Moroccan-born artist Hassan Hajjaj is perhaps best known for his idiosyncratic brand of post-pop portrait photography. Heavily influenced by London’s club, hip hop and reggae culture as well as by his North African heritage, Hajjaj is a self-taught and incredibly versatile artist whose oeuvre to date is instantly recognizable and yet amazingly diverse, including: performance, portraiture, installation and interior design work as well as fashion and furniture made from recycled consumer goods’ packaging.
Leaving Larache for London at the height of punk, Hajjaj soon became involved in the capital’s music scene. Subterranean soul and reggae nights, for which he sold tickets in a shop filled with his friends’ clothes, were followed in the late 1980s, by his involvement in Covent Garden hub, ‘Rap.’ “I was selling John Smedley, Levi’s 501s- odd things that were a bit new to London,” he says. “By 1987 I was selling Vivienne Westwood and the John Galliano diffusion range.” As creative as he was entrepreneurial, the purchase of a friend’s camera in the early 1990s saw the beginning of Hajjaj’s enlightened experimentation with photography. While many see something of Matisse or Koons in his work, others are convinced he is “Morocco’s Andy Warhol,” or indeed, the next David LaChapelle. In any case, Hajjaj’s increasingly international reputation has led to his inclusion in numerous prominent exhibitions including Islamic Art Now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as well as his nomination for the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Jameel Prize in 2009.
Currently on display at LACMA are two chromogenic prints by Hajjaj, Gang of Kesh Part 2 and Caravane. The former, surrounded in its wooden frame by car paint cans, depicts the ‘Kesh Angels’, a provocatively dressed group of girls in patterned veils and djellabah posing on motorbikes in the streets of Marakech’s Medina. Daring and defiant, at once traditionally and yet contemporarily clad, Hajjaj’s girl gang subvert preconceived notions of the socio-cultural role of women in Arabic society. The latter, Caravane, is a humorous portrait of the anonymous lady in red. Playful and similarly framed by found cans, Caravane exploits and thus comments on the ubiquity of big brands, the effects of global capitalism.
Following on from his acclaimed Kesh Angels series, Hajjaj makes his first foray into film with B-movie cult documentary, Karima: A Day in the Life of a Henna Girl, which premiered at LACMA in May to coincide with current exhibition, Islamic Art Now. Karima follows the film’s eponymous character and her moped-riding cohort as they leave home to spend the day practizing the art of henna in Marrakech’s legendary Jemaa el-Fnaa. A captivating muse and the subject of many of Hajjaj’s portraits over the last seventeen years, Karima is for Hajjaj a “very interesting, very inspiring, a very strong woman” hence his wanting to “introduce her to the world” so that audiences might be able to appreciate her “as an artist in her own right.”
The Jemaa el-Fnaa, or ‘eternal meeting place’ has long been the site of commercial and cultural exchange. Founded in the eleventh century, this triangular square, located at the entrance to the city’s Medina, represents a unique concentration of popular Moroccan musical, religious and artistic traditions. Karima’s mother and grandmother were business women of the Jemaa el-Fnaa before her but she is the first woman in her family to sell the art of henna. Like Hajjaj, Karima is self-taught and was the first of a new generation to attend what Hajjaj calls, the “Jemaa el-Fnaa University of Street Life,” starting out as a teenager who practiced on her friends. “It’s kind of grunge,” Hajjaj observes, “Just girls doing henna in the square,” indeed the “punk edge to it all” is something that Hajjaj consciously exploits in seeking to elevate Karima and her crew to the status of “cult B-movie stars.”
Henna has been used since antiquity to dye skin, hair and fingernails, as well as fabrics such as silk, wool and leather. Historically used for cosmetic purposes in Ancient India (or Carthage) as well as other parts of North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and South Asia, henna remains an important part of the bridal ritual, particularly among traditional families. Despite Karima’s evident business mindedness, modernity and insatiable energy, it is clear that Karima has a profound respect for this ancient art and is passionate about her ‘noble profession’- “Henna is beautiful, henna is from heaven,” she says.
LACMA’s Curator of Islamic Art, Linda Kormaroff says that Hajjaj is “the one to watch.” Following its premiere at LACMA, Karima was subsequently screened at this year’s edition of Art Basel as part of the fair’s film program alongside Takashi Murakami’s feature film debut, Jellyfish Eyes and the European premiere of Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict. Karima is the work of which Hajjaj is most proud, and he has therefore been delighted with how positively audiences have responded to it. However, he admits that, “It isn’t for everyone.” When asked if film is a medium he will continue to experiment with, Hajjaj replies, “Yes, definitely, but I’m still learning. I’m not technical at all. I would like to do maybe two or three more films like this on other characters I’ve been taking pictures of, [such as his friend, Brazilian Capoeira master, Toca Feliciano] that I think the world should see.”
But what ultimately influences Hajjaj’s art? “Life,” he says, “As well as food, travel, music, art, films, people, textiles, markets, sunny weather, cold weather, happiness and sadness.” But there is more. “It has to be more than just a pretty picture,” he says of the relationship between form and content in his work. “I have been lucky to have these amazing people posing for me, they are the ones who should be taking the credit. It is their strong energy and a certain swagger which brings my images alive.”
When asked whose work he most admires, Hajjaj replies, ‘people like Malick Sidibé’, the Malian documentary and portrait photographer perhaps best known for his black-and-white studies of popular culture in 1960s Bamako, elaborating, “because he wasn’t trying to be an artist.” Indeed, it can be seen from comparison that Hajjaj’s images owe much to Sibidé’s work as well as to that of another African luminary, Seydou Keita. And yet Hajjaj’s modernity is unmistakable, staging as he does street style shoots, vibrant colors and highly patterned backdrops designed to highlight his subjects’ inner rock star. Energizing and visually revitalizing, Hajjaj’s pictures prove highly infectious.
Hajjaj is currently working on new material for a number of solo shows due to open in 2016, at The Third Line Gallery, Dubai in March and at Taymour Grahne Gallery in New York’s Tribeca in May.