At 21, Hajjaj launched R.A.P. ('Real Artistic People') from a shop on Covent Garden's Neal Street – a streetwear brand before streetwear was a fashion category. 'Within that, I had a record shop in the basement selling vinyls. Through this, I met Andy Blake, who was just starting his career in 1986', says Hajjaj, who soon became Blake's assistant on magazine shoots and catwalk shows.
Bazaar Blends: An Interview with Hassan Hajjaj
Born in Larache, artist and photographer Hassan Hajjaj left Morocco for London at age thirteen. ‘London gave me a different point of view about my culture,’ he says, ‘it helped me to understand the psychology here, about how the West would think about something like my country.’
"the right person, the right city, the right place. That’s the way I work."
Another friend was Zak Ové, and Hajjaj worked with him behind the scenes on music videos. Hajjaj was also involved in the club, hip-hop and reggae scenes in London, putting on events and ‘underground parties.’ 'I'm not technical,' he says, 'I left school at fifteen without any qualifications'; rather, ‘this was my learning and university'.
It was an education in intuition, making connections and creating moods – no mean feat for a young immigrant amidst the ambient hostility of the early Thatcher years, and in a London that was only really beginning to blend. Hajjaj is humble about his artistic career and seems to view it organically spidering out from these formative days of raves and reggae and pirate radio. ‘When I decided to take pictures [in the late 80s], I realised that I had maybe a couple thousand people around me who I wanted to take pictures of. So, obviously, I had my goals to do that. And that happens naturally. When it’s the right time, the right person, the right city, the right place. That’s the way I work.’
All Hajjaj’s portraits are shot in daylight. ‘I like shooting in the street, because you get a different vibe. When you shoot in the street, it's a bit more exciting, people are walking by and stuff like that.’
Besides daylight, the casual confluence of sitter and setting, and a clear and obvious interest in his subjects, perhaps the first thing a viewer will note about Hajjaj’s work is his maximalist composition: a playful patchwork swagger that could arrest the proverbial kid in a candy store. Only, try swapping ‘candy store’ for ‘souk’ – for the colourful rugs, intricate wickerwork, soft leathers, olives, incense and spices of a Moroccan market; often Hajjaj’s portraits are framed with a melange of canned goods and fast fashion, inspired by his home country.
"playful patchwork swagger"
These stylised frames began life as a body of work called ‘Graffix from the Souk’, Hajjaj explains. He photographed Arabic products and printed them on canvas ‘to make them look somewhere between a painting and a photograph. And I didn't look at it as artwork, it was just something I wanted to present graphically from my culture, you know, because I was growing up in London, and I had Brazilian friends, Jamaican, friends, Indian friends and English friends and so on.’ To bridge this work with his growing interest in portraiture, the artist began using the products in a repeated pattern as a frame, alluding to the gilded frames of old paintings in museums and the zellij, or mosaic tilework, in Arabic countries.
You could quite easily go Homi Bhaba on Hajjaj’s oeuvre, talk about ‘hybridity’ and argue that these images demand we transform our understanding of cross-cultural relations. I think Hajjaj’s response would be, Go for it, but his work is composed with a lighter touch than that. Take the series ‘Kesh Angels’, portraits of biker women in Marrakech, captured using a wide angle, from below, to cinematic effect. The women wear their own traditional outfits, with added props from Hajjaj: socks and heart-shaped glasses bought cheaply at Camden market and supplanted to technicolour bazaars.
"a melange of canned goods and fast fashion, inspired by his home country"
An upturning of power dynamics? Sure. A subversion of the touristic gaze? Sure. Yet, Hajjaj explains, more simply than that, ‘Marrakech is a bike city. Everyone has a bike, male, female, traditional, non-traditional, young, old. I was just really highlighting that this was happening in Marrakech, and I chose friends, or friends of friends, to pose for me.
‘I've tried to avoid forcing something on people,’ he says. Instead, he wants to ‘allow the viewer to decide from their point of view what they think about that image, positive or negative. I try not to do anything political or religious. Some people can see that in the work, but they're the ones that decide that.’
"I've tried to avoid forcing something on people"
From listening to vinyls in a basement in Covent Garden to photographing the likes of Cardi B and Billie Eilish for the cover of American Vogue, and through a wide variety of mediums, from installation to designing furniture from recycled utilitarian objects, Hajjaj continues to toy with the meaning of ‘street’, one in which anyone might be walking past.
By Sammi Gale