LONDON – Moroccan-born, British-based visual artist Hassan Hajjaj is entirely self-taught, his diverse practices incorporating portraiture, installation, performance, fashion and furniture design. He is best known today for his vibrant photographic portraits, including his Kesh Angels series, and is recognized for his ability to draw influence from London’s hip hop and reggae scenes just as much as from his North African heritage.

His exhibition, La Caravane, ran from October 2017 till January 2018 at London’s Somerset House and was his first solo show in the UK.

When encountering Hajjaj’s Kesh Angels series for the first time, female power and rebellion strike a vibrant chord. Composed of several large-scale portraits, the series revolves around members of a fierce Moroccan female biker gang riding through the streets of Marrakesh. The women are photographed taking strong stances, posing across the handlebars of their motorbikes, dressed head to toe in bold, colourful Djellabas and Niqabs printed with brands such as Nike and Louis Vuitton. They appear to be the embodiment of youth, popular culture, independence and street style in Morocco, all of which Hajjaj himself has pointed to as sources of inspiration for the series.

Interestingly, what the exhibitioners and curators at Somerset House primarily chose to interpret from Hajjaj’s work is centred around one specific aspect of the photographs – the fact that most of the women are wearing some form of hijab or veil. The accompanying literature for the exhibition from Somerset House makes the claim that “Hajjaj’s witty and poignant images, although outwardly light-hearted, challenge Western perceptions of the hijab and female disempowerment”.

Today, the mainstream media does indeed project images of veiled women in which the dominant narrative is focused on conveying messages of oppression and the lack of agency. As Stuart Hall’s theory of encoding and decoding puts forward, representations of violence on the television screen are not violence itself but messages about violence; in a very similar way we can say that representations of veiled women are only messages about veiled women, and often carry subliminal connotations of negativity. Signifiers such as the colour black, the presentation of women in unidentifiable shapes rather than as individuals, and the over-emphasis of one style of hijab to represent a whole country of veiled women all work together to create the dominant imagery of a homogenous, dark and voiceless Muslim woman in a veil.

Of course, this is problematic when, as scholar Lila Abu-Lughod puts forward, ‘there are many forms of covering, which themselves have different meanings in the communities they are used, but also veiling itself must not be confused with, or made to stand for, lack of agency’. Hajjaj’s Kesh Angels do indeed work to challenge this confusion with veiling and lack of agency. The motorbikes they straddle are symbols of rebellion and freedom -agency is not something that they are shown to lack.

However, a problem does arise when this type of strong, fearless and powerful veiled woman is represented to audiences as something exceptional, or within the narrative of ‘breaking stereotypes’ or ‘challenging misconceptions’. Hajjaj’s Kesh Angels, however fierce and powerful, are also presented to the audience in the artist’s highly stylized manner: the women are costumed, the setting staged and the poses heavily directed. They resemble models you may find in the pages of a high-end glossy fashion magazine, rather than a representation of the everyday powerful veiled woman. This essentially limits the way in which this exhibition can act as an individual work of resistance to the stereotypical misconceptions of oppressed veiled women in the Middle East.

In recent times, many veiled women from both the Middle East and the diaspora have gained positive media attention for their incredible work, from the likes of fashion blogger and YouTuber Dina Torkia, to hip-hop sensation Mona Hayder. Unfortunately, their successes are always framed around the narrative of hijabi women ‘breaking stereotypes’ and ‘challenging misconceptions’, distracting from their achievements as individuals and re-aligning the world’s focus to the fact that they are veiled. This ultimately provokes the thought that these women should be celebrated as exceptional anomalies amongst the sea of unidentifiable, black-chador-wearing, oppressed veiled women.

Hassan Hajjaj’s Kesh Angels series provides a wonderful snapshot into the vibrant street style and popular culture of Morocco, of which women, some of whom are veiled, are an important part of, and it should be celebrated for successfully conveying this. With that in mind, a question lingers as to why the veil or hijab is hijacking every conversation about women in the Muslim world and why, as Lila Abu-Lughod says, it has become ‘so central to contemporary concerns about Muslim women’. It is high time to look past a woman’s clothing in appreciating her successes, and acknowledge that powerful veiled women from the Middle East are not an exception but more so the norm.