Moroccan Rockstars

The artist Hassan Hajjaj frames his portraits of ordinary Moroccans with a neat shelf crammed with 7 Up and Coca-Cola cans, symbols of a burgeoning import market and aspiration.

Hassan Hajjaj’s first memories of photography are from his childhood in Morocco. His mother would occasionally dress him in clothes sent from his father in England, cover him in perfume and take the whole family to the local photography studio for a family portrait. Then there were the street photographers in Lamache, the harbor town where he lived until the age of fourteen, “who would take pictures of you on a plastic horse, wearing cowboy hats and so on …” There is a similar color and spontaneity to My Rockstars: Volume 1, a series of studio portraits Hajjaj has been working on since 1998, exhibited for the first time at The Third Line gallery in Dubai last month.

This is only the latest in what has been a busy few years for Hajjaj, exhibiting his work in Europe, Africa and the Middle East: in 2009 his photographs were featured in the Bamako Rencontres Biennale, this year he exhibited work in Riad Yima, a house he designed himself, featured in the Marrakech Biennale.

The research for My Rockstars started in Marrakech, where Hajjaj lives for part of each year, capturing shots of the people he meets: “not just musicians but the snake charmer, henna girl, bad boy, male belly dancer … I wanted to give them a backdrop and started from there.”

His sitters now have more than a backdrop, they often wear clothes he has designed, standing in spaces totally covered by patterns he has chosen, the photographs are eventually set in a frame he has constructed.

If his skill-set is impressive it isn’t thanks to any formal education. After leaving school, Hajjaj was unemployed and between “shitty jobs” for “five to six years”, during which he started organising parties and events with friends, booking djs and bands to play. He opened a shop called Rap in Covent Garden in London with his wife, Vanessa, and started to sell clothing designed by his friends. Seeing what sold well, he would buy the material and work out how to make them himself, learning gradually, “how not to be scared of doing stuff, of failing.”

He worked as a stylist for a fashion photographer friend and learnt about film production working on promo videos with another. In 1989 he bought a camera from a friend and started to take pictures, “just now and then, for myself.” They did some art shows at the shop, “that was my schooling,” but still he never produced anything under his own name.

In the late nineties he opened a tea shop with his brother and sister, and did some designs for the interior, and it was soon after that, he says, “I started doing stuff I wanted to present as art work.”

Several years later, his most enduring and well-known project until that point, he started to design Andy Wahloo, a bar in Paris he planned with his friend Momo, which opened in 2003. The name is partly in tribute to Warhol, whose influence isn’t difficult to see in his designs; it also puns on the Arabic for “I have nothing”, and gestures towards his tendency to redesign found materials, turning a crate into a seat, a lightbox into a table.

It was at this time he first met Rose Issa, whose gallery now represents him, and she started to encourage him to make serious art. At this stage his work becomes more personal, and he starts to photograph people he knows, who trust him. Was this a natural move? “Art,” he says, “is just like fashion, music, film.” But he wanted to document life around him, in London, his friends who might “never make it into the mainstream.”

Take, for example, friends, Simo Lagnawi — gnawa-player, member of London-based “eclectic groove adventurers” Electric Jalaba — and Paris-based Kora-player Boubacar Kafando (left): “the stuff they’re wearing is all theirs, apart from their sunglasses, shoes, headband…”

The frame around this portrait is a neat shelf crammed with 7 Up and Coca-Cola cans, symbols of a burgeoning import market, the artist explains, designed to “trap the eyes, bring the viewers to your work.”

The design of the frame is important, he says, “I’m trying to create something which has as much of my identity as possible … something that is fresh in Europe and Africa … it’s like when you see the jars and the sweets in the shop as a child.”

Do you feel there’s a difference, I ask, presenting work in Morocco and London?

The frames, he says, give people something “quite immediate” to react to, whether it is in Morocco or London. They harness “the power of brands as a sense.”

He always finds it funny when he is introduced as “the guy with the Coca-Cola frame”. These brands give his work an international identity, though it is still context-dependent:

“Growing up, guests would come over and you would go and buy the bottle … Now it’s more regular, but that dream of wealth … You go to a Macdonalds in Washington DC, and it’s ghetto, rough, but if you go to Morocco it’s middle class.”

There are plans for a London installment of his Rockstars for next year, an exhibition at Rose Issa’s gallery with a nightclub afterwards. I wonder if he would design the club too — with the opening of Silencio in 2011, the interior designed by David Lynch, it seems that the nightclub is a new model for a total work of art. I tell him it sounds as if he wants to design the whole world.

“I wish I could!”

Rockstars has affinities with the work of photographers like Samuel Fosso and Seydou Keita, but Hajjaj doesn’t talk much about his influences. Malick Sidibe’s photos of Malian nightlife made a big impact on the work, he says: “those are cool, important pictures.” But where does he go, I ask, to find a similar scene in London?

“I’m lucky, I’ve been on this earth quite a while … so I don’t have to go out too far … I find, close to what’s around me, enough people to document.”

As if to prove this, I hear some friends enter his studio and one shout over, “can I get a photo in this hat?” A woman ducks her head into the Skype window and says hello, sporting a hat which sprouts large artificial flowers.

“That’s why it’s called Volume One: this is a life thing for me, I just don’t have enough time.”

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