional and modern, between East and West’.”

Perhaps more than this however, these women, much the same as Hajjaj himself, occupy their own space on their own terms. As such, they emphatically challenge the ways in which we have come to disassociate, women of North Africa and other Arab countries from confidence, empowerment and consumerism. Simultaneously, we tend to associate such states of being and activities only with Western women.

Hajjaj does not restrict himself to the artist’s studio or the art gallery. Instead, he utilises an astonishingly wide range of devices, locations and environments in the furtherance of his practice. He has created record sleeves, undertaken advertising and television work, contributed to publications and participated in a wide range of events. One of the most substantial publications showcasing his work is the catalogue produced to accompany the artist’s Leighton House Museum exhibition, mentioned above. (Hassan Hajjaj; Dakka Marrakesh, Leighton House Museum, 10 September - 5 October 2008)

Related items

click to show details of Hassan Hajjaj | Dakka Marrakesh (announcement)

»  Hassan Hajjaj | Dakka Marrakesh (announcement)

Announcement relating to an exhibition, 2008

click to show details of Hassan Hajjaj | Dakka Marrakesh (catalogue)

»  Hassan Hajjaj | Dakka Marrakesh (catalogue)

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 2008

click to show details of Hassan Hajjaj | Dakka Marrakesh (Private View card)

»  Hassan Hajjaj | Dakka Marrakesh (Private View card)

Announcement relating to an exhibition, 2008

Related exhibitions

Related venues

»  Leighton House Museum

London, United Kingdom