24 January 2019
Blurring the boundaries between cultures and between art forms, the photography of multidisciplinary artist, Hassan Hajjaj, fuses portraiture, fashion, and consumer products to create works that echo the cultural influences of a life lived between Morocco and Britain.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Larache, Morocco. I grew up there until I was thirteen, and then I came to London not speaking any English and starting in the middle of secondary school. It was a different time, in the ’70s, so it was very tough in London.
How did you get into art and photography?
I didn’t study art, so it was just the love of photography. Prior to that, I had a fashion shop; I did assistant styling; I worked on music videos; I used to run lots of parties putting on bands and DJs. This was my schooling. Between this, I was taking pictures for myself, and all these influences started to become my photography – fashion and people. It all happened slowly over a period of time.
How would you describe the subject matter of your art?
It’s about people, and it’s a journey of my life between the two places where I grew up and everything I got influenced by along the way. Being in London, I suppose, it’s more international, while in Morocco it’s more traditional and more local. So, I think it’s a combination of that. Art, films, food, music, fashion, travelling, all this kind of stuff comes out in my work.
How has your art evolved over the length of your career so far?
I think because I’m using photography, design, fashion, film, it took a period of time for me to develop it and for these things to meet. Now I can say they’ve all met each other, and this is why people say it’s got a style or an identity. It took time, hard work, experimenting, and not being scared of any medium when I can fuse all of them together in one space.
Is there anything you would like to experiment with in the future?
Definitely more film. In Islam you’re not supposed to do sculptures and stuff like that, but maybe some kind of object to express myself in a way that it doesn’t become sculpture – it’s about trying to say something. There are a few ideas that I would like to try in the future, which is good. It means I still have some passion and some ideas as an artist.
You mentioned Islam, has that had much influence on your work?
Probably. I mean I didn’t set out in my work to make it about religion. I am Muslim, and I am from a Muslim country. In some of my work, because the subject is Morocco, there are Muslims as well. I never really do my art around politics, religion, or anything like that. It’s really just what’s around me, and, because I’m Muslim from a Muslim country, that sometimes can be read in my work. I let the viewer read that more than me trying to say that.
How do you decide what elements to incorporate into a shoot?
It depends. For example, on Tuesday I’m shooting an Iranian woman. I’ve already worked out an outfit that I think will suit her. I’ve listened to her music, seen a couple of videos, and had the opportunity to meet her. So, I already have two or three outfits ready that I think she will be happy with, and I’ll work out the back drop after that. I’m also going to be shooting a French rapper who’s more futuristic. I’ve got a few outfits that are sort of from the past, but could also look futuristic, or African, or “hip” at the worst. I try to create a look and hopefully get hold of our own style and our own identity via me or the sitter. It’s playing around with this kind of vibe. It depends on the person; it depends on everybody I shoot.
And what about the frames?
The frame idea is from my early work in the ’90s, which was all about Arabic products. I collected and shot hundreds of products, and, at that time Photoshop was new, I played around with them and presented them on canvas. When I started on photography about people, I wanted to bridge my old work with my new work. I wanted to do something that felt fresh and also kind of use Islamic repeated patterns, like mosaics. The brands are such big names that they communicate to people. I found that, by using products, it’s easier for people to look because everybody has a tin or can. Even if it’s Coca-Cola in Arabic, they would know it’s Coca-Cola, or SPAM, or something like that. Once I work out the image and its colour, then I would work out something to go against it. For example, if it’s a woman I might use chicken SPAM because when you’re in a sexist world people say, “Look at that chick.” For a man, I might use beef SPAM because it’s “beefy”. I might use butterfly match boxes around a woman’s image because she’s like a butterfly. So, you’re playing around with these kinds of words. Not all the products mean something to the image, but there’s certain things I would play around with.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced as an artist?
Trying to survive and to maintain it as a career. I think these are the two hardest things. Also, trying to find your space in the art world, especially when you’re coming from another culture or another country, and you’re trying to base it in the West as well. It’s not easy; there’s so much competition and so many good artists. And to maintain it is another big challenge; how do you maintain it long term and be relevant trying to say something? That’s not easy for many artists. I consider myself very lucky to still be here talking to you at this moment after over 25 years in the arts.
How do you stay relevant?
I try to stay true to myself and not to be scared to work with something new or something that’s from the past. Also, it’s about trying to keep going as far as you can because there’s moments where you might hit a wall, get tired, or lose your passion for it. At the moment, as long as I’ve got my passion and I feel like I’m doing something good, I’ll continue doing that.
What have been some of the highlights of your career to date?
I did a solo show in Bamako in 2010, and I realised that the show it followed was by Malick Sidibé. It happened again at Somerset House. They started these new solo shows for three months as part of 1-54, the first one was Malick Sidibé, and I was the second one. For me, these are really great highlights. Fab 5 Freddie (the first presenter of Yo! MTV Raps, he’s a big icon), he came to my show in New York, and I got this amazing email from him. He understood the work, and for me that was a great moment. There’s been loads of little moments that really meant something to me – Yinka Shonibare choosing my work to be part of his group show. I would never have expected a lot of these things that happen. As things happen, sometimes it guides you down the right path in your destiny, especially in your work. There’s been some really incredible moments like this.
Having worked with you, I know you work a lot with young people. How important is it to you to engage with young audiences and emerging talent?
It’s really important. Some people, not just in the arts, might not consider this, but it’s a two-way learning process. I’m at the end of one cycle, and this is a new generation, yourself included. I hope you learnt something or enjoyed it: that means I’m learning from you as well. You’re showing me these young artists, for example, it’s nice to see your headspace; for me, this is very important. In 2009, I had these students come from Sotheby’s, about 20 of them, and I gave a talk here. Four or five years later, one of them called me up, she was opening a gallery in L.A., and she offered me a solo show. That was great to see because you’re the future. I never look at it like I’m the ‘it’ person because I’m older and I’ve got my shit going and stuff like that. It works two ways, and it’s always very nice if I’m able to help as well.
Gang of Marrakesh
This photo has lots of elements to it. I bought the camouflage fabric in China Town, New York. I bought the polka-dot fabric in Brick Lane, London, and it was made in Marrakesh and then shot in Marrakesh. There was a process to this picture; to have an image in your head and to get to it took months.
Master Cobra Mansa
Cobra Mansa is a capoeira master; he’s my friend’s brother. He was just passing through London for two days, and I proposed to shoot him. He accepted, and I dressed him up. That was a great moment for me to gain confidence, to be able to feel the strong energy of a human being, to have him believe in me, and to create a great image.
What new projects have you got coming up?
I have a solo show at New Art Exchange, in Nottingham (Spring 2019), and another solo show at La Maison Européenne de la Photographie, in Paris (11 September 2019–24 November 2019) – it’s going to be probably my biggest ever solo show.