Hassan Hajjaj Turns Moroccan Clichés Into London Cool

Siddhartha Mitter, The New York Times, October 9, 2019

His photographs, enlivened by friends, subversive wit and a hip-hop swagger, are on show in a major retrospective in Paris.

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.”


The Paris exhibition presents Mr. Hajjaj’s work organized in six series of large-format prints, many in custom frames, inset with items like cans of tomato sauce or motor oil, or children’s building blocks marked with Arabic letters. The galleries are decorated with wallpaper he has designed, and seating areas have been converted with his furnishings. Several video works are on view.


One photo series is his famous “Kesh Angels,” in which women in gowns and face veils pose on motorbikes. They are glammed up, yet authentic. These are workers in Marrakesh tourist economy whom Mr. Hajjaj has known and photographed for years, and who use the bikes to get around town.


Mr. Hajjaj’s stylings — mixing camouflage, polka-dot, or animal prints with traditional fabrics from the souk; adding cheap plastic sunglasses shaped like hearts; printing Louis Vuitton logos onto the motorbike body — bring a sense of play that melds Moroccan heritage with a patchwork hip-hop swagger.


Rather than launch a polemic against the tourist gaze that fetishizes veiled women on motorbikes, Mr. Hajjaj drowns it out with maximalist compositions that mash up references, disorganize expectations, and seize control.


“It’s about taking this orientalism vibe and saying, ‘O.K., let’s take ownership of it,’” Mr. Hajjaj said. “Me being Moroccan, you being a Moroccan subject, let’s take that kind of thing, and do it in our way.”


The same method applies to other series by Mr. Hajjaj: “Gnawi Riders,” a male counterpart to “Kesh Angels,” with Gnawa musicians; the “Dakka Marrakchia” headshots of women; and “Vogue: The Arab Issue,” styled like fashion spreads. All use clothes and accessories sourced from the local market, to reclaim control: not just cultural, but also economic, and ultimately, psychological.


Mr. Hajjaj’s work gets linked to Pop Art, with comparisons to Andy Warhol that he subverts in his clothing line “Andy Wahloo,” which translates to “I have nothing” in Arabic. But he is equally inspired by photography studios of smalltown 1960s Morocco, where families went for special occasions. The classic studio work of Seydou Keïta, Sory Sanlé and Malick Sidibé — one of his idols — is another clear reference.


“I always think that Hassan’s work looks as if someone electrocuted with color an African studio,” Mr. Baker said, alluding to that tradition. “Which of course would have been full of color, but the pictures we have from them are black-and-white.” One room in the show presents, for the first time, Mr. Hajjaj’s own black-and-whites. “That’s to show the journey, and my love of photography,” Mr. Hajjaj said.


But Mr. Hajjaj’s biggest love is for his subjects. It shines in the ease that pervades his portraits, even when the staging is ornate. He mostly photographs people he has formed a connection with — friends, friends of friends, colleagues — and the affinity shows.


“He loves the people around him, and that is a very endearing thing about Hassan,” said Touria El Glaoui, founder of the 1-54 African Contemporary Art fair, who organized Mr. Hajjaj’s last major solo show, at Somerset House in London, in 2017. “He has built this community and kept it over the years. And what’s amazing is that he hasn’t changed a bit.”


The ongoing series “My Rock Stars” is Mr. Hajjaj’s homage to his cosmopolitan crowd. (A sampler: the American artist Hank Willis Thomas; the Moroccan filmmaker Meryem Benm’Barek; the French-Algerian musician Rachid Taha, who died last year.) Some are famous, but styled by Mr. Hajjaj, seen through his lens, they would be special regardless.


In the Shoreditch shop, the grime M.C. Afrikan Boy, the Gnawa drummer Simo Lagnawi and the soul singer Bumi drifted in to rehearse. Mr. Hajjaj was developing a multimedia stage show, “My Rock Stars Experimental,” with video projections and live performance by musicians styled in his outfits. (It premieres on Oct. 11 in Los Angeles.)


He put on a fresh pot of coffee and said to stick around.


“I’ve got my friends hanging with me on the wall,” he said. “They’re traveling with me. So there’s this protection, there’s a comfort for me.”


From the New York Times website.