The following text is an abridged version of “Hassan Hajjaj’s Hot Remixes,” written by Juliet Highet.
Hajjaj’s Hot Remix: The Remixed Version
That’s how Hassan Hajjaj has been described. It’s an Arabic term that literally translates as “half-half.” Hassan Hajjaj is an artist, and half-half describes both the man and his work.
Hajjaj himself was born in Morocco, but moved to London when he was 12. He identifies as “a human being first, and then as a Moroccan, a North African, and as a Londoner.” He is a mixture.
Noss-noss also describes Hajjaj’s art. He works in different media, including photography, fashion and furniture, video, and sculpture. In addition to mixing materials, he also mixes visual elements from different people and cultures.
He mixes them with a sense of play, and of purpose. His images are sometimes gently subversive and satirical. They play with gender expectations and consumerism. They also subtly comment on the meanings of noss-noss identities.
Question: What does noss-noss mean? How does it apply to Hassan Hajjaj?
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Noss-noss means half-half and refers to something that is a mixture. Hassan Hajjaj was born in Morocco, moved to London when he was 12 and considers himself to be a human being, a Moroccan, a North African and a Londoner.
Hajjaj has had several major showings of his work. One was called Carte Blanche, which is French for blank paper. It’s a metaphor for having the freedom to do what you want. The objects in the exhibit show Hajjaj’s noss-noss. They include images of street life in different cities, including Marrakesh, London, Lagos, Johannesburg, and New York.
But the noss-noss quality involves more than just images from different locations. It also subverts expectations in order to make a point. To subvert means to disrupt or unsettle. For example, some of Hajjaj’s photos play with the image of women wearing veils. Wearing the veil is expected for Muslim women. Some non-Muslims think that wearing the veil oppresses women. Hajjaj’s images play with both points of view.
“The veil is still worn because of tradition,” he says, bowing to the expectation that women wear veils. At the same time Hajjaj’s art questions those who criticize the veil. He says, “I’m not putting women behind veils to repress them. In fact there’s flirtatiousness behind it in my photographs. I’m trying to emphasize the mischievous aspect. It’s doubled-edged,” he explains. On one hand, he accepts the traditional understanding of the veil – that women are not seen in public. On the other, he defies both the veil itself and the critique that it oppresses women: the women in his photos are flirting.
“Look how modern and defiant they are,” he says. “They’re blending tradition with pop fashion.” Noss-noss.
Hajjaj also uses irony in his artwork to make a point. A lot of typical fashion photography shows Western models in Western clothes posing in “exotic” (Eastern) locations. Vogue, the Arab Issue turns that on its head. One image shows two Moroccan women wearing bright, flashy versions of traditional djellabas (robes) and babouches (slippers). They are reading Vogue and Elle through cheap, comical sunglasses. Bottles of Coca-Cola rest on the table between them. By showing something so different from the usual, this image makes the reader laugh at the traditional images—and maybe question them, too.
Question: How is Vogue, The Arab Issue ironic?
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Vogue, the Arab Issue shows something very different than the expected images of Western women in “exotic,” “Oriental” settings. In one work, two Moroccan women read copies of women’s fashion magazines. The women are dressed in outlandish clothes and silly sunglasses.
Hajjaj’s art developed from his life as an immigrant. He moved from Morocco to London when he was 12. He had a hard time fitting in. He ended up, with others, embracing many cultures. He was drawn to American hip-hop, funk and soul music, and also to reggae.
In 1984, Hajjaj opened a fashion shop on London’s hip Carnaby Street. He called it R.A.P., which stood for “Real Artistic People.” R.A.P. became a popular place for artists to hang out.
Around the same time, Hajjaj learned photography, and started using photos to express his noss-noss identity. But it wasn’t until 2006 that he decided he might be ready to show his photos. Hajjaj called his friend Rose Issa, who promotes Arab arts in London. She was dazzled. He had his first solo exhibition in the UK in 2008
Hajjaj’s photos reveal another aspect of his work’s noss-noss: the many ways people express different parts of their identities. Issa notes that the people in the photos “sometimes look menacing but have a smile in their eyes.” She, too, notes the sense of play around women’s roles. One of the women who posed for Hajjaj winks at the viewer above her veil. Another shows a bit of leg astride a motorbike.
The photos also show the noss-noss of the subjects’ class status and their ambitions. Many of the women in Hajjaj’s photos eke out a living painting henna designs on tourists. But they still want to “look grand,” as he puts it. “For people [in Africa] who don’t have money, looking great alleviates the pain of poverty. And this becomes street chic.”
It’s street chic that Hajjaj creates, using cheap materials that he finds here and there. In his London shop, for example, he has made red plastic Coca-Cola crates into chairs. He uses road and shop signs as tabletops. And he uses product tins as light fixtures.
Hajjaj remixes these “repurposed” items. His work makes them noss-noss. The art that results celebrates discarded items. It’s a new take on the culture of poor people. And it’s very different from the traditional Orientalist point of view. Orientalism was an 1800s-art movement that showed Arab and Asian people and culture as exotic. It did this by exaggerating and distorting parts of their cultures.
In his art, Hajjaj exaggerates and distorts parts of Western consumer culture instead of Arab culture. In that way, he undermines, or subverts, it. “For me, being Moroccan, it’s taking ownership, control of that fantasy idea and giving that back to our own people,” he explains. It is, in a way, another kind of recycling.
Hajjaj wants his photography to “become more like teaching rather than pretty pictures.” In this way, he subverts the common purpose of art itself.
Finally, Hajjaj aims to reach a mixed – noss-noss – audience. “I want my photography to communicate with somebody like myself, who originally wouldn’t go to a gallery, as well as somebody who’s an intellectual,” he says. “I want it to appeal to everyone, whether they’re a cleaner or an art critic.”
Question: How does noss-noss apply to Hajjaj’s art?
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Hajjaj works in many different media, including photography, fashion and furniture design, videos, and sculpture. In addition, the art includes content from several different cultures.
carte blanche: literally blank card; metaphor for freedom to do as one wants
cosmopolitan: having a character that involves a mixture of cultures
cultural appropriation: the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society
ironic: when what is expressed is purposely the opposite of what one means, often in a humorous way
kitsch: objects considered to be in poor taste because they are gaudy, but which are often presented ironically
Marrakesh: city in Morocco, Northern Africa
noss-noss: literally half-half; figuratively, describes something that is a mixture
Orientalism: the representation of Asia, especially the Middle East, in a stereotyped way that is regarded as embodying a colonialist attitude.
subversive: seeking to undermine the power and authority of an established idea
urban art: creative arts that originate in cities and express elements of city cultures