Interview with Hassan Hajjaj

Hassan Hajjaj at 1-54 New York 2017 © BFA

This interview was originally published in the October 2017 issue of New African, to coincide with the fifth edition of 1-54 London.

Known for his striking photographs injected with rich colours and patterned textiles, Hassan Hajjaj is a multifaceted artist, photographer and designer inspired by his Moroccan roots and Western pop-culture. In his new solo exhibition opening at 1-54 London on the 5 October 2017, La Caravane at Somerset House, he presents photographic portraits from his series Kesh Angels and My Rock Stars: Volume 2.

In conversation with 1-54, Hassan Hajjaj gives a window into his process and inspiration.

What was your first encounter with photography?

HH: I did not study photography. In 1989 I bought a manual camera from a friend, artist Zak Ové and every now and then I would make the effort to go out to shoot friends and other subjects. I started showing my work at the beginning of 2000, by then I was working in fashion and music and I started fusing these worlds into my work.

In your photographs, the characters perform for the camera through poses, clothing and props. How does your work engage with notions of identity and cultural displacement?

HH: When I am in Morocco I mostly shoot friends, who are creative people, like artists, musicians, designers, etc. They are performers in their lives and are used to being in front of the camera, so I simply set up a stage for them. In London, I also shoot friends that I grew up with or people that inspire me. I think it’s in this way that my work touches upon different identities and represents people coming from all over the world. The movement of people across space creates the mood of my work, which hopefully is just more than a pretty picture, and can communicate with ideas of economy, trade and culture.

Hassan Hajjaj, Afrikan Boy Sittin’, 2013/1434. Courtesy of the Artist and Vigo Gallery

You were born in Larache, Morocco and moved to the UK at an early age. Your work blends North African traditions and culture with Western items of pop-culture. How has your personal experience of moving in-between cultures affected the way you work and create art?

HH: Yes, I moved from Morocco to London, but my work is not about my movement, it’s about all of us. I’m just another character part of the people in my pictures. I’m documenting the people around me and my experience of migration has allowed me to expand my circle, and meet new people.

You often create frames for your photographs with cola cans, as well as creating pieces of furniture with found objects. Why are these objects so attractive to you and pervasive in the work of other contemporary African artists?

HH: Growing up in Morocco, recycling was normal in every household, mothers would turn cans into drinking cups. I think this is a regular practice in Africa and South America, for me it’s natural to work with these kinds of materials and objects around me. I’m also drawn to work with cola cans and brands because I’m a Sixties child when brands were heavily pushing their names out; Coca-Cola was a big name in Morocco and it was a ‘rich men’s drink’ that we would drink when guests were coming to our house. I like the immediacy of these products. They are very eye-catching and everyone can immediately recognize the brands and logos. I started working with these objects because I wanted to become a recognised ‘brand’ myself. I use the products in the frames to reference the repeated patterns of the ‘zellige’ ceramics that we have in Morocco.

Does the incorporation of these items act as a commentary on capitalism and globalisation?

HH: Definitely, we all live in this world where we can instantly recognize brands like Coca-Cola or Louis Vuitton and these items communicate it. The products in the frames win over the image, because people are first attracted by these objects, this is just how we have been brainwashed.

Your work has strong visual elements achieved through your choice of textiles and colours. How does colour operate in your creative process and production?

HH: Morocco is a very colourful country, we are very kitsch and we are not scared of clashing colours. Having moved to the UK, where everything is more sober and black and white, I guess using colour is my form of escapism. Using bright colours came out naturally to me, and everyone loves colour! In terms of textiles, having lived in the Medina district, near the market, I was surrounded by colours and fabrics, so again like in my choice of subjects, I’m using what’s close to me. Textiles can give me ideas for a backdrop, to design a piece of clothing, it all depends on the subject I am photographing.

‘La Caravane’ at Somerset House is your first solo exhibition in the UK in seven years. How do you expect your works to be received by the UK public?

HH: I hope it will be a positive reception. In the past years, I have been in lots of group shows in the UK and in London. With this new show, I feel like I’m coming back to London, and I’m happy to show the public my new and old works and things I have been collecting for the past 20 years. It’s exciting that it will be in Somerset House and during 1-54. I want this exhibition to be well received and I’m hoping that everyone can get something out of it.

You have a long-lasting relationship with 1-54, from designing the fair’s lounge for 1-54 London 2015 to having your works exhibited in many editions of the fair. What do you think makes 1-54 such an attractive platform for artists from Africa and its diaspora?

HH: Well, there are many reasons why 1-54 is an exciting platform for us. Before the fair started, we never had a platform like this to present ourselves in London or New York. Secondly, the London edition of 1-54 is in an amazing historical building, where you wouldn’t expect to see African art. Lastly, I think before 1-54 there was a hunger for African art to be shown to the West. I definitely feel part of the 1-54 family, I have seen the fair grow since the beginning, like a baby maturing into a full grown adult and I am very honoured to be showing my work alongside the fifth-anniversary edition.

La Caravane at Somerset House © Katrina Sorrentino

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