by Vatsala SethiMay 24, 2023
The multi-faceted artist, designer, filmmaker and photographer, Hassan Hajjaj has often been referred to as the ‘Andy Warhol’ of Morocco. Hajjaj landed in the UK in his formative years and was taken by the hip hop culture of London of the 1970s. An impressionable mind, living off limited resources, and an environment that did not accept people from different ethnic backgrounds formed Hajjaj’s binary-identity. And with no intensions of becoming part of any high-art movement, Hajjaj began to indulge in making images of his friends and family that were inspiring to him.
His practice originates from this cross-cultural identity. “Just as travelling, the internet, and many other ways that gets different parts of the world linked together, there are more and more of us ‘hybrids’, sharing different cultures,” he says.
I speak to the artist on his significant series titled My Rockstars and inspirations.
Rahul Kumar (RK): What led to your interest in the hip hop and popular culture as the basis for your art?
Hassan Hajjaj (HH): I got into hip hop in early 80s and I had a streetwear shop call R.A.P. (for Real Artistic People) that I operated from 1984 till 1993. Having arrived in London in the 1973 in my early teens, and city not being the embracing multicultural city it is today, I really grew up in the streets, learning from it. I therefore related to hip hop when it came out and grew with it an understanding of our struggle as ‘minority community’. My friends were all from diasporic backgrounds, whether from Africa,South America or Asia. Hip hop was a common platform of putting words to our shared experiences, feeling mostly rejected or not belonging. This gave me an understanding of the culture that came out in my work naturally.
RK: In continuation, your portrait series titled My Rockstars uses ornate rendition. Does that reference traditional and folk culture, rather than pop?
HH: As Christopher Spring stated, the key in this series My Rockstars is ‘My’. I started this series taking photographs of my close friends that had natural talent in how I viewed them. They truly inspired me and I wanted to document them. I did not have in mind fitting-in any style or movement. It is my language, my way of presenting them, having fun and giving them a stage. My inspiration for my style came from my own experience as a child with studio photography where my mother would take us, her children, to get a photograph clicked to be sent to our father who was working in the UK, so he could see us grow up. And then I stumbled upon studio photography masters such as Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita and the way they documented their times through their profession. This influenced and inspired my work.
RK: You engage in designing and producing furniture and lamps, use recycled North African objects to custom make clothes, photography and films. How does all this come together?
HH: This came altogether in the 90s while I was organising parties in warehouses and unused spaces. But it took around 15 years to truly become a body of work. All that I do is part of my journey. I mostly do things spontaneously, out of need. When I organised these ‘underground’ parties, I had to find inexpensive and non-precious way to make it functional for people coming in. We did not have money; we did not have much and were just using what we had around us and create with it. But putting it together came naturally to me as that is what we do traditionally in Morocco. I am always amazed at how resourceful Moroccan people are…not necessarily saying it’s only them, but that is where I am from.
RK: How are you commenting on the socio-political culture of your society through your practice, specifically through your films?
HH: I try not to have politics or religion in my work. I understand that the audience’s stance on it makes them see some political and religious aspect, but it is not an intention from my part. I present what I see quite innocently but I am really happy to see that it raises questions and debates amongst the viewers. I leave it to the people to decide what they think on my work.
Throughout my life, freedom has always been important to me. I believe that if I want people to respect my freedom of vision, thought, and expression, I also have to respect other people’s freedom, even if it clashes with my personal views. I am not righteous. I feel by being this way I might learn something new; it might open another perspective. It is an important and humbling philosophy that I live by.
RK: Finally, how has your multicultural and hybrid identity informed your work?
HH: I would say in a huge way, as this was part of my life…I was living it myself. It is part of me, it is who I am and has been all very natural for me. And I guess, coming to London and meeting people coming from all parts of the world, there was a curiosity in this mix, untangling itself, not being suppressed. There is a wealth in hybridity, in sharing cultures, in opening up. And I am really happy to see that there is an increased interest in getting to know ‘the other’.
Just as travelling, the internet, and many other ways that get different parts of the world linked together, there are more and more of us ‘hybrids’, sharing different cultures. From parents being from different countries, or living in a country different from one where one was born and spent early childhood, or just visiting other cultures. While this has been happening all along, the arts and society are finally catching up with it.