In the tradition of Malian photographer Malick Sidibé as well as America’s darlings David LaChapelle and Andy Warhol, this is pure pop art—rooted in the trends, styles, and personalities of its era. And yet, Hajjaj has earned a place in some of the world’s most elite art galleries, cultural institutions, and private collections. In the last decade, his work has appeared everywhere from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and Somerset House to the Third Line in Dubai, Paris’s Institut du Monde Arabe and LACMA in Los Angeles.
Perhaps people are growing hungry for more nuanced views of the Middle East beyond the guns, bombed-out buildings, camels, and darkly-veiled women pumped out a dime a dozen by opportunistic artists and publicized by a Western media that will stop at nothing to maximize clicks through clichés.
Over a terrible Skype connection from Marrakech, Hajjaj snickers across the choppy line: “Maybe one day I’ll focus on wars and people with sad stories. But for now, this is what I do.” But even though his work is stubbornly uplifting, charming, and even glamorous at times, there is also a political side to what Hajjaj does.
When it comes to fashion history, no other simple piece of cloth has been more divisive, more turbo-charged with assumptions and appropriations than the veil. Within Hajjaj’s vast body of work (particularly the “My Rock Stars” series) women’s faces are not always covered. However, many of his female subjects are wear the headscarf and some cover their faces. His mother wore the veil, and when Hajjaj began shooting women, he suddenly remembered tugging at it and being fascinated by it as a kid. “Women ride motorcycles here,” he says. “Veiled, unveiled, young, and old. In Morocco, the veils are not black like you might see in Saudi Arabia; that piece of cloth can be bright and colorful. It’s something that is already here and I chose to highlight it in a fun and awkward way.”
The women in “La Salle de Gym des Femmes Arabes” appear in the Nike swoosh, Adidas stripes, and even the imperative “Just Do It” emblazoned across their veils. The entire series was conjured in Hajjaj’s imagination over a period of 10 years and was first shown in 2016 to a largely Arab expatriate audience at the Third Line, a hip gallery situated within Dubai’s buzzing Alserkal Avenue arts community.
“Fifteen years ago, before European-style gyms became the rage, I used to go to a very local gym in the medina in Marrakech,” he remembers. “They had different hours for men and for women. I decided to play off of the Western gyms where you have the ball caps, the T-shirts, and the weights.” The women in this series are muscular, jocular, and mobile—kicking, lifting, running, throwing. They have physical parity with men. They take risks in athletic competitions. They Just Do It through life while covered, and the clothing doesn’t hold them back. Instead, it links them to the women all over the world who wear the same logos and sportswear. Hajjaj pokes fun at the sheer ridiculousness of the West’s notion of the isolated and powerless Arab woman.