Theater & art

Art Review

Hajjaj’s rollicking ‘Rock Stars’ exhibit pops with color

Hassan Hajjaj’s “Mandisa Dumezweni,” part of his “My Rock Stars” show at the Worcester Art Museum.

Hassan Hajjaj and Taymour Grahne Gallery

Hassan Hajjaj’s “Mandisa Dumezweni,” part of his “My Rock Stars” show at the Worcester Art Museum.

WORCESTER — Call Hassan Hajjaj an artist and an impresario. He has his hands in many pies and his products in many markets: photography, furniture and textile design, installation art, film. His work has a visceral, feel-good effect.

His prototype is Andy Warhol. Japanese Pop artist Takashi Murakami is his kin. Such artists seamlessly blend elements of high and low, refined and popular. They traffic in magnetic themes that many people respond to. Where Warhol capitalized on Americans’ infatuation with pop culture and Murakami plugs into a supercharged Japanese aesthetic for slick, flat, and cute, the Moroccan-born Hajjaj finds his niche in world music, fashion photography, and the welcoming aura of salons and markets in Marrakech.

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You might be tempted to linger for a while in “Hassan Hajjaj: My Rock Stars,” his installation at the Worcester Art Museum. Jon L. Seydl, director of curatorial affairs at the museum, told me that he tapped Hajjaj’s show, which was organized by the Newark Museum, because it balances accessibility with conceptual rigor.

Art shouldn’t have to be accessible. As a window to the unspoken and inchoate rumblings in our personal and societal lives, it necessarily takes on thorny themes. However, a lot of contemporary art — installation and performance, in particular — strives to catalyze its viewer’s experience. The art is more than something to gaze upon; it’s a small-scale theme park.

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Hajjaj’s infectious and rollicking exhibit has that quality. It succeeds because it has many layers — an immersive environment, inviting sound, eye-popping patterns, furniture to sit on, and a warm-hearted embrace of globalization.


At its heart thrums a nine-channel video installation spotlighting world music. Each of the vertical monitors depicts a musician or a duo. They each get up to play, and all the others turn to watch, nodding and keeping the beat. The musicians are professionals, but they don’t all have a wide following; Hajjaj tapped them because they’re his friends.

The music has grace and urgency, from the insistent, sensual merengue of Venezuelan singer Luzmira Zerpa to the ethereal instrumentals of Boubacar Kafando and Simo Lagnawi, who perform gnawa, an African Islamic devotional music.

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Hajjaj has set the videos in a darkened room, filled with seats made of overturned plastic Coca-Cola crates and cans topped with cushions. Visitors can also relax on similar seats in welcoming areas outside the video installation. Hajjaj has his own furniture line, repurposing common utilitarian objects from North Africa. The arrangement puts us in a cozy salon, and makes the performances feel intimate, as if it’s just the musicians and us.

An installation view of the Hajjaj exhibit.

Hassan Hajjaj and Taymour Grahne Gallery, New York

An installation view of the Hajjaj exhibit.

The videos take off from extraordinary portraits Hajjaj took of the musicians, also on view. He styled them in brightly patterned clothes, against backdrops of carpets he designed. The portraits pay homage to Malian photographer Malick Sidibé, known for, among other things, his cool and relaxed black-and-white studio portraits. Hajjaj’s work has a similar exuberance, plus electrifying color.

His subjects come across as godlike, mysterious in dark glasses, their surroundings swirling and vibrating behind them. Mandisa Dumezweni, a South African hip-hop singer based in London, looks ferocious and powerful in a yellow blouse and tropical-hued pants against an electric blue ground.

Hajjaj didn’t go to art school. He moved to London with his family as a boy in the 1970s, and got involved in the club music scene there — hip-hop, reggae. As a young man, he ran underground clubs, dabbled in fashion design and styling, worked on music videos, and eventually took up photography. His early career was an apprenticeship in staging visually and aurally captivating events.

That’s what “My Rock Stars” is. Patterned wallpapers pulse and throb; one features a stop sign written in Arabic, which alternates with the same script, save for a different diacritical mark, which changes the meaning to “wake up!” Both ideas are at work here: The installation invites respite, even as it buzzes with life.

Not everything is as effective. A metallic sign in Arabic translates as “no pissing,” a warning often written on city walls in Marrakech. Elevating it to gleaming metal signage is a weak attempt to turn low to high.

Then Hajjaj, who orchestrated much of the installation on Skype, instructed Seydl to find products to place on shelves in the exhibition, invoking Pop Art and a marketplace. Attempting to pull Worcester into this already global picture, Seydl chose two local products, Table Talk Pies and Polar beverages, along with other American standbys such as Barbasol shaving cream. These feel so local — and so perennial as to be stopped in time — that they look comically out of place.

But these are small missteps. “My Rock Stars” is a genuine celebration with a compelling gestalt, alive in its welcoming music and rhythmic patterns, smart, and, yes, perfectly accessible.

Art Review

Hassan Hajjaj: My Rock Stars

At Worcester Art Museum,

55 Salisbury St., Worcester,

through March 6. 508-799-4406, www.worcesterart.org

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.
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