As debate rages about cultural appropriation, his photographs are a celebration of border-crossing creativity.
Born in Morocco and raised in Britain, Hassan Hajjaj, a London-based photographer and furniture designer, wears his influences on his Ankara-print sleeve: the Maghreb mingles with London street style, hip hop with haute couture, religious tradition with modern consumerism. The riotously fun “La Caravane”, his first show in Britain in seven years and the flagship exhibition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair at Somerset House in London, fuses global pop culture with Islamic aesthetics.
Though “La Caravane” is a small show, featuring photographs, sculptures and video work from only two series, it’s enough to give a flavour of his work. “Kesh Angels” (2014) – the reference is to Hell’s, not Charlie – captures the women who zip through the technicoloured warrens of the bazaars in Marrakesh on their motorbikes. “My Rock Stars: Volume 2” is composed of nine portraits of up-and-coming musicians from Britain, the Caribbean and Africa. The symmetrical patterns found in the borders and backgrounds of these portraits are a modern spin on the traditional geometric designs of Islamic art. Their wooden frames, which double as shelves, invoke a very different period. They contain brightly packaged household products like stock cubes and fizzy drinks cans. It’s a tip of the hat to Andy Warhol, but while both artists put ordinary, everyday objects on the pedestal, there is nothing of Warhol’s cynicism in Hajjaj’s work. His art celebrates everyday life, and the talented artists who deserve more than 15 minutes of fame.
Hajjaj filmed these women for his documentary “Karima", which premiered in 2015 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. As they speed to their next appointment in hi-viz hijabs and designer djellabas (you won’t see any black burqas here), these girl-biker gangs evoke comic-book superheroes. Of course, they’re not really gangsters. These women, many of whom are Hajjaj’s friends, earn their living as henna-tattoo artists and they drive to work every morning on their motorbikes. The colours, patterns and shapes of their outfits, which Hajjaj designed, reflect the vibrancy of North Africa and the influence of globalisation – some wear Nike headscarves and Louis Vuitton slippers. These photographs update the stereotypical image of Arab women handed down to Westerners by painters like Delacroix and Matisse, whose canvases are full of nudes reclining in harems or boudoirs. These images seem to say: why bother with a perfumed eunuch or a masticating camel when you can ride a monogrammed moped?
Hajjaj was inspired to start photographing Moroccan women after noticing, on a fashion shoot in Morocco, that all the models were foreign. But his subjects aren’t local models; they’re real women whose kohl is sometimes smudged and whose skin isn’t flawless. Hajjaj aims to challenge the Western ideal of beauty.
The nine works in “My Rock Stars” appear to be photographs, but as the artists stand up to perform one by one you realise you are looking at screens. Video art is rarely as compelling as these MTV-worthy performances. When Afrikan Boy, a British-Nigerian artist who, like Hajjaj, revels in his dual identity, starts to rap, the others look sideways at him and nod or sway to the rhythm. In a thick Nigerian accent, he delivers lines from his 2013 song “Hit Em Up”: “When I was younger they said I was fat, I stopped learning how to swim just because of that.” He’s mocking the stereotype of the African who is skeletally thin, and can’t swim.
Hajjaj’s stripey backgrounds and fierce poses recall Malick Sidibé, another African photographer whose work was exhibited at 1:54 Art Fair last year. But Hajjaj’s backdrops are more reminiscent of market stalls than the studio, and he doesn’t have to work as hard as Sidibé to coax charisma from his subjects – they are all performers, and he photographs them from below as if he were shooting covers for old-school hip-hop albums. Hindi is a Franco-Moroccan singer, who like Hajjaj, is self-taught. She wears a man’s suit jacket made from wax fabric, cinched behind her back; a cigarette dangles from one hand. Though her pose is exuberant, the song she sings in the video is melancholy.
Hajjaj transforms the objects in his portraits into works of art. A customised moped dominates the first room and there are framed accessories in the last. These artfully arranged sunglasses show how Hajjaj finds value in the everyday.
As debate rages over what constitutes cultural appropriation, Hassan Hajjaj champions cultural appreciation.“La Caravane” is a travelling bazaar, a gleeful reflection on the creativity that occurs when different cultures cross borders.