Moroccan Hassan Hajjaj has his finger firmly on the pulse of contemporary culture. His photographs and designs, inspired by day-to-day life, speak a vibrant, joyful language accessible to all. Portrait by Juliet Highet.
Morocco is Africa’s Capital of Culture this year. Photographer and designer Hassan Hajjaj says: “I am bringing the caravan of Morocco to the world. My work is from Morocco but also London.”
Of Moroccan birth, he has lived in London since he was 12, though he has a home, gallery and shop in the Medina of Marrakesh. “I see myself as a human being first, and then as a Moroccan, a North African, and as a Londoner.”
In his two galleries/shops in Marrakesh and London, he displays work such as lanterns and ceramics by traditional Moroccan artisans. He has encouraged them to experiment using mind-blowing colours and patterns, giving them a contemporary, cool edge by transforming the products into desirably kitsch decorative and functional items.
Hajjaj’s photography is essentially urban art, rooted in popular culture, with a hip-hop swagger and a rap edge. Although without a specific political agenda, his images are coloured with softly subversive, contemporary references, including to consumerism, cultural appropriation, and identity. They are a remix of different sources including sub-Saharan Africa and Moroccan heritage.
Because of Hajjaj’s unique blend of Pop Art aesthetics with North African culture, he has been dubbed: ‘the Andy Warhol of Marrakesh.’ “People say that”, he responds, “but it’s really a label the West has given me, because the West controls the art world. We have to fight extra hard as non-Western artists, because of these labels.”
Like a rock super-star
Today, acclaimed like a contemporary Bob Marley or rock superstar, Hajjaj is a very successful artist, whose work is exhibited worldwide, including in Africa.
In an essay titled Hassan Enchanting Afropolitan for a catalogue for a major retrospective of his work in late 2019, Michket Krifa, an author and curator, described Hajjaj as “a rooted cosmopolitan.”
He transformed the entire premises of the Parisian photography museum (MEP) with the caravan of his most important photographic series, video works and sculptural installations, as well as the clothes he designs.
These series include My Rock Stars; Gnawa Riders; Graffix from the Souk; Vogue, the Arab Issue and Kesh Angels. An iconic image from the series Vogue, the Arab Issue shows two Moroccan women sitting reading Vogue and Elle through cheap plastic winged sunglasses, bottles of Coca Cola on the table between them.
And in Kesh Angels, his most famous series, the ‘models’ are dressed in kaftans and veils printed with internationally recognised logos such as Chanel and Louis Vuitton, plus socks and traditional slippers (babouches) stamped with brand names such as Nike and Adidas.
One Kesh Angel astride a motorbike shows a bit of leg. Another veiled woman winks at you. The two series demonstrate how fusions of traditional and contemporary style can be hip, though with a gentle dig at the domination of global brands.
The irony is extended, as Hajjaj says: “When my friends and I were growing up, of course we weren’t able to wear real brands; these imitations of brand names were aspirations, they represented hope.”
How did the journey from his birth in 1961 in Larache, a fishing town in northern Morocco, to global art recognition take place? In 1973, aged 12, Hajjaj left his country – which was suffering harsh economic times – together with his family to join his illiterate father in London.
“It was a really tough time,” he says. “I found London difficult, strange and sad. I spent troublesome years trying to fit in and figure out what it meant to be a streetwise Moroccan in London during the 70s.”
He dropped out of school at 15, and odd jobs followed. Meanwhile London was becoming a cosmopolitan remix, a melting-pot of communities and their cultures from the former British Empire. “We’re people who’ve been moved around a lot, some centuries ago, or like me, recently.”
But rather than confronting this militantly, many young people like Hajjaj created a multicultural alternative lifestyle, expressing themselves in music, fashion, cinematic and visual arts.
In 1984 Hajjaj opened a fashion shop, RAP, meaning ‘Real Artistic People’, “because I had the courage and nothing to lose.” This is a label still attached to his street-wear brand of proud, loud, bold bomber jackets and other covetable clothes and accessories available in his outlets in London and Marrakesh.
Glamorous pop aesthetic
Simultaneously he began working with filmmakers and taught himself photography. The results created a “glamorous pop aesthetic, the visual equivalent of the samplings, mixing and blending essential to popular music since the birth of hip-hop” writes Michket Krifa.
But as yet the photos were unpublished. Hajjaj contacted his long-term friend Rose Issa, an independent curator and promoter of international art and film. “I received a mysterious phone call. Hassan wanted to show me some of his photographs.”
And so, in pre-digital 2006, Hajjaj arrived at her London gallery with a battered suitcase packed with contact sheets and prints. Issa says: “I was astounded by the amount of work. No full-time artist or young photographer that I knew had gathered as many images.”
Dakka Marrakesh (Marrakesh Beat) was the result of that meeting, his first solo exhibition in 2008 in the UK. “He loves and has compassion for the underprivileged, ordinary people, incorporating their first-hand experience of street-life into his work,” Issa comments.
A signature aspect of Hajjaj’s work is the way he frames his photos. “In Morocco, recycling is something that comes naturally. Mothers make cans into mugs. My frames contain local products, such as tins of olives and sardines.
“This creates a potentially kitsch, humorous effect. They also include bottle tops of what were to us desired brands like Coca Cola, referencing symbols of international consumerism. Nowadays, my frames are much more global, so if I’m photographing a Nigerian, I try to find something Nigerian to put into the frames.”
Just as he did for his RAP shop, wherever he travels he scours the markets, buying cheap materials for the clothes he designs and as backgrounds for his shots, which are always done in the street, rather than a studio.
“When people don’t have anything, they have to make something out of nothing. How can they still stand out, look grand? For people on our continent who don’t have money, looking great alleviates the pain of poverty. And this becomes street chic.”
Such is the global reach of Hajjaj’s creative recognition that Michket Krifa comments: “Hajjaj is at the centre of a genuine movement, driven forward by interdisciplinary and international artists, both known and lesser known, together forming his circle of friends.”
An ongoing series titled My Rock Stars is characterised by warm, loyal empathy. Some of the ‘rock stars’ are famous, others not. Keziah Jones, a Nigerian hardedge funk singer/songwriter is a global luminary; Che Lovelace, a Trinidadian conceptual artist, is not so well-known. “They’re a blend of people I believe in,” Hajjaj says.
These include Gnawa musicians, whose presence in Morocco is due to their removal as slaves from Sub-Saharan Africa, whom he has been photographing for his series called Gnawa Riders.
“Nobody had documented these musicians, and I want to record them to pass it along to the younger generation – to give something back to my culture, not just take things away.”
New series are in progress – photos of women who pick potatoes in the north of Morocco, another on acrobats in Tangier, and a third on women refugees in Beirut.
“I want my photography to communicate to somebody like myself, who originally wouldn’t go to an art gallery, as well as somebody who’s an intellectual. My work is an expression of what I feel. So I hope it talks for me – I want it to appeal to everyone, whether they’re a cleaner or an art critic.”