Born in 1961 in Morocco, Hassan Hajjaj lives life on his own terms and arrived at his prominent position as an artist through a lifetime of experiments. He entered London underground arts in the 80s and proceeded to reshape it in new and exciting ways.
I met him as a result of a friend in common, Amine Bendriouich and with whom Hassan photographed and collaborated in a design of a limited series of velvet silk bomber jackets. These were inspired by the costumes of Gnawa musicians, known for combining ritual poetry and traditional dancing.
Involved in so many forms of creativity, is it fair to say he is more of a wider cultural protagonist than just a photographer, fashion designer or filmmaker?
What is the most vivid memory from your childhood days?
Growing up by the sea, having that freedom. Remembering the seasons, the summer. Some memories of really being free. I imagine a happy child, having all this space in front of you. Very, very much colourful.
When did you realise you want to become an artist? How did you accept yourself as an artist?
It happened naturally. It wasn't something I planned for, it wasn’t something I prepared myself for. It was just all these things that I did in the past. It sort of got me to do what I´m doing now, which is more of an artist. It was just, you know, trial and error, and it happened. I´ve always been creative and always have been around creative people, from filmmakers, musicians, graffiti artists, dancers and that was normal around me.
Most of my friends studied. I was the odd one out that left school at an early age so it took me a while to become an artist. Probably in the EARLY 90s I realised that there is something there. And around the early 2000´s, I would call myself an artist.
You were called the Andy Warhol of Marrakesh creating Moroccan pop art, how do you feel about this comparison?
I´ve never said it myself. It was a journalist that said it and it will be going to my death bed with me. I could see WHY everybody mentioned it. I don't really mind it, I don't really care about it. I probably know as much about Andy Warhol as your normal person that doesn't really follow art. I can see and understand why I'm playing with a consumership and with a cult of popular culture so it's understandable.
But at the same time you can look at it in another way and if someone is coming from a third world country because it was given to me by the west, is it asking us to be compared to become a secondary to something else. So you can look at this that way, but for me, it's not a problem. I never said it and a nice thing happened there, a clothing label that I´m doing Andy Wahloo, given to me by Rachd Taha in 2000.
What is the role of an artist in society?
Every artist is different so I can´t answer for everybody - it’s a very wide question. Some artists are doing it selfishly, some artists are doing it technically, some artists are saying something about society, some artists are doing it more for the eye, so it really depends. But it's nice to have an artist that touches society, that says something. And I think this is important, to be able to speak artistically whether it´s music, photography, painting whatever it is. If you can touch society in a good or bad way and say something or create a dialogue then I think it’s good, I think it’s important.
If the artist plays such an important role in society, don’t you think that a government subsidy should be paid the painter just like it pays any other government worker? He wouldn’t have to worry about where his next piece of bread was coming from. He could live a normal family life like any other person. He wouldn’t be at the mercy of a dealer. He should really be free to paint.
As an artist, I would love to agree with you and I would love this to happen ...for every government because why should they give me money to paint because there are people sleeping on the street so it can be unfair to another part of society. Whereas for the artist it would be great but you know, I don't know if this will be something that will happen.
What I'm trying to understand is that kind of struggle that the artist sometimes needs to feel in order to create. Do you think that the struggle is important?
Doing art, you should be doing it for yourself. So you have to find your way to express what you want and if that allows you to survive, richly or poorly, at least you survive from something that you love. There is only a very little percentage that has made money and became very popular. And 95 % around the world that are doing it, just for themselves, part-time or just about surviving or creating the lifestyle for them. And that's what art is, it's not a 9 to 5 job so it's difficult you know for everybody.
Now when you know that you have a bigger audience than for example when you were starting, does it change how you create? Or do you think, Omg lots of people will be looking at it?
If you´re thinking that way, it can affect your work firstly. It gives pressure to your head. Not really, I made a decision years ago to do something that I love to do, and if I´m not happy and not enjoying doing it then I should just stop doing it. The audience, all people that follow the work, it´s great to have this because this new social media but I don't really want to do it, just for the audience to make them happy. And if they are happy while I´m doing my journey, it´s great. If not, because you can have people that will like your work and have people that will dislike your work, and that is just part of it.
What is the importance of the subject in painting?
The person is always the subject of my painting.
The one that struck me most was the one that you created on the streets of London, of a woman wearing a Louis Vuitton scarf. Could you elaborate? What is the message behind it?
I did this in the 90’s. What do you want me to tell you? I grew up with a counterfeit product that I used to wear. My mum and auntie used to wear a veil, my grandmother never wore a veil, so I just expressed what I was growing up. Because after September 2011 everything changed but this was before so it was a different way of thinking. After that, all that politics and religion and all that stuff came into it and people started to look at it differently. For me, it was just an expression of my culture. The way we live in a society with all these brands and crossovers and stuff like that. So it was about that person and my journey and my life between London and Morocco - and that was an expression of that. As well as the power of the woman like my mum and my sisters.
Is it a realistic expression?
No - It's set up but there is a reality to it. So I let the viewer decide what to think. The only thing that I´ve changed was the vail. So you know, I put the vail that people see, so just like you said, the first thing that you expressed about the picture is Louis Vuitton, You didn't say blue eyes, or she is Moroccan. You didn't say, is that something you’ve been growing up within that stuck in your mind ? And that's why, I try to leave it to people for them to decide.
Are you conscious when you create or do you surrender yourself to a process?
I think a bit of both. Sometimes, I´m conscious and I have an idea about what I want to do. When I have a plan and empty space too. I surrender myself to see what else can happen. So the answer to that question will be both.
Your work is so vivid. What is your theory of colour, especially in regards to perspective?
Growing up in Morocco. If you have been to Morocco, you see it everywhere. And living in London, and let’s say living in a black and white movie, that's my escapism. It's about clashing colours and not sort of analyzing them. So It's really a bit of escapism and my journey. It's my Pandora Box, it’s what I grew up within Morocco. I remember the colours.
What comes to your mind when you hear the word freedom?
It should be freedom of the mind first. That's the way it is. If you can free your mind everything else is easy.
You are involved in so many forms of artistic expression, including sculpting, photography, directing but it seems that fashion came first.
Would you take us to the process of this first art form leading to the others?
Years before that, I was doing lots of underground parties in London. Where I was finding spaces, DJs and bands. And maybe show some art films. You know to change the space. So this was happening in the night time. And then I had space in Central London, that we called R.A.P which stands for Real Artistic People. And there I could design stuff that would sell. I´m not a technical designer but I normally just have an idea and go buy the fabric and take it to the person and ask say: “make me this”, so that's how I started but within the store,I also started to do art shows there.
We were selling vinyl music and record DJs. I met stylists and filmmakers, so that was my school. I started to assist stylists during fashion shows or catwalk shows. I worked in music videos. I was doing parties at night time. I was creating art shows in my shop. So this was mine, let's say: ‘University’. And after that I found photography and I started taking pictures myself. And that developed to this conversation that I’m having with you.
Hassan and the shop that you have at the moment, is it in East London?
Yes - It's open to people when we are there. It's an office, it's a showroom. It´s a boutique, it's a meeting place. It's also where I do my shoots as well.
What is it called?
It's just called LARACHE. It´s the name of the company.
Hopefully, when things return to normal. I´ll come and see you.
Yeah - definitely.
Thank you so much, for taking your time.
No problem, pleasure. Good luck with everything.
Text by Marta Marszalek