Photographer Hassan Hajjaj, a master of pun and play, is bringing people closer by opening the doors to his wild, wild world – made in Morocco
Sometime in the 1990s, Moroccan photographer Hassan Hajjaj found himself on the set of a photo shoot for a French magazine in the city of Marrakech. A friend had asked him to sit in as he was out of town, and more importantly, since Hajjaj spoke English. In between clouds of Elnett hairspray and far too many temperaments for a tight space, a realization emerged. “It hit me that the models and stylists, makeup artists, and makeup all came from the West, and Marrakech was just this exotic space,” says Hajjaj. At the time, camouflage, polka dots, and animal prints were all the fashion rage. Hajjaj opted to stay à la mode and created jellabiyas and kaftans from these patterns. He dressed his friends in them and off they paraded through the city’s stone-walled 11th century medina, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Amid wafting aromas of spices and leather, gleaming stalls of metallic goods, bewitching snake charmers, performing Barbary macaques, and so much color and energy, Hajjaj’s models coiled as he shot what was baptized The Arab Issue. “I wanted to present our culture,” he says. “It wasn’t political, it was just fun and fashionable.”
That wasn’t the first time that Hajjaj wanted to present his culture. In fact, he has been doing so for almost four
decades, the seeds of which were planted with his arrival in London in 1973, when he was only 12. His father had left for the British capital in the 1960s in the hopes of making enough money to buy land in their home Larache, a harbor town in northern Morocco. Hajjaj the elder hadn’t foreseen that his quest would take so long and called on his family to join him. Along Portobello Road and Camden Market, Hajjaj found parallels and intersections with the hustle and bustle of the Moroccan medina. “Morocco in the 70s and 80s was not perceived as a cool place. It was limited to the Sahara, mint tea, and kaftans,” he explains. Increasingly, he felt compelled to tell his friends where he was from, and so, a body of work was born. “It wasn’t meant to be art,” he says, frankly.
Hajjaj dipped into the underground scene–fashion, films, clubs–and opened his own clothing store in Covent Garden, called R.A.P. (Real Artistic People), where everyone was welcome and where skin color, religion, politics, gender, origin, and all other (potentially) discriminatory labels were parked in parliament. It is no wonder, then, for an artist so embracing to have issue with a concept as alienating as Brexit. In April last year, Hajjaj staged The Path, an exhibition in response to the UK leaving the EU at the New Art Exchange, a contemporary arts space in Nottingham. “All of my subjects were in England, some born here, some raised here, some from Brazil, some from China, and elsewhere,” he says. “The Path was to show unity rather than division. It’s a small answer; it’s a reaction.”
Sunny Rahbar, co-founder of Dubai’s The Third Line gallery, met Hajjaj in 2007 when she visited his studio in London. “He turns the stereotype on its head by simply turning the camera onto the viewer and asking them to participate in his world, one where we can all coexist happily, playfully, and honestly together,” she says. “I was immediately certain we would work together as I wanted to be a part of telling his story.” Thirteen years later, Hajjaj’s work can be found in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum in New York, London’s British Museum and the V&A, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others.
There are three main takeaways from Hajjaj’s practice: commitment to truth, necessity of play, and pride in one’s origins. “Marrakech has an energy. Those are my roots. It’s there, the people, the traditions, the attitude, it’s all there. I’m just cooking it, making different dishes,” he explains. “I’m trying to turn things upside down but making sure it retains authenticity. I have to stay honest and truthful to what’s around me. I’m giving back to the community. And I like that very much.” In February, he put together a show of young and aspiring Moroccan women photographers as part of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair’s programming in Marrakech.
Play is central to Hajjaj’s life and is palpable in his work. Everything looks happy. The street is his canvas. The pictures radiate and Morocco is unmistakeable. It’s cool, it’s hip, it quickly brings you in – but how pop is it? Years ago, a journalist dubbed Hajjaj “the Andy Warhol of Marrakech,” and perhaps the intention was to commend in this comparison, but for many Arab (and other) artists, the innuendo is off. Citing similarities with a Western artist does not endorse or validate the work of an artist from another region. Again, Hajjaj took it playfully and in what could have been a scene from a Woody Allen movie, a play on words birthed a brand.
Over lunch with the late Algerian singer Rachid Taha in 2000, Hajjaj brought out prints of his older work that featured Arab products. Taha didn’t have anything to show Hajjaj and laughingly replied, “ma ‘andy wahloo,” meaning “I have nothing” in darija, Moroccan slang. Hajjaj dropped the “ma” and the apostrophe, and just like that, with a bit of fun on a pun, Andy Wahloo was born. Using Nido cans, Coca-Cola crates, road signs, and collected objects from the medina, a pop brand came to life and also begot a Parisian bar in 2003, which Hajjaj designed using the same ephemerae. A few years later, he was the mastermind bringing Riad Yima to life from an old fonduq in the city. Over three years, Hajjaj erected a jewel riad with a boutique gallery featuring his art, furniture, and products, and a tea room nestled among the spice market in the souq. He shoots on the ground floor, the second floor is an exhibition space, with his sleeping quarters on the third floor, filled with fabrics, clothing, and images. The rooftop hosts brainstorming sessions overlooking the city rooftops.
The quintessential consumerist, Hajjaj saw that Moroccan memorabilia found new life in the frames of his vibrant photographs. The choice to line up red Coca-Cola cans, harissa tubes, or tomato-shaped ketchup dispensers is “the egg and chicken question,” he laughs, emphasizing that the be-all and end-all is the sitter. The subject is what delights him most. “Many of the people I shoot are already artists, so that makes it easy and also makes it like a performance,” he says. The decision to shoot this issue’s covers, he says, was down to the subjects. “What each of these women is doing is iconic,” he asserts. “They are formidable and it’s been so great capturing them.” And, true to form, Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, Assala Nasri, and Yousra all sing and dance throughout their shoots, with a live band playing traditional music.
The concept of reprocessing and the idea of revisiting permeates Hajjaj’s philosophy. And to a certain degree, so does the fun in pun – The Arab Issue made a comeback in September 2019 at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, and in February this year, traveled to Fotografiska in Stockholm. The title is a clever play on fashion, politics, and perhaps the politics of fashion, altogether surveyed across three decades of Hajjaj’s work. Women dominate the show and, quite literally, pose the trends of identity, politics, and tradition. Hajjaj looks to the future too: R.A.P. will return in November via a collaboration with Cadillac and Sole DXB. “I want to present more from the region,” says Hajjaj. “I believe in the region – and it has believed in me.”
Originally published in the March 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia