Vogue: The Arab Issue is the title of a photographic series created by Hassan Hajjaj in the 1990s. It’s also the title for Hajjaj’s latest exhibition, which includes the original series and four others, now on at Fotografiska, in New York City. A nod to Vogue’s fabled fall blockbuster, commonly referred to as “the September Issue,” the exhibition playfully puts the stress on the word “issue.” Hajjaj is pointing up a trope that has been a piece of the Vogue paradigm since the 1960s: the fashion shoot that is part fantasy travelogue, part cultural appropriation.
You know what we’re talking about: models in Paris couture posed among indigenous peoples in native dress. Diana Vreeland, editor of Vogue from 1963 to 1971, possessed a no-boundaries, pan-national aesthetic when it came to beauty. She wasn’t P.C., not the tiniest bit, and yet her pages were vibrantly multicultural decades before the word went mainstream. Vogue after Vreeland was not as worldly. It continued to trot out the travel trope, but with far less love. (In fact, the fashion pasha André Leon Talley recently called Anna Wintour, Vogue’s editor since 1988, a “colonial dame.”)
Hajjaj knows all this. He was born in 1961 in Larache, Morocco, but moved with his family to London when he was 12. He came of age just as the city’s club scene was reaching its raucous apex, and worked in fashion, film, and interior design before transitioning to photography, in the 1990s. Creating his own versions of the Western fashion shoot, Hajjaj photographed Muslim women dressed in wildly colored djellabas, hijabs, caftans, and babouches. He had them seated on motorcycles, gabbing in cafés, shopping in boutiques, their energy directed outward, Orientalist languor turned on its ear. Hajjaj also began using iconic food tins in his work, treating them like decorative tiles and arranging them into picture frames for his photos. Here was an implicit statement on branding, one that called up the prejudice of profiling as well as the power of a name.
In the photo “Naabz Chanel,” a wrapped and veiled woman in Lolita sunglasses stands framed in the glass-and-steel doorway of Chanel. The store is background; she is foreground. The image is further framed by blue-and-yellow tins. The branding is all mixed up. How should we see her? “Rather than just using the country as the prop, I wanted to make it look grand,” Hajjaj says, referring to the photo series for which this exhibition is named. “I wanted to take the Moroccan clothes and the people and shoot them in this celebratory way.” Give “Naabz Chanel” another look. Did you notice the golden light rising from this woman like wings? —Laura Jacobs