|Hassan Hajjaj\'s impish take on Moroccan \'street glam\'
|Dakka Marrakech\' turns brand obsession into art
On the fringes of London\'s exclusive Holland Park lies Leighton House Museum, the former home and private art palace of 19th-century painter and Orientalist Lord Frederic Leighton.
The centerpiece of this most English of buildings is the Arab Hall, a splendid recreation of the Orient designed with over a thousand tiles that Leighton acquired in Damascus.
It is fitting that Hassan Hajjaj\'s first solo exhibition in London, \"Dakka Marrakech\" (\"Marrakech Beat\") be held here. Filling two spacious rooms upstairs, overlooking a Technicolor-green lawn nourished by incessant rain, Hajjaj\'s photographs are funky, colorful and abound with humor. A savvy mix of British pop culture and Moroccan cliches, Hajjaj makes street culture glamorous, playing with stereotypes and fashion, gently turning them on their heads.
For someone who has worked in fashion circles for over 20 years and is a rising star in the European design and pop art world, the pony-tailed Hajjaj is absolutely down to earth. The day the show opened he wore a T-shirt designed by a friend that says \"HMAR,\" with an image of a donkey leaping over the letters - \"It\'s supposed to mean respect for donkeys,\" he said. Hajjaj seems slightly bemused by all the attention he\'s getting, saying the show at Leighton House \"is a big personal thing for me and has meaning considering the history of the place.\"
Curated by Rose Issa, London\'s grande dame of Middle Eastern cultural events, \"Dakka Marrakech\" is the consolidation of Hajjaj\'s most recent career as a photographer. Over the past two decades he has opened and closed a successful fashion shop called RAP, decorated Paris\' hip Andy Wahloo bar and restaurant, DJ\'d, managed bands and made music, designed furniture and album covers, opened a guest-house in Marrakech, dabbled in fashion design and organized events. Last year, Hajjaj\'s \"Odalisque\" (called \"Ilham\" in the Leighton House show) sold for twice the guide price at Sotheby\'s Modern and Contemporary Arab and Iranian Art Auction.
Hajjaj and his family arrived in London from the town of Larache, northern Morocco, when he was 14. His father emigrated for economic reasons and at first the transition from a small port on the Atlantic to sprawling London was very difficult.
The artist says he is entirely self-taught. He began to experiment with photography in the 1990\'s. During a trip to Morocco assisting fashion photographers, he realized that European fashion shoots always used the country as a back-drop but never showed the people who lived there. \"I wanted to present Moroccan people,\" he remarked. This desire led to an entire body of ideas that form the backbone of his recent work.
Hajjaj came of age in the London of the 1980s, when the city was emerging from the aggressive dark look of punk and embracing vibrant colors and designer labels. Brands play an important role in Hajjaj\'s work, whether it is the craze for designer labels or the retro look of packaging in Morocco.
For the photographs in \"Dakka Marrakech,\" he used his friends as models, designed the clothing, and styled the shoots in Morocco.
In \"Ladies on Da Roof,\" (Hajjaj plays with rap lingo for such titles as \"U-cef\" and \"Sistaz\"), women wearing leopard-print veils and dressed in camouflage or polka dot jellabas pose confidently. In \"Gang of Marrakech,\" the same women, sporting babouches (those iconic Moroccan slippers) with Louis Vuitton prints, show off their motorcycles.
Hajjaj says he likes to use prints like camouflage, polka dots or leopard skins because they are a wink at what regularly comes in and out of fashion. \"It\'s also a way to get texture into the frame,\" he said.
Babouches are ever-present in a variety of shapes and designs - such as in \"Adidas Babouche,\" part of a series of photographs outlining the phenomenon of soccer and branding.
Hajjaj buys his fabrics in Portobello Road, Brick Lane or Chinatown, many of which are counterfeit. He says the logos are a celebration of the products. \"Instead of being wary of products,\" he said, \"I decided to work with them, play with them,\" using big brands is a \"theatrical device\" to attract the viewer to the real subject.
He inevitably comes into contact with the super brands, such as Coca-Cola - which sponsored him in Morocco - occasionally getting into trouble with them as well.
Hajjaj says Louis Vuitton tried to stop him from exhibiting certain photographs at The Third Line gallery in Dubai because the fabric he had used was counterfeit.
Eventually Hajjaj and Louis Vuitton came to an agreement, but not before Hajjaj asked Vuitton to give him fabric so he wouldn\'t have to use the counterfeit. Needless to say, the company did not comply. Given the popularity of the brand in the Middle East, Hajjaj says, he would love to design the letters \"LV\" in Arabic.
Hajjaj\'s integration of London and Moroccan cultures is clearly expressed in his pictures, although he says at first he wasn\'t aware he was doing it. Another aspect of his work lies in the frames he specially creates for each photograph, \"bridging products and the photos,\" as he would say.
Like modern-day versions of the frames medieval painters built around their icons, Hajjaj\'s frames take four-six weeks to create. Some are made from recycled tires and wood, but most are made from walnut wood (each weighing over 20 kilograms), with compartments that he fills with recycled objects he has collected from the Maghreb such as Coca-Cola cans, empty tins of corned beef, matchboxes or plastic blocks with the letters of the Arabic alphabet on them.
Some frames contain small glass vials used for holding kohl that Hajjaj uses in repetitive patterns meant to echo mosaics. His use of recycled North African objects in turning discarded plastic Coca-Cola crates or tin canisters into chairs and tables, a common practice throughout the African continent, first launched Hajjaj as a designer.
Hajjaj\'s modern, tongue-in-cheek work is meant to appeal to everyone, whether \"it\'s the cleaner or an art critic.\"
In general, Hajjaj has received positive reactions to his work, regardless of their class and creed. On one occasion, though, Hajjaj remembers someone coming into his shop/showroom in East London to challenge him about a photograph of a mobile phone-toting girl wearing a Louis Vuitton headscarf.
\"He was this young religious Pakistani kid,\" he recalls. \"We spent some time talking and then I pointed out to him that although he had a beard he also had a Prada bag.\"
The Daily Star