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Breaking Western stereotypes about Arab women

Photographic artist Hassan Hajjaj transforms gallery space into a gym for women, drawing on his experiences of European and Moroccan cultures

  • Head to Head by Hassan Hajjaj, metallic lambda with wood sprayed white gloss frame, 2006Image Credit: Supplied
  • Feetball by Hassan Hajjaj, metallic lambda with wood sprayed white gloss frame, 2006Image Credit: Supplied
  • N. Vs A. by Hassan Hajjaj, metallic lambda with wood sprayed white gloss frame, 2007Image Credit: Supplied
Gulf News

Hassan Hajjaj invites viewers into the private space of a women-only recreational centre in his latest show, “La Salle de Gym des Femmes Arabes” (Gym for Arab Women). He has transformed the gallery space into a gym, with pictures of sportswomen at the entrance, photographs of women engaged in various indoor and outdoor sports on the walls, a weight training corner, TV screens showing videos of women exercising, specially composed gym music, and even a store selling sportswear and equipment. All the women in the pictures are dressed in sporty versions of traditional Moroccan hooded jellabiyas, with veils concealing their faces.

Hajjaj was born in Morocco, but has lived in England since his teens. As a photographic artist and fashion designer, he draws on his experiences of both cultures to express his pride in his Moroccan heritage, and to challenge Western stereotypes about the Arab world.

In this latest exhibition, he playfully looks at the traditional gym culture across the Arab world, and the stereotypical Western perceptions through his depiction of strong and spirited Arab women in a space where hyper-masculine imagery is usually expected.

Hajjaj’s striking photographs are carefully staged. Using his friends as models, he has shot pictures of the women enjoying activities such as cycling, surfing, boxing, playing football, waving club flags, or posing for team photographs in their team uniforms.

The uniforms are designed by the artist himself. They include jellabiyas and veils made from Moroccan textiles, bearing fake logos of well-known international sportswear brands; and jerseys of local football clubs transformed into jellabiyas.

These are combined with accessories such as colourful socks, sunglasses and caps bought from street markets in Marrakesh, and sporty footwear inspired by the traditional Moroccan babouche slippers. The pictures have been shot against the colourful background of woven Moroccan mats or tile mosaics, thus embodying the vibrant colour, texture and spirit of the Moroccan street vibe.

In his signature style, the frames are lined with food and beverage cans with Arabic labels adding a new layer to the narrative. Even the weights in the gym are made from food cans filled with concrete. Another typical Hajjaj touch is his use of flour and sugar sacks to make the punching bags, balls and gym equipment he has designed for this gym.

Similarly, in the gym’s store, Hajjaj has used crates of a well-known beverage brand to create the shelves on which are displayed sports clothing and equipment featured in the photographs, as well as a limited edition sportswear line designed by Hajjaj for this show and marked 1437, for the current Islamic year.

“I have been working for the last 10 years on this project, which was inspired by my observation of Moroccan and European culture. In Morocco it is common to see women wearing jellabiyas and the hijab on the beach, whereas the bikini clad women in England find this strange.

Unlike England, in Morocco gyms have different timings for men and women, and there are women-only facilities such as the one I have tried to imagine here. Many Westerners think that Arab women do not go to the gym or play sports; and Arab sportswomen competing in the Olympics with the hijab created quite a stir in the media. I wanted to play with these notions in my pictures,” Hajjaj says.

Although his pictures highlight cultural differences, the international logos prominently present in his work represent a universal language that is understood across cultural divides.

“These logos stand for some things that everybody understands. But they also speak about how consumerism seeps into everything, including veils, and how the international brands enter even these cultural arenas. As a child I could not afford these branded goods and tried to recreate them from materials sourced from the local markets. So the clothes and the improvised weights you see in the pictures are things I grew up with, and they reflect the aspirations of ordinary people around the world. At the same time the food cans from international and Arabian brands that I have carefully chosen for the frames are a fun way of depicting the clash of cultures and the fight back against the globalisation of Western culture and goods,” Hajjaj says.

Jyoti Kalsi is an arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.

“La Salle de Gym des Femmes Arabes” will run at The Third Line, Alserkal Avenue, until April 16.