PARIS — This past September, the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie opened its doors to fragments of the prismatic, kitsch, and glam world of Hassan Hajjaj. It is the Anglo-Moroccan artist’s first retrospective in France, part of the third edition of the Photography Biennale of the contemporary Arab world.
Maison Marocaine de la Photographie, Carte Blanche a Hassan Hajjaj is truly immersive. Bags of couscous cover benches at the entrance like cushions, street signs are used as tables, and cans are used as light fixtures. However, the focus is on Hajjaj as a photographer, a medium he turned to after years of being creatively driven as a DJ and a designer. The first of eight photo series on display in the exhibition is the 1990s series Vogue: The Arab Issue, with “issue” referring to both magazine editions and topics of debate. In the 1990s, Hajjaj was an assistant to stylist Andy Blake for a photo shoot set in Marrakesh. He expressed his frustration at seeing Morocco being treated by the European team and models as merely a backdrop for the shoot. He decided to plan an imaginary fashion shoot to celebrate Morocco and its people. Veiled women are dressed in djellabias, caftans, animal prints, and counterfeit brand logo styled to resemble traditional motifs. These audacious women are in poses typical of those in fashion magazines, offering a whimsical reflection on the image of Muslim women in Anglo-European societies, as well as Eurocentric codes of beauty.
Hajjaj harmonizes Anglo-European, Arab, and North African cultures by showing how bringing together diverse influences can create new cultures. He gleefully prompts viewers to consider notions of consumerism, identity, and appropriation. He also explains in wall texts that recycling objects is common in Morocco, and how each object’s function shifts after its initial use. Tires are used as frames, woven mats are backdrops in his photographs and as accessories in his streetwear looks.
Such backdrops pay homage to African masters of photography such as Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe. For the past 20 years, in the pop-up photo studios he set up in Marrakesh, Dubai, Paris, and London, Hajjaj has photographed artists of different disciplines who have inspired and influenced him. This series, titled My Rock Stars, includes photos of musicians and artists, including Rachid Taha and JR, who are especially familiar to French visitors. Frames around the large photographs contain convenience-store items like canned goods, as well as famous Western products, such as Coca-Cola. Hajjaj refers to Coca-Cola as the “rich man’s drink” in Morocco, explaining that capitalism’s brainwashing makes us instantly recognize the bottles and cans. He cites Jean-Paul Gaultier’s 2012 Coca Cola Light bottles, although the text on the cans are written in Arabic.
Kesh Angels, another series from 2010 on display, humorously addresses the trope in art of the reclining odalisque, and the myth of shackled North African women. The henna artist Karima is the main inspiration behind these photos. The biker women of Marrakesh are styled by Hajjaj, though in their own traditional outfits, posing proudly on their motorbikes. Hajjaj photographs these women from a low angle to show how empowered, larger than life, and joyous they are. Eclipsing limiting stereotypes with expansive, complex personalities is Hajjaj’s forte. He acknowledges in exhibition texts and interviews that the veiled women of his photographs occasionally make some audiences uncomfortable, though he simply is showing how modern, defiant, stunning, and powerful they look. Hajjaj aimed for the exhibition visit to resemble the gratifying feeling of walking into a home, a “maison,” referring to the title of the institution, Maison Europeenne de la Photographie. It certainly feels like a party amid the upbeat atmosphere of the peculiar Maison Marocaine of Hassan Hajjaj.
Maison Marocaine de la Photographie, Carte Blanche a Hassan Hajjaj continues at Maison Européenne de la Photographie (5/7 rue de Fourcy 75004, Paris, France) through November 17.