Photographer and designer Hassan Hajjaj was born in 1961 in Larache, Morocco, and moved to London in 1975. Shortlisted for the prestigious Victoria & Albert Museum Jameel Prize in 2009, Hajjaj is also the 2011 winner of the Sovereign African Art Prize. He has established an international following for his photography with its sly commentary on popular culture. Equally so, he has made a name for himself with his salon installations which are well-conceived exercises in contemporary design and sustainable material culture.
Taking time from a very hectic schedule, Hajjaj answered a few questions from Shannon Ayers Holden.
Shannon Ayers Holden: You have a very distinctive and identifiable style of presentation. How did this evolve?
Hassan Hajjaj: I was born in Morocco and lived there until I was 13, at which time I moved with my family to the UK. It was a great time to be in London as a young person because there was so much going on musically and visually. I got involved in so many scenes and absorbed everything I could from fashion to underground music clubs. I worked as an assistant stylist, got to travel, worked on music videos and met and worked with some really great people. At the same time, I never let go of my love of Morocco, whose sights, sounds and energy inspired me then and inspire me now.
My photographs refer to stereotypical icons of Oriental exoticism, combined with symbols of contemporary fashion. I then change the interpretation of these traditional Oriental designs through the very obvious overlay of recognizable western branding patterns. The frames of my photographs are an integral part of the photographic viewing experience. Through the use of modern iconography to simulate Islamic mosaic patterns, the frames serve as both an invitation to the viewer and a colourful decorative context for the image itself.
Through my salon installations I create a vibrant playful space where brands and signage are incorporated and transformed into functional household items. The salons are interactive social spaces where furniture and everyday objects made from recycled materials reflect the colour and atmosphere of the souk.
SAH: Your photographs on the surface are exuberant and lighthearted. They also seem to wink at some serious issues, like consumerism, equality, and feminism. Is this intentional?
HH: Yes, I would say it is intentional. For example, the body of work Kesh Angels is a tribute to women and freedom of expression. I wanted to present a different interpretation of strong Arab women. Through my work, I highlight the contradictions of image, stereotypes and branding by juxtaposing the iconography of contemporary culture and consumerism with classical references. I include and contrast visual elements of both Islamic and European culture into what I hope is an unexpectedly rich and seductive environment for the viewer. The women in the Kesh Angels photos are vibrant, active women who are respectful of religion and tradition – and they happen to ride motorbikes. I enjoy revealing this tension between perception or assumption, and reality.
In the case of the series My Rock Stars I wanted to show my respect to individuals who inspire me and are my personal rock stars and heroes. These are every people who are not famous but are tremendously important individuals to me. In this series, in addition to paying respect to the individuals in the photographs, I was also inspired by African studio photographers, most notably Samuel Fosso and the legendary Malick Sidibé.
SAH: Your work crosses multiple platforms – design, fashion, photography, film. Do you prefer one medium to the others?
HH: I love photography, but I would have to say design is my first love, which fills me with a tremendous sense of freedom and creativity. In the case of both Kesh Angels and My Rock Stars I designed all of the clothing worn by the subjects in the photographs and I designed the sets we used as backdrop.
As for film, I am still experimenting with the medium as you can see in My Rock Stars Experimental Volume I, which is a 3 channel video complement to the photograph series. It was recently acquired by LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). Whatever the medium, photography, film or installation, I am keen to explore the dynamic relationship between dual cultures be they the Orient and the Occident, Africa and the Middle East, immigrant and native. In this way, I create from the two cultures a new aesthetic, which is both joyful and respectful.
SAH: My Rock Stars series has been critically praised. What's next for you?
HH: I am very pleased that the series has been received positively. I will continue to work on the series in volumes as I have many more friends who are rock stars that I would like to introduce to the public. I want to document who they are and where they are at a particular moment in their lives. So I will continue to work on this series.
I will also collaborate on projects that I think are unique in conception and execution. I was part of a group exhibition recently at the Sharjah Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates. Titled Chaos Into Clarity: Re-Possessing A Funktioning Utopia the exhibition presented the work of three artists of the African diaspora. There is definitely a strategic connection between Africa and the Arab world as my own personal background demonstrates and I was intrigued by this particular exploration. I presented a salon installation that could have easily been a setting for an African American gathering space or a Caribbean tearoom. The visual elements and touchstones are very similar.
SAH: What inspires you?
HH: Everything! Music, art, film, food, travel. Color, noise, emotion, and my rock stars inspire me. I am inspired by everything. At some point all of these things will inform my work.
My style or aesthetic is an amalgam of all of these influences, music, fashion, London, Morocco, as well as people –global citizens– I have met during my life's journey.
Shannon Ayers Holden
Independent curator and writer based in Dubai, UAE.