They pose proudly for the camera in front of a luxury shop window. “They” are three veiled women who look at us defiantly, as if to say this is their territory. Combining chic and shock, this opening image sets the tone for the exhibition: Hassan Hajjaj counters prejudice and shows the other side of picture-perfect Morocco.
A women’s gang
In Hassan Hajjaj’s medina quarter, women hold sway. Gathered at a street corner or standing guard in their combat fatigues, Hajjaj’s women are powerful and indomitable. Their nearly full-length veil, which covers everything but a pair of mischievous eyes, is here a sign of independence, strong character, and even revolt. The veil is provocative and it epitomizes the audacity of the photographer, who moved to London at the age of 13 (in 1974) and whose twin cultural background is a constant source of inspiration for his images. Speaking broken English upon arrival, Hajjaj soon dropped out of school and has since treaded off the beaten path—that is, away from dogmas and doctrines. A free spirit, he ventured into music, fashion, and, very early on, photography—always as an autodidact.
Photography has allowed him to explore the paradox of being a Muslim in Europe and a European in Maghreb. The woman, a symbol of freedom for some and submission for others, was a fertile ground for the young artist. A unifying theme of his photography series, the Muslim woman allows him to fully express his dual identity. In his series Kesh Angels, women are shown gripping the handlebars of their motorbikes in the streets of Marrakech. “I wanted to underscore the jarring picture, as seen from a Western point of view, of a veiled woman astride a motorbike,” explains the artist. Angels portrayed in garish colors and with irresistible irreverence.
Drawn to fashion as a young man, Hassan Hajjaj quickly entered the luxury and art sectors, discovering yet again worlds far removed from his origins. One day, he recalls, he was helping his friend, the fashion designer Andy Blake, on a photo shoot in Marrakech: “Sitting there, next to him, I suddenly realized that everyone around me was European and that, to them, Morocco was just a backdrop. This bothered me.” He then decided to celebrate the Morocco he knew: the familial Morocco, the land of his childhood, and above the territory uncharted by tourist maps—the underground, modern Morocco. A jack of all trades, he imagined a Morocco of his own: improbably patterned abaya robes, babouche slippers like stylish Stan Smith sneakers, or frames packed with canned chickpeas. This blend of genres quickly became his trademark.
Hassan Hajjaj has a great eye for the décor, with a twist. More than anything, he loves working-class Morocco—unvarnished and candid. At the MEP, he presents for the first time his documentary photographs which capture simple, authentic, everyday life in Morocco—a country that, very much like the artist, hews close to its roots.
By Coline Olsina
Moroccan House of Photography. Carte blanche to Hassan Hajjaj
September 11 – November 17, 2019
La Maison Européenne de la Photographie, 5/7 Rue de Fourcy – 75004 Paris