Where does one begin? With a career that spans decades, Moroccan-born photographer – Hassan Hajjaj has had one vibrant career. Dubbed the ‘Andy Warhol of Marrakech’, Hajjaj has garnered international acclaim thanks to his colourful photographs that embraces juxtaposition. The clash between prints, colour and culture that develops into a multifaceted yet melodious compositions. While one blogpost couldn’t possibly do due diligence to the fascinating career Hajjaj has had, we can share some highlights about this artist caught between two cultures:
Hajjaj was born in Larache, Morocco but moved to London with his family in 1973 when he was 13. Influenced by his life in London and his childhood memories in North Africa, he’s developed a diverse practice that incorporates installation, portraiture, furniture design, performance and fashion. According to Artsy.net, he draws influence from Pop Art, fashion photography, and the studio work of Malick Sidibe. Interestingly, he’s a self-taught photographer. Furthermore, he makes all the garments that his subjects wear thanks to his experience as a stylist. As stated in an article by Its Nice That, ‘designing and creating his own fashion and garments informs how he responds to finding the unique quality in everybody he works with.’ His ability to repurpose textiles and objects results in unique garments and sets that create fresh and diverse scenes for his photographs.
One main reason he started photography was to show another side of Moroccan culture in a context that outside audiences may be able to appreciate. Moroccans are known for their love for colour, while the English are considered more conservative with their hues. In an interview with British Journal of Photography, he explains, “I realised along the way that growing up in Europe, there is a study of colour and we are told that this colour should go with this and that colour shouldn’t go with that. In Morocco there is the clash of colours, and an attitude not to be scared of colours.”
You’ll notice that one of his signature elements is framing his images with consumer products. There are two nods in play here. The first being a modern take on the traditional geometric designs of Islamic art. The second being where he gets his Warhol nickname from. Andy Warhol would also use everyday objects as accents in his work, granted in a more cynical mood that is a far cry from Hajjaj’s celebratory disposition. Why the choice of supermarket products from Morocco? He elaborates to Artnet, “It’s an entry for people into a foreign culture. The graphic nature of these products and their recognizability makes them accessible for people not familiar with North Africa.”
Although he started the photography in the late 1980s, it wasn’t until he showed some of his work to curator Rose Issa that it became more than just photographing his friends. Issa and Hajjaj decided to do a show in 2007 and since then, his work has gone on to be exhibited in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; to mention a few.
It’s been seven years since this artist has had a solo exhibition. The curated exhibition, which was part of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, featured two of the artist’s series: the ‘Kesh Angels’ and part two of ‘My Rock Stars’. The latter featured nine portraits that of up-and-coming artists hailing from Africa, Britain, and the Caribbean. It was a mix of photography and video art that express how we can construe meaning from people’s clothing, tradition and labels to interpret who they are and their identities. What was eye-catching about this exhibition was how he chose to sync up the individual videos to make them look as if they were shot together. Additionally, that the subjects were appreciating each other’s works/art.
Perhaps one of his best known series, Hajjaj showcases the unique street culture of young female bikers in Marrakesh. Hajjaj captured the ladies – who are henna-tattoo artists – dressed in djellaba, zipping around town between appointments. Not to be mistaken with a biker gang, these women are more like superheroes where the shapes, colours and patterns of their clothes show the effect of globalisation as well as North Africa’s vivacity. Through fashion photography, he used this series to challenge how the West perceives Arab society/culture.
On a side note, this series got Hajjaj thinking how there weren’t any Arab couture dolls and that sparked the idea to have a Kesh Angels: Barbie edition such as the image below:
It started as a labour of love, with his friends and family as his subjects. But thanks to the sum of his experiences, travels and cultures, he’s worked with celebrities and has notable museums holding his work. Through his artistic expression, he’s been able to document the stories of the cities and people as authentically as he found them in that space in time.
There’s no doubt that his work is multi-layered and continues to coalesce traditional and contemporary North African culture with familiar Western imagery. And after 20 years, it continues to captivate, educate and have a little fun while at it. To reiterate what we said in the beginning, it’s just not possible to capture it all in this post. But we do encourage you to go to the links below and learn more about each individual series and piece to really grasp the work and art of Hassan Hajjaj.