Hassan Hajjaj

The Importance of Being Hassan

Sweet and sour, but never a dull moment: the colourful career of Hassan … err, Sir Hassan Hajjaj

If you ever happen to be sauntering about Mister Hajjaj’s neighbourhood looking for a good time, do pay the man a visit – if he’s in, of course (and, if it isn’t pissing down like there’s no tomorrow. Don’t ask me why, but whenever I get out of the tube in Shoreditch, there’s hell to pay.). At Larache, the little shop of wonders named after his hometown in Morocco, there will be sights and sounds to delight your eyes and ears. You will sip on freshly brewed mint tea, recline on technicolour poufs, chat with someone you feel you’ve known for twenty-odd years, and tap your feet to hip-hop straight outta the ‘Kesh, while passersby pop in and out shouting, ‘Ey, ‘Assan!’ Well, maybe I’m exaggerating, but that’s what comes to mind at the moment.

It’s been over a year since we caught up at Larache, and things have seemed to be getting better and better for the Moroccan boy wonder. Since then, he’s been decorated by the King of Morocco, released his first documentary film (written about for the first time by yours truly), and participated in a fabulous exhibition in London about black dandyism (Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity). Not bad, Hassan. Not bad at all.

Hassan Hajjaj

Meet the new Hassan: same as the old Hassan (courtesy Arnaud Contreras)

How are you, Hassan?

I’m good, how are you doing?

Good! First of all, congratulations on having been decorated by the King of Morocco – that’s quite an achievement!

Thank you. It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you. It happened [some] weeks ago, and I’ve not been travelling since then, so every time someone reminds me, I’m like, ‘Did that really happen?’ It’s a big honour, but it really hasn’t sunk in yet; I can’t say much more than that. It was a kind of surprise that came from nowhere.

So how do I address you now? Sir Hassan? Sidi Hassan? 

You must put out a red carpet the next time I see you! Nah – I’m still the same Hassan, as they say. It’s a great honour to be recognised, especially by the King himself, and it makes me proud to feel like I’m doing something for Morocco as well, for the community outside and inside, so yeah … it’s a big, big honour.

Hassan Hajjaj

And don’t you forget it! (Courtesy Zahed Sultan)

How did that come about? You’re of course well-known over there, but was there anything in particular that led to that? 

Well, you know, it was my opportunity to get there; it was hard work, but [I got] lots of help from people around me: friends and family, Jenny (who’s sitting right next to me here). I mean, when I stood there just before getting decorated by the King, I sort of had a split second to think; I was like, How did I get here? And I have to not forget all the help of all the people around me and the support I’ve had, and hopefully the hard work. So, it’s probably part of that; it’s not something that happened overnight. It took many years, with all kinds of struggles and hard work, and they say it sometimes pays off in this kind of way; so it’s probably that!

Yeah, definitely. And Hindi Zahra was also decorated – right?

Yeah – what a great moment! This thing happened a week before: I got a phone call. It wasn’t explained to me. The day this was happening, I’d already booked tickets to come back to London, and I got a phone call saying, ‘Look, you have to be here for a celebration on the 21st, blah, blah, blah’. I was in the middle of a shoot, and I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m going back to London because I have a trip to Australia –’

Hindi Zahra

Hindi Kahlo (courtesy the artist and Taymour Grahne Gallery)

- No can do. 

– And they go, ‘No, no – you have to come here, wearing a suit, and you have to be here because it’s the King’s birthday, etc.’; and as soon as I heard ‘the King’s birthday’, I was like, ‘OK!’ I thought it was just going to be some kind of birthday celebration, [as if] he was choosing a few artists and people like that; I didn’t know Zahra was going to be there, so when I got there and we were waiting in the room, ready to be picked up by a bus, Zahra walked in. It was just a great moment to share that day with these great artists from Morocco doing stuff in and outside [the country]. And especially Zahra, as you know, is a good friend. We’ve been working together, and more importantly, she’s a sister.

Congrats to both of you. Now, you divide your time between London and Marrakech – why? Why not just stay put in one place?

Good question! It just has to do with work; I’m not planning that I’ll be [somewhere] for three months. I really go back and forth. At the moment, it is what it is, so it’s not something I choose to do; it has to do with work and projects and family and stuff like that. I would love at some point to say, ‘Yeah, I’d like to be here for three months and three months there’, and stuff like that, but it just ain’t happening at the moment.

Hassan Hajjaj

Ahmed Lightin’ Up in Pink (courtesy the artist)

Yeah, I remember two or three years ago, we kept missing each other. When I’d be in London, you’d be in Marrakech, and vice-versa.

You said it – you’re here, you’re there, and everywhere! 

Uh huh. Speaking of London: you were quite young when you moved there. It was the 70s, and you’ve said that growing up then was a bit difficult, being a Moroccan and a foreigner (well, in others’ eyes) in general. How have things changed in London since then? 

Well, you’re talking about the 70s; that’s like last century – so that says it all! [Laughs]. I mean, major, not just me or the city; the whole world changes and it’s changing very fast. London back in the 70s, like the rest of the world … there weren’t as many people on earth as there are now, there weren’t as many cars on the planet; so, you know, the world is changing and is moving along quite fast. London at that time, especially with the foreign people – I mean, it was only the first generation that had been born when I came here – from different parts of the world: the Caribbean, India, China … So, the change is major in the sense that London has become a mixed city with all types of people from different parts of the world. [Back] then, it was at the beginning of that. But, saying that, the whole world is changing. If you think of any place around in the 70s, I’m sure it was different than what it is now.

Hassan Hajjaj

Golden Girl in Pink (courtesy the artist)

Definitely. Do you think Londoners have become more accepting of … ‘foreigners’? 

It’s funny when people ask me, ‘You’re British?’ I always say, ‘No, I’m more of a Londoner, and London is different’. It’s like, New York is America, but New York is New York; Paris is French, but it’s Paris. London kind of has this thing with itself, it has its own character; it’s like a beer, and it’s got a character. It’s a mix of people; most people who come here from a different background will feel at home quite immediately, because you can be anybody and make it at home quite quick. It has this ability for people to blend in quicker, and everything is here; so, whatever background you are from, you can always find a greengrocery serving food from back home, or a restaurant, or a community. But you can also jump into other communities, and, you know, still feel part of them.

Again, saying that, it’s a city that has problems, like everywhere else. There’s always racism, there’s always the rich and poor. But in general, it’s an international city.

Hassan Hajjaj

Romancia (courtesy the artist and Taymour Grahne Gallery)

That’s London … but in Marrakech, I’ve heard from friends that you’re somewhat of a rock star over there, and always have this entourage following you around in the Djemaa el Fna. Is that true? 

[Laughs] Ah, no. I think that’s people trying to make a film out of nothing. Marrakech, you have to remember, is a smaller place. I live in the Medina, so again, it’s concentrated in one neighbourhood; the neighbourhood’s small, everybody knows everybody. I’m lucky that it’s a different home, a different vibe than London. There are people who know me for my work and stuff, but it’s not what you hear [laughs]. I don’t have an entourage!

Getting back to London – how was the exhibition?

That [went] really well. People seemed to like the whole show, because it wasn’t a solo show – it was a group show. I was really lucky to be part of it, because of some great artists [participating]. To be put in with these names, it was a big, big honour. A friend of mine – Ekow [Eshun], who curated the show; he’s a fantastic guy, I’ve known him from the 80s – did a great, great job. So yeah, it was a great show to be part of, because it came from the African community, Caribbean, mixed … and for me to be a Moroccan representing part of Africa was a great moment for me.

Hassan Hajjaj

Afrikan Boy (courtesy the artist)

Regardless of the people you photographed, do you think that some might have found it strange to see a Moroccan artist’s work being included in an exhibition about black dandyism? I’ve noticed that there’s this tendency to think of Morocco as ‘white’, or somehow far-removed from sub-Saharan Africa.

Yeah, you’re right. There are some people from Morocco and outside [who think like this] … I always say it’s their own problem, their own way of thinking. For me, if you say, ‘Morocco’ and where it is, I say, ‘North Africa’; it’s in the land of Africa. If I say to you, ‘South Africa’, what’s the difference? One is south, one is north, but you still consider South Africa as being in Africa. I was very lucky and proud to kind of present that part of the world in an African continent[-related] body of work. Sometimes, I’m in the Arab group shows; so I’m lucky to be in these kinds of things. Also, it’s opened up doors for other artists – to be accepted and to accept being part of this continent. As far as other people [are concerned] – again, this goes back to that little bit of racism, maybe, or the way you’ve been brought up, thinking that way. For me, I’m not coming under that; I’ve been influenced by London, by all types of people from different parts of the world. I’m sharing my side from being Moroccan, and another side of being in London with all the types of people around me. So, that body of work was partly that.

Hassan Hajjaj

Said Koyo’s Legs (courtesy the artist)

Which is amazing. I remember – I can’t remember exactly when it was – that we posted a picture of black Moroccans on our Instagram page, and this individual from Morocco seemed to be passionate about the subject, and said something like, ‘Moroccans aren’t black!’ and, ‘These aren’t Moroccans!’. I was just wondering … why all the hostility? 

The thing is, when some people, when they think of Africa, they’re going to think of dark skin in the middle of Africa; but Africa has all types, and some people might not look at North Africa as being African, and some Moroccans won’t look at themselves as being African – they want to be closer to Europe. But again, that’s their problem. Most of the younger generation is very proud to be part of the African continent. It just depends on what type of crowd you move into and how you’ve been growing up. I’m very proud, whenever I’m in a group show of Africa, because it really presents another side of Morocco. Morocco, as you can see, has every kind of person there: there’s blue eyes and blonde hair to the very dark skin … and that’s Morocco for me.

Yeah, and they’re very proud of the Amazigh culture there.

Well, Amazighs are the first-known Moroccans, as far as history [is concerned]. If you look at the influence of Morocco and what’s happened historically, with all the invasions – from the Romans, the Phoenicians, from [sub-Saharan Africa], the Moors in Spain – [Morocco being the] entrance to the Mediterranean (in the olden days, all the ships had to go in and out from there) … So, because of that, there’s obviously going to be some kind of mixture, like in Brazil, you know? If you look at Brazil, it’s a new land, but it’s a mixture of all those kinds of things. [Brazilians] can have white or dark skin.

Hassan Hajjaj

Maroc’s Back (courtesy the artist and The Third Line)

Right. Now, you’re African, but not a dandy … or are you?

I don’t think so! [Laughs] I’m not. A dandy to me is just someone who’s really flamboyant, firstly; it’s not just to do with the clothing – it has to do with the character, for me. Maybe I’m a wannabe dandy! You know, I love to capture people and to create this kind of thing. I remember when I was working, I didn’t have the idea of shooting dandies; they were just people around me that had this dandyism about them.

My pictures, these photographs – I’ll always look at them as something from the past, something now, and something in the future that people could look at

People who don’t know you think, before meeting you, that they’re going to see someone in pink-rimmed glasses and a PVC suit. 

[Laughs] I probably disappoint them, in that case. I’m just me, to be honest with you. Maybe that’s what I want to be, but … I’m probably the most boring person when it comes to fashion …

Hassan Hajjaj

Amine B. (courtesy the artist and The Third Line)

No! I echo Jenny’s thoughts. Hi Jenny.

[Laughs].

Yeah, so about photography – when we talk about African photography, it’s difficult not to mention people like Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta, who were both from Mali. Your work has very strong parallels to theirs; how have they influenced you? 

Well, funny enough, I’m a big, big fan of these masters. I come from a generation in Morocco before moving here, when we’d have to go to a studio to have a family picture taken. You’d dress up your best and go to the studio and have a picture taken with family. That was my first photography ‘impact’ – going into a studio with the lights, with the backdrop, with some props, and stuff like that. You’d sit on [your] mum’s lap, and your sister would stand, something like that. When I started doing my studio shoots, it was about documenting friends; but then I questioned why I was doing that, because of these masters like Malick Sidibé. I had to look at their work and like the photographer who took pictures of my family in Larache in Morocco, because there weren’t cameras around at that point in time; there were people taking pictures of the people of the town. If you look at the pictures of Sidibé, they’re mostly of Bamako. He was a studio photographer not doing it for art, but doing it for the people.

Malick Sidibe

A studio photograph by Malick Sidibé (c. 1960s)

Years down the line, when you look at Malick Sidibé’s [work], for example, you can see styles, what year it was – the 50s, 60s – just by looking at an image. So I had to look at myself, thinking, Well, I’m the next generation that’s been moved around this earth … It’s about documenting this new kind of way of movement around the globe, but using the same blueprint as Malick Sidibé; for me, that was very important, more than just dressing [people] up. So, if I take an image now and look at a friend of mine from Brazil who I photographed in London, that moment – I’m there, he’s there, and maybe now, he lives in France; but I documented that person at that time … My pictures, these photographs – I’ll always look at them as something from the past, something now, and something in the future that people could look at and [tell] a story about the time [in which] these people had been moved around. I’ve had to keep all these things in mind while shooting in a studio, because anybody could put a piece of cloth on the wall, you know …

And finishing the pictures with the frames is very important, to try and turn this photography into so-called ‘fine art’ and ‘contemporary art’, because photography is sometimes very hard to fit within this world of contemporary art. So I look at myself and this new movement from that generation, in a sense. I’m using what I’ve got around me and my reasons.

Seydou Keita

Seydou Keïta – Untitled (c. 1956 – 57)

Were there any Moroccan photographers who influenced you early on? 

Not really. Later on there were some [well-known] photographers, whom I really like now, but this is after I started doing photography and started to meet new photographers from different parts of the world. But before that, I’d say three photographers: the one who had the studio in Morocco that we went to; the one downtown, like where everybody goes out in the evening to have drinks and coffee and sweets and stuff like that, and where families would walk around … [And] there was another photographer there with a plastic horse, a car, and maybe like a cowboy hat, vest, and a plastic gun. You’d have a picture taken with them, and go back a few days later to pick up your picture. There was another photographer in the summer, who would walk around the beach, around the sea … These I all remember very, very vividly.

I’ve noticed that many in the Middle East and North African art scenes can be really dismissive when it comes to pop art. Why do you think there’s such derision towards the style? Even when it comes to us … There was a girl somewhere last year who said, ‘REORIENT … it’s all about pop art’. 

‘Pop’ comes from ‘popular’. Sometimes popular stuff comes in and out, so it can be quite ‘of the moment’. Maybe that’s why some people, especially back home from our culture, up till about 20 years ago, would want to buy a piece of work – but they wouldn’t be the only ones who owned that piece of work; they wouldn’t understand that there were editions in photography. So, a painting: that would be art. We have this in our blood, but it depends on the generation. There’s a new generation that follows contemporary art … and there are people who have the old way of thinking; they see this as just a phase we’re going through. It depends who you ask, I suppose.

Hassan Hajjaj

Gossiping (courtesy the artist)

Mm hmm. Let’s talk about the store now. The last time I was there, you were showing me all these cool Moroccan hip-hop videos. What are you listening to now? I need some recommendations. 

The best one I’m listening to is a great album, and if you understand Darija (Moroccan slang), [Lmoutchou] is a very, very intelligent storyteller. Can I put some music on?

Yeah, sure! [Music plays] I assure you – I am banging my head. You just can’t see me. Talking about head-banging … is the My Rock Stars series still ongoing? Do you think it’ll ever come to an end? 

I’ll wrap it up when there aren’t any more [laughs]. I’ve just finished Volume II with the film and the stills. I’m going to be showing the stills in a solo show next May. I’ve just finished editing the film – Zahra Hindi’s one of the [rock stars] for this one. It’s just something that I’ll continue, because there are so many people around me that, if I can keep this going around the other body of work I’m doing, it’s great. It’s introducing my friends (and friends of friends), and when I’m travelling, I feel like I’m [doing so] with a group of friends, even if they’re not there, physically. It’s a fun thing … If a thousand new people see my work and get introduced to these new characters, or if they share my work … it’s kind of like a journey. So, the volumes will continue until there are no more of them. 

Hassan Hajjaj

Tariq & Zak Stylin’ (courtesy the artist)

Until there are no more rock stars! OK. Hassan, when you were a kid, you didn’t know what you wanted to do, and did odd jobs here and there … If you could go back and tell your 15 year-old self something, what would it be? What advice would you give to little Hassan? 

Probably even the stuff that happened badly, not to change it, because everything is for a reason. Maybe the only thing is I wish I was better at home, because I moved out in the early days, at 16. I wish I didn’t have those kinds of problems with my dad (God bless him) in those first couple of years between 16 and 18. Apart from that, you know, life is sweet and sour; and without one, you won’t know the other, so I’d probably choose the same path, even with the bad things that happened.

It’s all turned out for the best, I guess. You’re Sir Hassan now.

[Laughs] Exactly! It’s bizarre, isn’t it, to even think of that. It’s like a puzzle: if you change anything, everything won’t be the same … Whatever happened in the past has obviously made me what I am now.

‘Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity’ ran between July 15, 2016 and September 25, 2016 at The Photographer’s Gallery in London.

Cover image courtesy Jenny Fremont.

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About the Author

Joobin Bekhrad
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An award-winning writer, Joobin Bekhrad (BBA, MSc.) is the founder and Editor of REORIENT. He has contributed to such publications as The Guardian, The Economist, the BBC, Forbes, i-D/Vice, The Columbia Journal, The British Library's Untold Lives, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Aesthetica, Artsy, and Harper’s Bazaar Art Arabia, been interviewed by news outlets including Newsweek, The Art Newspaper, and the CBC, and seen his writings republished and translated into a variety of languages. He is the author of a translation of Omar Khayyam’s Robaiyat, the foreword to Mahdi Ehsaei's Afro-Iran, Coming Down Again, and With My Head in the Clouds and Stars in My Eyes (forthcoming).