BY KELLY BESWICK
His art is a marvellous, mighty mash-up of Arabic aesthetic and East London street style, which is hardly surprising considering Hassan Hajjaj was born and raised in Morocco, only moving to the capital aged 14. Finding himself in a strange country and unable to speak the language, he learned to adapt fast and was soon hanging out with the cool kids. Several decades on and little has changed…
His distinctive images reflect the vibrant colours and heady atmosphere of the souk while drawing heavily on cutting-edge fashion, design and music, with everyday products, such as tins of mackerel, thrown in for good measure. The end result is pop art of such arresting quality that Hassan Hajjaj has become known as ‘The Andy Warhol of Marrakech’. But is it a sobriquet he’s happy to accept? “Well it is what it is,” he says equanimously. “I can’t stop people from using it. Someone from the press originally coined the phrase and it’s just continued from there. I don’t mind it. Warhol did some great works and I’m as much a fan as the next person.”
But whereas Warhol and The Factory typified New York, Hajjaj is firmly ensconced in East London, or Calvert Avenue to be more precise, where his shop-cum-studio, Larache (named after the northern-Moroccan harbour town where he was born), is an Aladdin’s cave of colourful artwork, pimped-up furniture and Arabic products, including djellaba-clad Barbies. It’s a fun and frivolous mix that’s also incredibly appealing. Out back, sipping on tea, you’ll invariably find Hajjaj himself, an amiable man with a laid-back charm that quickly makes you warm to him. Being able to easily befriend people is a skill that has held Hajjaj is good stead, and never more so than when he first arrived here in the 70s. “I found myself in a totally different culture, not speaking any English and desperately trying to fit in,” he recalls. “The way of life, the education system, the colours, the smells and the atmosphere of Morocco were so far removed from the monochrome environment that was London at that time.”
But fit in he soon did, forging friendships with a young and dynamic creative crowd who dabbled in everything from DJing, set designing and lm- making to styling, photographing and painting. “It really was a golden moment, with all these really talented people coming together,” says Hajjaj. “It was also very mixed, the first real mixture of first and second generations born in London.”
However, Hajjaj, who left school at 15 without a single qualification, struggled to secure himself regular employment. “So during that time I started to do lots of underground parties and then opened a small shop selling streetwear,” he says. “Then I met a friend who was a stylist and I assisted him for a few years, working on both catwalk shows and magazine shoots, while another friend worked on music videos, so I helped out behind the scenes on those, too. That was my schooling, basically.”
Being surrounded by photographers eventually inspired Hajjaj to pick up a camera himself. “One of my friends showed me how to use it and I just took it from there, taking pictures for myself. It wasn’t something that I thought would become a career or that I was going to become an artist.” It was when Hajjaj started to reconnect with his North African heritage that he found his creative voice. “I started going back to Morocco, spending more and more time there, and that’s when all the in influences began to converge,” he says. “My first body of work was taking all these pictures of Arabic products hanging up and I then printed them on canvas. I just did it to show my friends something from my culture, in a contemporary way, but then I started to sell a few pieces and people began to take an interest.” And that interest continues to this day.
Not content with simply shooting his subjects, Hajjaj also designed all the clothing and the vibrant sets used as backgrounds – clearly a man of many talents, as well having the coolest of friends.
Larache Studio by Hassan Hajjaj
30-32 Calvert Avenue
London E2 7JP