Book Review: By Hassan Hajjaj

By Hassan Hajjaj is a short collection of critical essays on the life and work of the acclaimed artist. Edited by Katia Hadidian, it comes as a sequel to Dakka Marrakesh, written 6 years earlier on Hajjaj in 2008. The two volumes are noticeably different; while the latter features an interview by Juliet Cestar about the artists’s hopes and dreams for the future, this delightful collection, traces his trajectory from his upbringing in Morrocco and London to his experiences juggling in between the worlds of fashion, interior design and music, and eventual global recognition as an artist- photographer. The 120- page book published by Rose Issa Projects, London in 2014, features over 90 lavish images of Hajjaj’s work reproduced in color, that highlight four major bodies of work; My Rock Stars, Kesh Angels, Dakka Marrakesh and Salon Hassan.

The book opens up to a short introduction, Sunny Side Up by Katia Hadidian. Here, she weaves a short tale of the artist’s early beginnings, struggling to overcome cultural and language barriers in London in the 1970s. She recalls the artist’s first meeting with gallerist Rose Issa clutching his “battered suitcase held together with elastic luggage straps and bursting with hundreds of contact sheets.” Hadidian then sets the stage for a fairy tale ending, with Hajjaj’s success and recognition bringing global attention to contemporary Moroccan art.

The first essay, Hajjaj in Close Up written by Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, gives us insight into the artist’s strongly personal style- a fusion of tradition and modernity, the Arabic and the Western world. Oftentimes, success occurs when the artist gives freedom to his creative spirit, allowing varying elements to meet and merge unconsciously. Here, the fusion has already naturally occurred within the individual conjuring the combinations. It only remains for them to perform this blending in concrete form for an audience to enjoy.” However, the author warns that with an overly calculating and self – conscious involvement by the artist, the results are sometimes blurry, conflicting and imperfect.

The author also underscores the significance of Hajjaj’s work to visual, cultural and historic cross- referencing, which is in consonance to the Victorian and Albert Museum’s thrust. He highlights the museum’s long and varied history with the artist – the acquisition of photographic works like Saida in Green (2000) and Jama Fna Angels (2000). He also recalls several seminal exhibitions of the artist’s work held at the museum including; V&A Africa Fashion in Motion public catwalk show (2005), and Light from the Middle EastNew Photography (2012).

Barnes continues his contribution by tracing the influences on the artist’s work. He cites photographers Malick Sidibe, Samuel Fosso, Robert Capa, David LaChapelle and Henri Cartier- Bresson, as well as historic precedents like William Carrick’s remarkable series of cartes de visite made with the collaboration of locals in St Petersburg in the 1850s. Barnes concludes however, “no listing of references, or any researched exposition, can explain the magic of the artistic process of fusion that creates Hassan Hajjaj’s distinctive and immersive visual world.”

The third essay is In a Case of Love at First SightA Curator’s Perspective, written by Linda Komaroff, Curator of Islamic Art and Department Head, Art of the Middle East at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. As the title suggests, Komaroff presents a critical view of Hajjaj’s broad oeuvre with two main bodies of work; Kesh Angels, arguably his most provocative and My Rock Stars, his most recent.

Komaroff asserts that the artist’s immigration from Morocco to London in 1973 had a profound effect on his development as an artist, owing to London’s cosmopolitan culture, which he assimilated mainly through music and fashion. He would later become well – known for the bright and saturated colours of Morocco, which he adopted on his return as an adult. Komaroff also reveals that while working as an assistant on a fashion shoot in Marrakesh, Hajjaj realized” all those involved from models to make- up artists, were European, while Morrocco was just another exotic locale.”

He then decided to photograph “my people”, creating images where Morocco is not merely the background,but the subject. Thus begun Hajjaj’s artistic journey, challenging various stereotypes thrust on Moroccan society by the West. In the series Kesh Angels, inspired by the henna girls of Marrakesh, Hajjaj supplants the European models of his early fashion- shoots with these young women “dressed in an alternate reality of haute couture, comprised of the traditional djellaba, headscarf, and veil, but of entirely modern fabrics with bright polka dots, or else leopard or camouflage designs….” Adopting their “distinctive, idiosyncratic poses”, Komaroff observes Hajjaj’s rejection of Western assumptions of the hijab attire and veil as symbols of “disempowerment”, with his depiction of the girls in complete control of the powerful motorcycles they mount. This series and several other photographs have frames incorporating cans of Coca- Cola, Fanta and other packaged consumer goods. In addition, Hajjaj furnishes his sets with recycled red plastic Coca-Cola crates. Together, as Komaroff suggests, these items represent luxury items and high- end home furnishings.

Komaroff describes My Rock Stars as an eclectic collection of performers whom Hajjaj celebrates through staged portraits, but also in a video work entitled My Rock Stars ExperimentalVolume 1. “The video, a flamboyant assemblage of nine separately filmed presentations, includes an international array of musicians, some of whom were largely unknown until they were promoted by the artist.” Among the artistes featured are Simon Lagnawi, a renowned Moroccan performer of Gnawa, and Jose James, an award- winning American singer and songwriter.

Komaroff concludes her essay by describing her first viewing of My Rock Stars ExperimentalVolume 1, as a case of love at first sight, being drawn to the unique combination of colour, and design, the oscillation between abstraction and figuration, and the inclusion of Arabic text.

Mitra Abbaspour, an Associate Curator in the Department of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Jessie Wender, Photo Editor at The New Yorker, contributes the last essay in the volume.  Here, the authors interrogate Hajjaj’s engagement with world famous musicians and Coca – Cola cans, which he successfully blends with elements of his environment including traditional Muslim dress codes, to create “synergetic scenes that amplify the complex realities of contemporary culture rather than defy them.”

Significantly, also discussed are two essential facets of Hajjaj’s oeuvre. First, is his use of logos of major international brands like Louis Vuitton in the hijab and niqab, babouches, and abayas of the young, stylish Moroccans who adorn them. Second, is the artist’s use of custom – built frames fashioned from wood filled with Moroccan ephemera like packets of chicken stock, tins of sardines, and plastic Arabic alphabet books, or from recycled tyres reminiscent of traditional lattice and arabesque patterns. In the skillful artist’s hands, a world is created, which merges traditional, pop-culture perspectives, and his highly personal vocabulary, drawing attention to the “allure, the reality, and the power of global capitalism.”

Overall, By Hassan Hajjaj is a fitting tribute to a multi- talented artist, whose continuing legacy rests squarely on his uncanny ability to create one harmonious whole between two disparate parts; tradition and modernity, the Arab and the Western world.

By Hassan Hajjaj: Photography, Fashion, Film, Design (Rose Issa Projets, 2014; ISBN 978-09570213-5-8;) is published by the artist’s London agent to coincide with his three United State debut shows, at LACMA (his video work), the Gusford Gallery Los Angeles and Taymour Grahne Gallery New York and is available from www.roseissa.com.

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