Islamic Art

Not Just Mint Tea and Camels: The Contemporary Photographers Redefining Morocco

Both part of the Moroccan diaspora, Lalla Essaydi and Hassan Hajjaj each use photography to explore their cultural heritage and belonging.

“Kesh Angels”, Hassan Hajjaj/Courtesy of Taymour Grahne Gallery, New York |

Hassan Hajjaj is a British-Moroccan self-taught artist whose work aims to upend stereotypes of Arabs, particularly of Arab women. His work of young Moroccan women wearing veils and djebellah whilst on motorbikes pays tribute to the biker culture of young women from Marakesh. Despite being traditionally clad, the women are “defiantly modern”.

“Les femmes du Maroc 22”, Lalla Essaydi | Bonhams

Lalla Essaydi, on the other hand, reflects the life of Arab women through the use of henna, which is used to mark the major celebrations of a women’s life — puberty, marriage and childbirth.

Despite taking up an uncomfortable nine hours to apply the henna, women eagerly participate in Essaydi’s work as they “feel they are contributing to the greater emancipation of Arab women and at the same time conveying to a Western audience a very rich tradition often misunderstood in the West. They see themselves as part of a small feminist movement.”

Whereas Hajjaj’s photographs depict women outdoors, Lalla confines them to their historically “proper” place — “a place bounded by walls and controlled by men”. By invoking the western fascination with the harem and veiling, Essaydi wants “the viewer to become aware of Orientalism as a projection of the sexual fantasies of Western male artists — in other words, as a voyeuristic tradition”.

She also notes that the resurgence of veiling in the Arab world coincides with increasing Western influence, and is perhaps in response to the erasure of the boundary between public and private. She states that “Within the veil, an Arab woman has a private space”.

It is notable that Hassan Hajjaj’s work also uses the face veil — the niqab — in his work. Liberal use of familiar Western branding juxtaposes modern consumerism with clothing associated with the religious, bringing the familiar in with the ‘foreign’, thus normalising it.

Both are Moroccan diaspora (Essaydi grew up in Morocco, studied in France, and now lives in the US) and use their work to portray their cultural heritage. Lalla Essaydi says in her essay that “In order to understand the woman I had become, I needed to re-encounter the child I once was. I needed to return to the culture of my childhood if I wanted to understand my unfolding relation to the “converging territories” of my present life.”

Hajjaj, however, has stated that he started making the images to counteract the notions that Morocco is just “camels and mint tea” and he wanted to “show another side of Moroccan culture, something more than that, and the imagery that they’d understand in the same way”.

Therefore perhaps in their own way, both are exploring their belonging in a world where Western is often equated to better, and are reclaiming and championing a threatened and misunderstood heritage.





Rosalind is an Australia-based doctor and Fellow of the RACGP. She is currently studying for her Masters in Islamic Studies and Classical Arabic.

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Rosalind Noor

Rosalind Noor

Rosalind is an Australia-based doctor and Fellow of the RACGP. She is currently studying for her Masters in Islamic Studies and Classical Arabic.

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