Hassan Hajjaj Turns Moroccan Clichés Into London Cool
SOURCE: THE NEW YORK TIMES
BY: SIDDHARTHA MITTER
LONDON — Hassan Hajjaj was in his element.
On a recent afternoon, friends and strangers wandered into the Moroccan-born British photographer’s shop in the Shoreditch district here, clustering amid the joyous mess. There were stacks of multicolored T-shirts, racks of sweatshirts and djellabas, and piles of slippers with mock sports-brand insignia.
Grocery-store cans and boxes marked in Arabic script served as decoration and furniture. Crowding the walls were vintage advertising posters — and of course Mr. Hajjaj’s own photographs. In his instantly recognizable style of portraiture, he styles his subjects in a kind of faux-orientalist swag, using items like the ones in the shop as props.
In fact, he makes portraits right here, on the street, taping onto the brick wall his flamboyant backdrops, and shooting in full view of passers-by.
“There are two kinds of artist,” Mr. Hajjaj said in the shop’s back area, with its banquettes made of Moroccan Coca-Cola crates topped with flower-print cushions. “There’s the artist that needs space, to be on their own to work, and there’s somebody like myself.” He scanned the scene. “There’s always an ambience.”
This fall, Mr. Hajjaj has brought the vibes to Paris, where a retrospective of his work is taking over the entire Maison Européenne de la Photographie, the photography museum. The city’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, attended the opening, which included Moroccan Gnawa musicians performing with Yasiin Bey, the rapper once known as Mos Def.
Mr. Hajjaj, who spent childhood in Larache, a fishing town, and now has a riad in Marrakesh as well as a home in London, has become Morocco’s most visible artist. He shoots his friends, many of them working-class, such as the “henna girls” who adorn tourists in the Jemaa el Fna square in Marrakesh. He hires tailors and artisans to run up outfits for his subjects. And recently, he organized a salon there, where he showed works by less well known Moroccan photographers.
But he is even more a creature of London. Mr. Hajjaj arrived here in 1973 at age 12, with his mother and siblings, joining his father, a laborer who could not read or write. After dropping out of high school, he landed in the precarious economy of the early Thatcher years.
Selling flowers in Camden Market, then clothes, while also promoting underground club nights and working on film shoots and fashion shows, Mr. Hajjaj became a utility player in the emerging London bohemia of immigrants’ children, fed on reggae and pirate radio, that produced bands like Young Disciples and Soul II Soul. His clothing label, R.A.P., sold streetwear before that was a fashion category. His Covent Garden shop was a central-city hangout and haven from the ambient racism and class hierarchies of the time.
“In the ’80s you have to remember that London was just starting to blend,” Mr. Hajjaj said, in the North London accent he acquired on arrival. “We all came from different backgrounds. We had to create something to find our space.”
Simon Baker, the director of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie — and a former Londoner himself, previously curator of photography at Tate Modern — said that Mr. Hajjaj was a quintessential Black British artist, in the expansive usage of that time. The retrospective, Mr. Baker said, “tells the story of someone with London street knowledge, network, and background, but who is also very passionate about where he came from.”
Yet it took many years for Mr. Hajjaj to think of himself as an artist.
“I didn’t think I was worthy,” he said. “I had all these friends who studied art, music, fashion, who prepared themselves, who were technically very good. I just took pictures. It was more to hang out with people, to listen to music and create a mood.”
By the time he started showing his photography, in the mid-1990s, he had reconnected with Morocco, following a trip in 1993 to take his daughter to meet her relatives. Even among the London set, Morocco evoked tedious stereotypes — “caftans, hashish, camels,” Mr. Hajjaj said — that irritated him. What he found was the place he remembered, at once ordinary, with its canned goods and fast fashions, and vibrant according to its own cultural mélange.
“I wanted to show my friends that we have something cool,” he said. “And that I suppose is what started me entering the art world.”