What's Famed Photographer Hassan Hajjaj Up To While In Lockdown?

Ayesha S. Shehmir, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, June 16, 2020

By underlining the charm of tradition in a modern society, Morocco’s preeminent artist Hassan Hajjaj seamlessly shifts reality into fantasy

Driven to portray Marrakesh in a new light, Morocco-born contemporary artist Hassan Hajjaj has gained international recognition for his pop art and fashion-influenced colourful photography. Often described as the ‘Andy Warhol of Marrakesh’, the entirely self-taught artist’s works range from portraiture, installation, performance, fashion and furniture design.


After moving to London in the year 1973, Hajjaj was met with a whole new perspective on his native country and became inspired to highlight life in Morocco as never seen before – forming a beautiful melange of the traditions of his hometown and the fashion, music and party scene in London. “I always loved photography,” expresses Hajjaj.


“I mean, I never really thought I’d be doing this for work. I was taking pictures, not for anybody, not for any reason, but just for myself with no sort of plan.”


Not knowing how to speak English and having left school at the age of 15, when he first moved to London Hajjaj spent his days organising parties and worked odd jobs, such as gardening, at Woolworths and in a timber yard. In 1984, he launched a fashion shop called R.A.P (Real Artist People) on Neal Street, Covent Garden in London’s West End.

Comprising traditional Moroccan items such as lanterns, furniture pieces like pouffes and cushions in assorted fabrics, vintage posters and handmade clothing from his own streetwear label, the space is a little piece of Morocco in London.


The shop has surely left a mark on the artist’s work today, with brand logos by the likes of Gucci, Everlast and Coca Cola often seen in his photographs. In 1989, Hajjaj bought a Pentax camera and began photographing his friends and cousins, not realising that this would turn into a little more than just a spontaneous venture.


In the late ‘90s, Hajjaj met renowned writer, curator and producer Rose Issa. “It was Rose Issa who saw my pictures and she’s really the one who knocked the doors for me and put me in the right direction in the art world,” he recalls. Today Hajjaj’s work is a joyous celebration of the popular visual culture of Morocco’s souks, prompting cultural interaction and exchange. A rich fusion of Arab and Western, his vivacious pictures convey a strong love for culture and capture the hidden beauty of tradition.


Part of a series the artist has worked on with textile, animal prints, a camouflage technique and polka dots, a work of note is Sistaz (2000), depicting the close bond between two women who aren’t sisters by blood, but sisters by Islamic culture. “For me, that’s a very special picture,” says Hajjaj. Another notable photograph is Alya (2014), featuring a Morocco-based curator as the subject.


Merging fashion, textile and photography, in the work the woman of focus playfully smiles with her eyes while her face remains covered. “Having her pose for me, I suppose, was a great moment as well because she doesn’t normally have this experience wearing the veil,” says Hajjaj. “So it’s making it kind of traditional and modern, almost like the past now in the future.”


Tapping into the bike culture of Morocco, Kesh Angels, another celebrated series by Hajjaj, portrays girl gangs with motorbikes, polka-dotted abayas and heart-shaped sunglasses. Showcasing local tradition with a twist, the photographs transform the everyday realities of Marrakesh into a fantasy world. The women in the pictures are mothers, full-time workers and also friends of Hajjaj.


The subject of each photo is chosen to fit the backdrop. “I have lots of stuff already designed and lots of backdrops,” explains Hajjaj. “So it depends on the person and I’ll work out what I think fits in with the person’s character or suits the colour palette.”


Today his works are part of prestigious collections including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Institute of Islamic Cultures in Paris, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Barjeel collection in the UAE.


While in lockdown, Hajjaj has been working on projects from home and is an advocate for using this time to be creative and hopeful. “I think at the moment, everybody is in the same situation – there’s obviously the shock of what’s happening,” he expresses. “I think we’re still in the middle of adjusting to the situation. It’s a good time for people who think they’re not artists to live by themselves, create and not be scared – just have a go.”


Currently, alongside expanding his own clothing label, the artist is working on a tea brand which fuses art and music, aptly entitled Jajjah; Hajjaj spelt backwards.


What the artist hopes the world will take away most from his work in present times?


“Well, I don’t know how much it means right now to everybody, with the situation we’re in,” he admits. “Everybody is going to analyse the work in a different way. [Mainly] I want to share work that’s globally healthy to everybody. So it’s not just about a specific person or specific type of people, or religion and politics.”


Through his work, Hajjaj not only documents tradition and the culture of consumerism and branding, but he reshapes the viewer’s perspective of what’s right in front of them, breathing new life and colour into the otherwise mundane regimes and clichés of the world.


By intertwining the charm of heritage with popular culture, music, art, fashion and photography, Hajjaj’s ludic world embodies a type of tangible beauty which otherwise remains unseen.


By revisiting customs and shaping a new reality which he hopes the world will witness, the artist challenges cultural stereotypes, asserting one dominant truth: you will see the world as you have created it.


From the Harper's Bazaar Arabia website.