Shifting the gaze
Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj recently won the Sovereign Art Foundation’s Africa Art Prize, an award that recognises the careers of Africa-born artists.
Hajjaj divides his time between Morocco and London, and has found critical and commercial success internationally as well as in his home country.
His career has been varied, ranging from fashion to interior and furniture design, but it is his unconventional photographic work that has garnered the most interest.
He said that he likes to play with Western notions of how Arab women should look and behave. In his work, he juxtaposes images from Morocco with symbols of Western consumer culture.
Commercial branding and fashion logos adorn more “traditional” dress in portraits styled to look like they come from the pages of a fashion magazine.
His most recent work, Rubbish Odalisque, removes any lingering Orientalist romanticism from the image of the odalisque, or Ottoman concubine. The subject of his portrait is completely obscured by branded packaging material and other commercial refuse, and her pose rejects any notion of passive or demure femininity.
Another recent exhibition, Kesh Angels, documented young Moroccan women who have formed biker gangs. His photographs captured their independent and rebellious spirit, and subverted the usual Western perception of Muslim women who wear the veil, albeit a veil studded with Louis Vuitton logos.
Your recent work obviously makes comment about consumer culture and Western modernity in an unexpected context. How did these themes develop in your work? Tell me a bit about the context that these works are speaking about.
All my work reflects what is around me as a 60s child, growing up in this pop, consumer culture, moving from Morocco to London. Also all that I have been involved with in the past, from promoting clubs, DJs, music and working as a fashion assistant and stylist, working on promo videos, curating art shows, travelling ... all this comes out in my work.
Your works are bright and playful, but is there a sadness in them, perhaps that vulgar commercialism is intruding on tradition? Or is this reading too simplistic?
My work is bright, probably due to growing up in Morocco, as we are very colourful nation. My work is pop, sometimes with things to say, but I let the audience decide for themselves what they see in the art.
What other themes does your work explore?
I try to explore what I see around me and ask questions about identity and tradition, consumer brands and anything else that takes my interest.
Who is your audience? Are your works aimed at anyone in particular?
I have never really aimed my work at anyone. I try to stay true to myself, and once the work is out there, whether the work is then liked or not is another thing. So far I have had a great feedback from the so-called Arab world and the West. But there are always people who may not like or understand the work.
And how are they received? Do you find there is a difference between the way your work is viewed in London and the way it is viewed backed at home?
So far my work has been received well from both sides. I really appreciate it when I get good feedback from Morocco or the “Arab world” as it makes me feel like I’m doing something right and positive. In London I think it’s more like peeping through a keyhole into my culture
Your life is divided between your time in London and time spent in Morocco. How does this affect you and your work?
You can see this in my work — It’s obvious that living between the two countries does affect my work.
Do people have certain preconceptions about your work as an artist working with Middle Eastern themes? Do people recognise the variety that comes from the region?
Probably, but again, I just try to stay true to myself.
Where does Middle Eastern art “fit” internationally? Is your work ever pigeonholed, and are you ever grouped with other artists in a way that could be frustrating?
There is an international spotlight on Middle Eastern art at the moment, but I hope it doesn’t turn out to be just a fad. At first I was introduced as a Moroccan artist, then as an Arab, Moroccan-born London artist, and now the international press calls me a Moroccan-born, London-based artist ... there is always a pigeonhole.
Given recent events and the Arab Spring, has there been a shift in the way your work, and the work of other artists from the region, is perceived? More interest, perhaps?
Like anybody, I’m affected by what’s happening in the Arab world and all over the world. There are many artists whose work will be affected by this. But at the moment I’m working on my own projects that have nothing to do with this. I’m trying to do something that is positive and stay away from it all ... but you never know what will come out of any artist until it’s done.