Hassan Hajjaj brings pop culture lens to AlUla

Part of AlUla Arts Festival 2024, show features vibrant photos of athletes, merchants, farmers and creatives

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Last February, Hassan Hajjaj arrived in AlUla to photograph portraits of residents of and visitors to the historic Saudi city.

The Royal Commission for AlUla had asked the Moroccan artist to take 18 portraits across three days, meaning he didn’t have to photograph more than six subjects a day.

“What actually happened was utter chaos,” say Sumantro Ghose, artistic programming director at the Royal Commission for AlUla.

As Hajjaj set up an outdoor studio at Madrasat Addeera, a crowd began lining up for the chance to have their picture taken by the photographer with his unmistakable aesthetic.

“Everybody who came down wanted to have the photo. And he's such a nice guy. He didn't say no to anybody,” Ghose says. It soon became clear that his output would far exceed the initial projection.

Exactly a year later, Hajjaj’s photos are being showcased in a special open-air exhibition at the AlJadidah Arts District.

AlUla 1445, which is part of AlUla Arts Festival 2024, features dozens of portraits of athletes, merchants, farmers and members of the regional creative community. His subjects, dressed in streetwear designed by Hajjaj as well as traditional clothing, pose in front of vivid, patterned backdrops framed with polka dots, and in some cases, Pepsi and Miranda cans with Arabic lettering.

The Royal Commission for AlUla commissioned Hajjaj for the project around the time the Andy Warhol exhibition opened at Maraya last year. The project was meant to show how “it was not just Americans who were into pop art and consumer culture,” Ghose says.

“I wanted to curate the show to have the photographs almost life-size,” he says. “We deliberately didn't name any of the sitters. He took photographs of the sports team. He took a photograph of Alicia Keys.

“He took some of international people. There were people coming in from Riyadh, the creative community. There are some my colleagues. Some people wore their own clothes, some wore clothes designed by him.”

While Hajjaj often brings his own backdrops to his shoots, he also went shopping in the local market for products he could incorporate in the photos. Among the items were products made by artisans from Madrasat Addeera. Once a secondary school in AlUla, the structure has since become an arts and design centre that hosts artisan development programmes.

Hajjaj is set to return to AlUla some time later this year to conduct another set of photography workshops for local creatives. His previous workshops were dedicated to teaching local photographers how to conduct photo shoots, touching upon Hajjaj’s unique take on set design and composition.

Hassan Hajjaj’s AlUla 1445 is running at AlJadidah Arts District until April 27

Updated: February 13, 2024, 7:04 AM