Hassan Hajjaj: Somewhere Between Modernity and Tradition


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Hassan Hajjaj, as both a transcultural identity living an immigrant life and a mediator who represents this kind of life to his viewers, is a good example to consider in the light of multiculturalism and cultural hybridity, because he excels at representing the amalgamation of two different worlds, cultures, languages, religions and values. 

His photographs have played a major role in exploring cultural hybridity, and they render the hybrid mixture of modernity and tradition with reference to the Moroccan culture on one hand and the English style on the other. This amalgamation has influenced him as an immigrant and a bohemian artist who experiments not only with photography, but also with filmmaking, design, and installation.

Immigrant influences

Hassan Hajjaj’s transcultural photographic touch is one of his main celebrated talents that he has worked hard to divulge using multicolored patterns and his double life straddling a mobile identity. 

Thanks to his immigration from Morocco to the UK, he could understand his own culture from an outside viewpoint, as he stated in a 2017 interview with Dazed Digital: “Coming to London … has given me a different point of view. When I am producing my work, I feel like I am able to look at various things from the outside, almost as if you are looking through a keyhole.”

What characterizes Hajjaj’s photographs, then, is the hybridization of his belonging to both sides, London and Marrakech. This duality of identity paves the path for an artist like Hajjaj to view his own artistic product from the viewpoint of the “Other.” 

His immigration to a melting-pot city where fluid identities affect one another has given him a chance to deal with difference not as a problem that can hinder his production, but as a useful element so as “to show another side of Morocco” far away from the stereotypical images already held by Westerners. 

As a matter of fact, the modern touch along with the multiple colors of the iconic objects that his photographs like “Kech Angels” feature make the Moroccan backgrounds of the photographs less unfamiliar and more comprehensible. Consequently, he challenges the falsehood of Orientalist stereotypes by recontextualizing them in a London-ish and Westernized fashion.

For instance, the way he deals with the djellaba and the veil in “Kech Angels” is done on purpose to question their meanings. The use of the veil in his photographs, Hajjaj admits, has never been a religious message, but rather cultural. 

Since the wearing of the veil has been stereotypically linked to Islam only, Hassan Hajjaj brings it upon himself to challenge this fad and replace it with the fact that it is not always religious, but also cultural in the sense that it reflects rich colorful textiles as a source of aesthetic symbols. 

“By bringing the two together,” he said to Dazed Digital in 2017, “I’m playing with the aesthetics from both sides; the UK and Morocco.”

Remembering his homeland

As far as tradition is concerned, Hassan Hajjaj deliberately fails to exclude his past memories and Moroccan connections, which are a quintessential treasure he appreciated even more after his immigration. His photographs mostly feature Moroccan djellabas, carpets, canned food, and homemade scarves, as well as ‘hssira’ to celebrate his belongingness to and his deep connection with a traditional environment. 

“I wanted to present them with something that has the spirit of Maghreb and the Arab world,” he said in a 2017 Vogue interview.

Hassan Hajjaj’s connection with tradition and Moroccan heritage is accounted for by the spiritual inspiration and the “strong support” he gets from such a heterogeneous culture. 

“I had really strong support from my culture,” said Hajjaj in a 2017 Vigo Gallery interview. 

Traditional clothing for both sexes, for him, is so vibrant to the extent that it becomes inspirational and encouraging in his photographs. His connection with tradition is his lifetime shot and the secret behind his international fame that made him chosen by celebrities such as Will Smith and Billie Eilish to take photographs of them in locally made fabrics. 

Having international trademarks and brands blended with traditional clothing, he voices and elevates Moroccan-made clothes to compete with international trademarks. 

“When you see all his trendy niqabs and hijabs you actually forget about all the stereotypes about these Islamic items and focus more on the image itself,” wrote Sean O’Toole for Studio Journal Knock.

Hajjaj said to Fold Magazine, “I’m happy to do what I can to help, using my experience to help elevate Moroccan culture and African artists.”

Tradition and modernity 

Ahsan Butt, an Associate Professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, calls Hassan Hajjaj’s photographs “defiantly modern” in the sense that they defy the stereotypical images held onto tradition in the name of modernity, using contextualizing devices of modernity, such as the sitting position, the brands of the soft drinks and Western magazines held high. 

Although the women subjects are concerned with fashion and styles, they are dressed in traditional clothes in favor of the claim that tradition is itself an expression of modernity only if its historical references are reshaped and its stereotypes are negotiated in good terms, as Butt explained in 2015. 

In addition, his intentional inclusion of canned food and other brands in the frames of his photographs is to explore and divulge “the relationship between modern consumer culture and traditional Muslim dress,” which makes two realities in a continuous negotiation, as he said during an interview with Ok Photography in 2014.

Hassan Hajjaj also involves his photographs in the photographic wave of feminism which lays a great focus on the liberation of women and rehabilitation of their values. 

Rather than “launch a polemic against” the Orientalist stereotype that “fetishizes the veiled women on the motorbikes,” he combats it “with maximalist compositions that mash up references, disorganize expectations and seize control,” wrote Siddhartha Mitter for the New York Times in 2019. 

Such a kind of reappraisal of the Moroccan woman’s status quo is a rehabilitation of her values and is deemed to be one of the characteristics of postmodernism.

Read also: 6 Contemporary Moroccan Artists Who Break Bounds of Originality

Source: moroccoworldnews.com