All that glitters

Hassan Hajjaj pieces his passions together in the most unexpected of combinations: street culture, club culture, Moroccan mosaics, fashion and design all figure in his work. He takes preconceptions and confounds them. For his latest series, Kesh Angels – a play on the nickname for Marrakesh and the iconic biker gang, the Hells Angels – Hajjaj photographed young Moroccan women wearing traditional veils and the djellaba while confidently posing on motorcycles. ‘I wanted to make it a blend of fantasy and reality,’ said Hajjaj. ‘Marrakesh is a bike city – everyone uses them to get around – so I just wanted to highlight the truth of what’s going on and show real pictures of real people and then add my design element that pushes the work to new areas.’

He began by using animal prints, polka dots and camouflage as textiles for the bikes and chose everyday people as his subjects, from neighbours to dancers to restaurant workers to a group of girls who do henna in Djemaa el-Fna square. ‘To work together you need a certain level of trust so that you can really express the story you’re trying to tell,’ he explained. ‘And although some women do ride bikes in Morocco, the idea of wearing a veil and driving a motorcycle doesn’t quite exist for a lot of them.’

Hajjaj’s bold and eclectic style shows traces of the celebrated Malian studio photographers Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keita, who developed singular visual lexicons polished with the high-gloss finish of fashion photography. Hajjaj has created his own vocabulary – a distillation of high and low culture – out of pop art, portraiture and branding (he often incorporates a wry twist on famous labels such as Nike and Louis Vuitton into his work).

The result is an iconographic and highly original narrative that is as substantive as it is stylish and provocative. This is the alchemy behind his craft.

Born in 1961, Hajjaj spent his early years in Morocco before following his family to London at the age of 13. After a lengthy stint as a DJ, club promoter, designer and stylist during London’s David Bowie heyday, Hajjaj bought his first camera from friend and fellow artist Zak Ové and began shooting. His hobby quickly became an obsession, then a full-time profession. Fast-forward to 2009, and Hajjaj was shortlisted for the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Jameel Prize for Islamic Art.

For a self-taught photographer who didn’t even pick up a camera until his late twenties, Hajjaj has ascended through the art-world ranks with impressive rapidity.

‘To have work in the V&A… they have two of my pieces hanging side by side – pictures of two women, one of whom taught the other how to tattoo henna – that was a special moment for me, it wasn’t supposed to happen.’ Beyond portraiture, Hajjaj’s work ranges across installation, performance, fashion and interior design, and includes furniture made from recycled objects from North Africa, such as upturned Coca-Cola crates repurposed as stools and aluminium cans transformed into lamps, along with frames made from matchboxes, drink cans and Lego with Arabic lettering.

At his recent show at the Taymour Grahne Gallery – his first solo show in New York – a crowd of fans, friends and first-time viewers filled the space to capacity. ‘The feedback in New York was quite explosive,’ Hajjaj admitted. ‘It was a very personal show for me. I was hoping to share the work more than sell it or get it into the museums – I just wanted to celebrate it with my friends.

The response was really positive, from the hip-hop community to so many others, they just got it.

So it was good to see that the work was communicating in the way I’d intended it to. There’ve been quite a few wow moments,’ he added, ‘and this was definitely one of them.’

With thanks for the images to the Taymour Grahne Gallery.

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