Hassan Hajjaj

This summer, as I was getting ready for my trip to Morocco, I came across this article by Mickalene Thomas in the New York Times Style Magazine.  It’s a travelogue of her trip to Italy, where she participated in the “Black Portraiture{s} II” conference hosted by NYU.  But in addition to participating in the conference, she shared her unique glimpses into art and life in Italy, allowing us to see it too through her artist’s eyes, from graffiti to leather craftsmen to adverts.  She also shared some of the contemporary art she visited during her travels.

And the image she shared of one of Hassan Hajjaj’s photographs stopped me in my tracks.

I’d been trying to learn more about Moroccan art in advance of my trip: both the traditional artisan trajectories of textile artists and wood carvers and leather workers — and contemporary Moroccan art.  Hassan Hajjaj’s work is gorgeous: rich, sumptuous colors; portraiture that plays with Moroccan motifs and textiles and is unabashedly modern.

Helen PJI by Hassan Hajjaj (source)

Helen PJI by Hassan Hajjaj (source)

Rider by Hassan Hajjaj (source)

Rider by Hassan Hajjaj (source)

I didn’t get a chance to see any of Hajjaj’s work during my travels in Morocco, but have kept an eye on his work since I first came across him.

So imagine my surprise when I met a friend at the Worcester Art Museum this weekend and found they had a full-on Hassan Hajjaj installation (on exhibit through March 6).  Hajjaj’s work is even more luminous and texturally active in person: the photographs of such a high resolution that the textiles have a palpable tactile quality, the borders of the photographs woven.

The exhibit at WAM is part portrait photography, part video installation, part environmental immersion.  And seeing Hajjaj’s work in this context gave it new dimension.  The exhibit’s walls are painted with patterns borrowed Moroccan textile and decorative motifs.  And the installation includes furniture Hajjaj designed fusing sources such as the traditional leather Moroccan ottoman and the utilitarian material culture of contemporary life: milk crates, plastic paint buckets.

Mandisa Dumezweni by Hassan Hajjaj

Mandisa Dumezweni by Hassan Hajjaj (source: Worcester Art Museum)

Titled “My Rock Stars,” the exhibit features portraits of contemporary musicians whose work has inspired Hajjaj and a dynamic film installation of their performance work.  Having just returned from a stay in Essouira, the Gnawan music felt particularly powerful, though the real impact of the film installation came from the collaging of sounds as distinct, individually compelling, and collectively texturally rich as these.

The exhibit is a must-see if you find yourself in New England.  And Hajjaj an artist to watch no matter where you live.

I am crushed that I missed his visit to WAM earlier this year.  So here’s this for an intention: Let my work matter enough that someday Hassan Hajjaj will photograph me.

 

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Mickalene Thomas

I’ve been fascinated by Mickalene Thomas since I saw her piece at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond this spring.  I’ve seen a few of her pieces in person since then, and have found her interiors particularly interesting.  Thomas’s work in her portraits and her interiorscapes is often lush and richly materialed.

Sleep: Deux Femmes Noires

Mickalene Thomas’s Sleep: Deux Femmes Noires at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

I have found myself increasingly compelled by the creative capacity of material culture in my own  life: drawn to textile and ceramic and the richness of interior space.  A year or two ago on one of my many visits to the Baltimore Museum of Art’s inimitable Cone Collection, it occurred to me how important surrounding himself with material culture — and particularly textiles — had been in Matisse’s work, and how resonant that feels in my own creative life.

Thomas’s work has always struck me as falling into this same lineage.  Full of the energy of material, both in her subject and her technique.

So I was delighted to see this video of Thomas’s home this week.  (And it includes a Matisse!)

For more on Mickalene Thomas and her work, I was fascinated by her reflections on interior space and her own artistic evolution in this interview.

Museum Picks, VMFA

{Five favorites (+ one)}

On our trip to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Mom and I decided to pick two galleries to visit.  We opted for South Asian and 21st Century.

South Asian art always has such an appeal for me.  I love the architecture and sculpture and textiles.  VMFA has some particularly exceptional pieces, including an entire 19th century pavilion and silk Gujarat textiles so finely embroidered you are reduced to abject admiration of each tiny, precise, vibrant stitch.

Mom read Arabian Nights in its entirety one summer when she was a kid and has had an affinity for its jeweled-toned illustrations since.  So this North Indian / Mughal watercolor and ink illustration appealed to her right away.  Not unlike Scheherazade, this vina-playing yogini has completely captivated her audience.  Check out all those fine lines and darts of bold color.

One of the things I found myself thinking about as we walked through the South Asian gallery is how cross-cultural and geographically interconnected artist creation has always been.  The museum’s curatorial staff believe the illustration is a Mughal copy of a North Indian painting.  The embroidered textile was created in the worldwide embroidery center at Gujarat, which traded textiles to the European market.

After an obstacle-ridden year, Ganesha has had a lot of resonance for me lately as the remover of obstacles.  And in his correlative role as the lord of new ventures and patron of arts and letters, he feels like a good presence to hold onto during this new year of risk-taking and book-writing.  Back in November, when I was just beginning to wrap my head around this new adventure, Mom spent a weekend with me in Baltimore, and we went down to check out the Ganesha at the Walters Art Museum down the street from my apartment.  This week Mom overcame a few of her own big obstacles, so with both of us starting new ventures, this Dancing Ganesha feels fittingly celebratory.

The 21st Century gallery was a great complement to the South Asian collection: equally fabulous and, in its own way, both as spare and as ornamental.  Barry McGee bought empty liquor bottles from nearby San Francisco Mission District hobos and painted them with portraits of their owners.  This clean-lined piece carries a lot of tangled social commentary and resists being reduced into any one, simple message-based meaning.  Yet for all its interest in societal observation, the piece is also deeply human.  The portraits are expressive and startling in their empathetic reach.

Mom and I both stopped to sit for a while with Mickalene Thomas and her Interior: Two Chairs and Fireplace.  The rich pattern and ornamentation of this rhinestoned 1970s-inspired interior has put all kinds of art history into play, including all those early-Nice Matisse interiors I love.

And though we had chosen our two galleries, we couldn’t help but stop briefly in 20th Century to admire Beauford Delaney’s stunning portrait of Marian Anderson*, which is too arresting and luminous and potent not to see in person.

*(And certainly too brilliant for my phone’s camera, so I’ve borrowed this picture of it from VMFA.)