Ekow Eshun

Hassan Hajjaj

A homecoming exhibition of the British-Moroccan artist at Somerset House showcases his vibrant fusion of contemporary cultures and reflects his nomadic lifestyle.

Hassan Hajjaj is an artist equally at home working in the street as the studio but his chosen environment could just as well be the store or the bazaar. An abiding affection for the marketplace as a site for community and connection, exchange and discovery runs through his work. For over a decade, beginning in the mid-80s, Hajjaj had a store in Covent Garden, selling clothes he designed. Even today, he operates out of a wondrously overcrowded, richly decorated shop-cum-office-cum-storage site in Shoreditch that’s sporadically open to the public. And he has turned time and again to locations such as Marrakech’s sprawling Jemaa el Fna square, to transform its market traders, musicians and street performers into his models and muses.

In the thrilling opening to his film Karima[1], a henna tattooist and her team weave through the narrow lanes surrounding the square on scooters. They’re dressed in djellabas that flow behind them in the wind, the veils covering their faces doing little to disguise their kohl-rimmed eyes, their purposeful intent. They have a power and a presence that renders them sexy and captivating; rebel biker chicks roaring straight out of a gangster movie.

For his photo shoots Hajjaj creates hijabs and niqabs printed with gleefully appropriated Nike and Gucci and Louis Vuitton logos. Picture frames are fashioned from Pepsi cans and sardine tins and furniture culled from old Coca-Cola crates. Here, surely, is the synthesis of the West and the Middle East; of street style and contemporary art; folk and pop, all of it rendered in an exuberant riot of patterns and brand marques. It’s tempting then to also think of Hajjaj’s work as an exercise in cultural bartering. This is a valid enough analysis, as far as it goes. Yet such a reading fails to take into account the deeper currents that inform Hajjaj’s work.

Hajjaj was born in 1961, in the small fishing town of Larache, northern Morocco. In 1973, he moved to the UK. He was 12 years old and unable to speak English. The seven members of his family – two parents, five children – shared a single room in a rundown house in north London. Seventies Britain was hostile territory for many immigrants. The far right was on the rise. People of colour were abused on the street and mocked on TV sitcoms like Love Thy Neighbour and Mind Your Language. Hajjaj left school at 15 and it took him several years of uncertainty to find his feet and begin to establish himself as an artist.

Having struggled in his youth, Hajjaj is acutely conscious of what it is to be marginalised and voiceless; to be considered lesser or other as a consequence of skin colour or culture. He is intent on complicating narratives of identity. In his formulation, the formidably successful figures that he shoots, such as the fashion designer Joe Casely-Hayford and the Michelin-starred restaurateur Mourad Mazouz, are ‘underdogs’[2]. He crowns the musicians he films in a multi-screen installation piece, ‘My Rock Stars’. In images like Khadija and ‘Kesh Angels, the force of a woman’s presence shines all the brighter because, rather than despite, the fact she’s wearing a veil.

Yet the photographs that Hajjaj creates today are imbued with a casual sophistication. His female subjects stare out of the frame, knowing and ironic. The men play up to the camera, dressed in the raucously patterned suits that Hajjaj has created for them. Looking from one image to the next, it’s impossible to tell which among them is the pop star, the market trader or the revered Gnawa musician. The urge is not so much to flatten the status between his sitters as to raise them all up to the same high level. In front of Hajjaj’s camera, they all look like winners.

For Hajjaj, identity is never fixed or singular. It is always fluid, always multiple.

Hajjaj cites the work of African studio photographers such as Seydou Keita, Samuel Fosso, and in particular Malick Sidibe, as influences. Sidibe’s photographs captured the vibrancy and optimism of independence-era Mali as people of that nation cast off French colonial rule and asserted their own identity. Hajjaj’s photographs articulate their own form of liberation struggle too.

Whatever their personal circumstances, many of Hajjaj’s subjects will have faced being objectified or stereotyped on the basis of their race, gender or ethnicity. Through his portraits they come fully, forcefully to life, insisting on being seen in all their complexity, barely containable within the borders of his elaborate frames. In the proudly self-confident Arab and African figures captured in Gang of Marrakesh, Rider or Afrikan Boy Sittin’, what comes to mind is the cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s insistence that black Britons, and by extension people of colour generally, should not be imagined as a homogenous mass. Rather, argued Hall, they should be understood on the basis of ‘the extraordinary diversity of subjective positions, social experiences and cultural identities’ that make up their individual lives.[3]

Shot in London, Marrakech or indeed anywhere that he can throw up a patterned backdrop on a wall to create a makeshift studio, Hajjaj’s photos offer a unique view of the interconnected modern world. In the news broadcasts and popular imagery that surrounds discussion of globalisation, people of colour are often cast as reluctant extras; refugees, migrants and dollar-a-day strivers, barely holding on as the planet spins ever faster.

Hajjaj would never deny the reality of such hardship. But he has the perspective of a natural cosmopolitan. His gaze turns more readily to figures that are able to navigate global flows of commerce, culture and information with apparent ease – whether based in Paris, London or the Jemaa el Fna. Hajjaj is fascinated by how such individuals seem to hold the whole world within them. And how their very presence in a new city or country is enough to begin to shift the character of that place. Hall has dubbed that process of change, when immigrant culture comes to determine the texture of dominant society as ‘globalisation from below’[4]. In that phrase we might see a raison d’être for Hajjaj’s work. His art is less to do with Middle East meets West, as much as a desire to reimagine the world on his own terms as a place in which no-one is on the margins; anywhere can be home; and everyone might be a star.

[1] Karima: A Day in the Life of a Henna Girl (2015) Dir Hassan Hajjaj

[2] Interview with the artist, by xxx, 12 July 2017, London

[3] Hall S., Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies  (Routledge, 1996)

[4] Enwezor O. et al, Créolité and Creolization: Documenta 11_Platform3 (Hatje Cantz, 2003)


Hassan Hajjaj