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Hassan Hajjaj
interviewed by Hannah Traore ’17
Hassan Hajjaj interviewed by Hannah Traore ’17

On April 21, 2017, Hannah Traore ’17, curator of Africa Pop Studio, with Dayton Director Ian Berry interviewed artist Hassan Hajjaj, whose artwork Mr. J.C.-Hayford and furniture installation and paint scheme was featured in the exhibition.

The video above shows excerpts from Traore’s interview with Hajjaj. A longer, edited transcript of the interview is below.

Hannah Traore ’17
Can you talk about your background in the arts and how you got into the art world?

Hassan Hajjaj
I came from Morocco at the age of thirteen to London. I didn’t speak English; I had to learn English halfway through school. I left school with zero qualifications. I was unemployed for about six years. And within this time, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, London was going through this cosmopolitan change where there were many people similar to my background from the Caribbean or China. We had different cultures but we found something between ourselves.

During this time, there was nothing for us. We got together and we started to find spaces. One would have DJ equipment and would be a DJ. One would be designing clothing. We found our own village within the city. I was doing lots of underground parties. I would create the space, promote, and put on DJs and bands. I was learning about promoting, about working in a team, about making something out of nothing because we didn’t have money. We were creating this new scene in London. I had lots of friends who were photographers, artists, filmmakers that were just starting their careers. I suppose this was my learning stage of being an artist.

I took an interest in photography around the late ’80s. I bought a camera and a friend who studied photography showed me how to use it. It was just a hobby. I was in Morocco in the mid-’90s, a friend of mine had an old riad—a place with a courtyard—and he had an Elle magazine shoot in his space. He asked me to be there because I spoke English. I sat there and realized all these people are from Europe—stylists, photographer, fashion designers, makeup artists. And I thought, they’re just using Morocco as a background, and then I thought, why not shoot work with my people with our own traditions, with a twist. And that gave me the first thought to present people around me and to understand what I wanted to do in the world of art.

All my photography is always on the street. I’m not confident to use lights in the studio. When you’re shooting in the street, there’s a whole ambiance for the setup. And you have people passing by in mud and rain. It’s a moment of luck, what’s going to happen every day, but it’s exciting.

We’re sitting in your installation and the yellow and red paint on the walls reference garages in Marrakesh. How else has your environment influenced your work?

It’s lots of graphics. Photography is one thing but then I wanted to go beyond, so when people come they will experience something beyond just the images. This was the idea and I think it comes from when I was doing the parties because I was creating space for people to use.

And also in Moroccan culture, we normally welcome people to the house with food; things like this happen naturally. Because I grew up with lots of recycling in my life in Morocco I wanted people to actually use, touch the work, and be immersed in this world.

We’re sitting in front of one of your works, Mr. J.C.- Hayford, which is part of the My Rock Stars series. What inspired that series and this particular image?

When you say, “rock star,” in my eyes and my friends’ it’s normally a leather jacket, long hair, a guitar, and dark glasses. That’s kind of a brand. I wanted to take this brand and turn it into my brand, my rock stars: it’s my friends, it’s people who have a similar journey from different parts. Joe Casely-Hayford struggled throughout his life trying to beat the fashion world. He’s still working, he’s an incredible designer. He’s influenced me in many ways.

I’ve chosen these friends, which I call the underdogs, in that they’re not mainstream. But they have this passion and they’re born with something and they follow it. Even when they fall they get up and keep fighting. When I started this project I was very lucky because of my background. Because of doing these parties I’ve been very lucky to have these kinds of people around me.

When you hear the title My Rock Stars you expect musicians. And so I try to have the Henna girl, male belly dancer, the snake charmer, the bad boy done well. The underdogs are more attractive to me personally.

Ian Berry
Could you talk about some of the specifics about the photograph? Where does that suit pattern come from, and the background?

Normally when I’m between shooting, if I see a textile I like I’ll buy it and take it back to Morocco. I have a few people I work with in Medina, artisans that make suits. And then I would make something out of it and it could be hanging in my wardrobe for six months or a year, but it’s ready for the right person. This fabric, it’s from parasols and it’s a fabric that I remember from when I was a kid in the ’60s. Normally, you’re not supposed to make a suit out of this because it’s very stiff. It’s like a canvas.

The plastic mats, my uncle used to make them in the village and they’re everywhere in the continent of Africa. That one’s from Senegal, the backdrop. The socks I think are very cheap soccer socks probably made out of nylon. And the sunglasses are sold in Kanda Market, which is a tourist market, for something like 2 pounds. The hat is about 50 cents. This idea was trying to buy the cheapest stuff and create something grand. If you come to my place in Morocco you’re going to see bags of hats, bags of sunglasses, bags of socks, loads of suits, loads of dresses. These are always ready, and then I’ll go with the flow. If the person likes the suit, I’d like to give it to them because then it means it’s gone.

You make the clothes in the images, which is really unique.

Ninety percent would be my designs. Some of the artists have a specific style and so I don’t want to touch them. I might add socks or sunglasses or a hat. For example, in Mr. J.C.-Hayford, all the stuff is my design except the shoes. The shoes are his. I had these pink sunglasses ready for him and he turned up with the shoes. I thought, this was meant to be.

Do you know what street you were on?

This is outside my store on Calvert Avenue in London and it was a great day with a bit of rain here and there, so every now and then we’d go back inside and come out and shoot.

And did you say how to pose?

In the street when you hang these bright color mats, everybody walking by is going to look. And most of the people I’m shooting are performers. I say, “When you’re inside this frame, this is a stage, you can do with it what you want. You can be yourself or you can be theatrical.” I have a plan when we sketch the composition I want but then I let things go, and sometimes a person gives you something unexpected.

About the presentation— it looks like a metallic print. What is it and how did you do it?

It’s a metallic lambda print. It reminds me of cans of Coca-Cola, it has this shine. When you put the right lights on it, when you walk past it, you can see the color changing. So it was about this eye-catching immediacy. It’s the pretty picture first and then hopefully there’s a deeper story to it. On the frame are butterfly matches from Morocco. Sometimes I play with the products within the images. So playing on sexist words as well but they’re just for me trying to play around with the subject.

So he’s showing off like a butterfly?

Yeah, he’s somebody who has this kind of a colorful character.

Your frames are a huge part of your work. They’re three-dimensional in a lot of cases. Can you talk about that a little bit? Do you make the actual frames?

I have a carpenter. The products I choose determine the measurements of the frame. The frame gets made and then it goes to the sprayer and then it comes back and the product and the print would be stuck on. So it could be twelve weeks’ production from beginning to end.

My early work was totally about products. I used mainly Arabic products in my photography. It was more about graphics and the strength of the brand. If you see this crate [part of the furniture installation on which Hannah and Hassan sit], even if it’s in Arabic you know it’s a Coca-Cola brand. I wanted to bridge my old work into the new work. Using the frames, I was using the brands and also I was using these repeated patterns that we have in Morocco, the mosaics. At that point I was thinking to myself, Well who is Hassan Hajjaj? If I’m going to become an artist I’m probably going to be a product.

If you come to my studio you’re going to think it’s a store. An image could take forty to sixty products. So it means I have to have those things ready to be able to finish the frame. And the last thing I want is to start something and that product is not there anymore. When I see something unusual I have to buy a minimum of sixty to a hundred. These are my paints.

About Hassan Hajjaj
Hassan Hajjaj is a self-taught artist whose work includes portraiture, installation, performance, fashion, and interior design, including furniture design. Heavily influenced by his North African heritage and by the hip-hop, reggae, and club scenes of London, Hajjaj’s work combines the personal with the political. His colorful and glossy portraits also combine the visual vocabulary of contemporary fashion photography and pop art with the tradition of African studio photography in a thoughtful commentary on the influences of cultural trappings, the interpretations of high and low branding, and the effects of global capitalism. His work plays with and upends stereotypes, the power of brands, and the familiarity of everyday objects, applying a “street-wise” approach to his layering of influences, items, and cultural signifiers to imbue the work with an electrifying tension. He was the winner of the 2011 Sovereign Middle East and Africa Prize, and was shortlisted for Victoria & Albert Museum’s Jameel Prize for Islamic Art in 2009.

Cite this page

video: Hajjaj, Hassan. “Hassan Hajjaj interviewed by Hannah Traore ’17.” Interview by Hannah Traore and Ian Berry. 2017. Tang Teaching Museum collections website, last modified October 19, 2018.

text: “Hassan Hajjaj interviewed by Hannah Traore ’17.” Interview by Hannah Traore and Ian Berry. Tang Teaching Museum collections website. First published in Accelerate: Access & Inclusion at The Tang Teaching Museum 1 (2017).

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