Biography Hassan Hajjaj

Coming of age in London during the Punk era
and birth of the clubbing scene gave Hajjaj a
unique cultural playground. If, as Frank Zappa
would have it, it’s true that “art is making
something out of nothing and selling it”,
Hassan Hajjaj might just be the man he had
in mind. Variously a van driver, club promoter,
restaurant designer and fashion store owner –
selling luxury labels such as Vivienne Westwood
and Galliano mixed in with cheeky Moroccan
fakes – Hajjaj rode the cultural and economic
wave of the times. His ability to spot and catch a
trend just as it began to surface says much about
the shrewd ‘street-wise Moroccan kid’ and many
aspects associated with his earlier ventures are
later incorporated and translated into his artistic
practice. However it was his recycling of objects,
the turning of discarded Coca-Cola crates with
Arabic script and advertising signs into chairs
and tables – a common practice in North
Africa – that first launched Hajjaj as a designer.
Reinventing and recasting these signifiers of
culture and place with something of a Punk DIY
approach, Hajjaj drew upon the familiarity of
Moroccan brands and their logos and packaging
reminiscent of the 1950s and 60s along with
practices he rediscovered from childhood.
It’s hard to ignore that much of Hajjaj’s work
involves the use of brands and logos and this is
never more evident than in the Salon works – a
glorious riot of colour, logo, reworked textiles
and signage. Whether designer labels or his
fascination with the retro look of Moroccan
packaging, brands play an important role in
Hajjaj’s work and he describes them as “playing
a large part in influencing my perception of
the world”1. Preparing items for a Salon to be
installed in the upcoming Berlin exhibition ‘My
Beautiful Rubbish’ when I visit his studio, Hajjaj
shows me the objects he’s sending, all made
from recycled, re-appropriated North African
materials and overflowing with the vibrant
packaging and typography used in North African
and Middle Eastern commerce. Tins, beaten
flat and pierced then shaped into traditional
Moroccan-style lamps, their original printing
still visible, advertise the baby milk formula,
Nescafe or meat they once contained. Stools are
made of large paint buckets covered with fabric
carrying the Louis Vuitton logo while the legs
of one low table are constructed from stacked
Moroccan teapots and the top of another is a
light-box advertising Fanta. Red Coca Cola
crate bookcases, clothing made from empty
flour sacks, Moroccan pouffees and cushions
of vibrantly coloured 1960s designs abound.
Hajjaj conceives each Salon as an immersive
and interactive social space. Tea and sweets are
served with traditional Arabic hospitality while
especially selected music, films and even Wi-
Fi entertain visitors to the space. Conceived
with the same careful and considered approach
towards brand, content and atmosphere as
the club nights he used to organize or the
celebrated ‘Andy Wahloo’ restaurant he designed
in Paris, each Salon bursts with the energy of
global popular culture. The Western food and
beverage logos that dominate our lives are well
represented here, albeit in a distinctly Moroccan
reincarnation, and often in Arabic script.
Hajjaj’s blending, overlaying, re-creating and
transforming of everyday objects and material
means the term ‘multi-disciplinary’ falls short
to accurately describe his technique. Perhaps
‘mash-up’ is a better term, for it is this streetwise
urban approach of overlaying items,
influences and cultural signifiers that is evident
in the Dakka Marrakesh exhibition of 2008 and
later photographic series Kesh Angels (2010).
Though already a celebrated designer, Dakka
Marrakesh at Rose Issa Projects in London was
the first outing of Hajjaj’s considerable body
of photographic work. The images had been
steadily building up since around 2000, but
Hajjaj had chosen not to show them, saying
the photographs were “initially too personal. I
wanted to protect my friends and my culture.
Design is fun, but for me photography is
personal. Rose got the work, it felt ok to exhibit
the images with her and in that context”. With
a nod to both African studio photography,
Arabic film posters of his childhood and the
iconic look of international fashion magazines,
the photographs of both bodies of work are
carefully stage-directed by the Hajjaj. Poses,
costumes, props and backdrops form mini sets
upon which theatrical narratives can be played
out around the iconography of East meets West
and contemporary culture and consumerism.
Bringing his fashion background to both bodies
of work led Hajjaj to design the clothing worn
by models selected from the medina or who were
already friends. Many images feature counterfeit
logos of global giants Louis Vuitton and Nike
alongside hybrid items designed by Hajjaj and
richly patterned with polka dots, leopard print
and camouflage. The works, some framed with
old tires or collages of Moroccan packaging, are
a fusion of cultures, influence and place. The
collision of Western urban street fashion and
traditional Moroccan style in the earlier works
culminate in the Louis Vuitton logo hijab or
Nike babouche, all modeled in the nonchalant
manner of fashion magazines. In these works
faux Vuitton is quite literally part of the fabric
of urban life. But while these images reflect
the rampant consumerism and brand fetish of
contemporary culture they also seem to fuel it.
Hajjaj’s borrowing of the fashion shoot aesthetic
– all glossy surfaces, street smart attitude and
sass – whetting our appetite for more.
Creating an unexpectedly rich and compelling
narrative, the Kesh Angels series draws upon the
biker culture of the young women of Marrakesh.
Styled in strong colours and patterns and posed
upon scooters and motorbikes, Hajjaj reflects
the strength, spirit and street smarts of these
women. While the biker girl look may be a rock
song cliché summed up by a pair of jeans and
a clingy t-shirt, these images have been recast
in characteristic Hassan Hajjaj style. The Kesh
Angels model colourful djellabah and veils of the
artist’s own design, respecting tradition but also
addressing the viewer with a confident, modern
and independent manner. The urban street
aesthetic and contemporary textiles teasingly
subvert traditional attire and rework tired
clichés, becoming a theatrical device for Hajjaj
to cast a flirtatious glance at his audience. Also
addressing the politically charged symbol of the
veil, Hajjaj playfully questions our perception
of and obsession with stereotypes. The Kesh
Angels may be djellabah clad, but their inner
biker chick shines through. The juxtaposition of
familiar components from contrasting cultures
is further emphasized by frames that draw upon
Moroccan packaging, forming a distinctive
kind of Maghreb product placement. Again
mixing and unifying elements of new and old in
characteristic style, the frames are hand crafted
from wood inlayed with various items – mini
soft drink cans, boxes of matches, make up
bottles, plastic blocks or little boxes of kohl –
each is unique, integral to the overall work and
responds in some way to the image it surrounds.
Confessing that he “likes to play with the
concept, likes to loosen up people’s ideas of
what an Arabic woman looks like” Hajjaj often
creates works and images that bring Western
and Moroccan culture head to head. Previous
photographs have drawn upon and reworked
stereotypes such as the Odalisque, that 19th
Century symbol of Oriental exoticism and
passive femininity. A well-known work from
2000, Ilham shows a woman recreating the
standard odalisque pose, reclining on a sofa
behind which Moroccan tiles in a geometric
design cover the wall. However this woman
looks directly at the viewer, engaging them with
a confidence and presence that suggests we are
more a guest in her space, perhaps her home,
and that we are equally being observed. Hajjaj’s
approach is to toy with the perceptions of Arabic
culture and the relationship between East and
West, recasting iconic images and allowing shafts
of 21st century light to reenergize the encounter.
While Hajjaj touches upon the politics of
observation and there is obvious ground for
evoking postcolonial debates in much of his
photographic practice, it would seem that he is
always careful to evoke a certain ambiguity in
the work. Commenting that his images “can
go either way” Hajjaj’s practice of inclusion
and contrast rarely offers just one aesthetic or
theoretical option. His works evoke numerous
stereotypes and arguments, subvert just as
many and playfully ask viewer to examine their
own reactions. Toying with and questioning
labels – literal or those imposed by history
or culture – Hassan Hajjaj’s practice is full of
images and situations that look familiar but on
closer inspection disrupt what we thought we’d
see. Turning Orientalist clichés on their head
is a particular favourite, none more so than in
two [insert ‘previously un-shown’ if we can use
them here] photographs from 2008. The first
image sees the Hajjaj staging a scene of dreamy
Orientalist fantasy, but with a contemporary
twist. Lying on a sofa, its base made from the
artist’s trademark red Coca Cola crates, we find
a man at rest. Seated on the ground, beautiful
women surround him, one wearing a kaftan
drenched in Louis Vuitton logos. The second
image capsizes this Orientalist illusion – the
man is now standing, at work it seems, serving
the women while they relax. One of them has
even stolen his sofa.
There’s a distinctly un-academic and personal
approach to the way Hassan Hajjaj works. It’s
unforced, and there’s an informality and freedom
with respect to the artistic practice and also the
encounter. Self-taught, what strikes me when I
meet him is that, unlike many Western-educated
art school graduates, there are no polished,
perfectly sized ‘sound bites’ at the ready to
deliver easily digestible ideas about his practice.
It’s refreshing. Genuine. And marks him out in
a sea of degree laden practitioners with media
skills, but perhaps not the compulsion to make
work or integrity of vision that it takes to become
the sort of artist who delivers something new
and moves the scene to another space. It’s clear
Hassan Hajjaj engages intuitively in his practice,
creating works and spaces where life and art
meld. He is, he admits, “addicted to making
stuff”. Overlaying cultures, mixing old and
new, high and low, classical and street, luxury
and fake, Hajjaj juxtaposes the iconography of
contemporary culture and its consumerism. Re-
casting objects and cultural clichés, he coaxes
Western and Moroccan cultural influences into
a uniquely celebratory, powerful and vernacular