Hassan Hajjaj gives you the Orient In all its warmth and colors. Yet his is not a nostalgic Orient that stood still in time. No, his orient has fully come to grips with modernity. His does not fear or resent it, but embraced and enriched it. Hassan talks about Morocco, making movies, world music and “being Andy Warhol”
You were recently in Beirut. Why was that?
I was there for a project taking pictures of some 16 women in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain el Hilweh, as part of a collaboration with an Emirati organization called 81 Designs. They set up this workshop for women artisans to perfect their skills and promote their work. Last year they worked with El Seed, and this year they asked me.
The women in Ain el Hilweh beautifully transformed some of my works into embroidery. They were exhibited on 45 x 90cm canvases at Art Dubai in March. I hope the exhibition will go to Beirut at some point as well.
Did you like it?
It was not my first time in Beirut and, yes, I do love the city. It reminds me a bit of Tangiers and Casablanca. Things like the architecture, the traffic, the car noise, the organized chaos, the people, and the characters. And they are all cities by the sea.
You have become famous for your photography, portraits especially. In recent years, you moved into film as well, and also did My Rock Stars Volume Two. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
It is a follow up to My Rock Stars Volume 1, which I did about seven years ago. Volume 2 is in the same vein. The musicians perform in the setting I would have portrayed them in. In the whole world perhaps only five percent of musicians and artists get discovered or recognized, or whatever you want to call it.
Yet, in any city, in any country, there is so much talent. I have a lot of friends, and friends of friends, who are extremely talented. And this project allowed me to give them a stage.
What you think of the term “world music”?
Well, that is a bit of strange term of course. Music from Brazil, Congo or Morocco is all world music. But Mozart is not? The Red Hot Chili Peppers are not? Hip Hop from New York is not world music? The world is the whole world, yet somehow world music only means everything that is not from the West. I am pretty sure whoever invented the term came from the West. It is funny as well to watch at award ceremonies like the Grammy’s, where you first get all these awards in the main categories, like pop, R&B, hip hop etc. etc. followed by one award in world music.
I have a friend who plays in a Gnawa band. So that is officially world music. Yet, he considers it rock. That’s also the reason why I called the project Rock Stars. To me, a rock star used to be a guy with long hair, a leather jacket and sun glasses. But there are many kinds of rock stars. So, you could say the project in a way was also about reclaiming the term.
Another more recent movie you made is Karima. She is one of the girls in your famous portrait series Kesh Angels. Tell us a bit more. Who is Karima? And what is the film about?
Karima is a girl from Marrakech I have known for years. She is the third generation working at the famous Jemaa al Fnah Square in Marrakech. Her grandmother started there in the 1940s. In 1998 or so, Karima started as a henna girl, one of the first in Marrakech to do so. She is married. A housewife. A mother of two. She is the bread winner in the family. And she is veiled. But five minutes into the movie you will not even notice that any longer. I have been taking her pictures for 20 years and she has become a friend really. In the film we spend a day in the life of Karima and her friends. One day in the life of a woman, a strong woman, a mother, an artist in Marrakech.
A look behind Karima’s veil?
In a way, yes. In the sense of getting to know her. But also a look behind the veil itself. In the West I am often asked questions about the veil and almost always the same questions. I am a tired of answering them, as I always feel they want to push me in a certain direction. Here I show a woman with a veil, who is strong, artistic, and street smart to show that the one does not exclude the other.
Are you from Marrakech?
No, I’m from Larache, a small town near Tangiers in the north of Morocco. My dad left for England in the 1960s to work and me and my mum followed in the 1970s. So, I’ve lived in London since I was 13. Since 1997, however, I have been going back and forth between London and Marrakech.
You are often called the Any Warhol of Morocco. What do you think of that?
Well, is a bit the same as with the term “world music”. I don’t mind it really. I understand. It is a label related to my first project, in which I used cans and did pop art. Like Warhol. So, in that sense there are similarities. But my later work is very different. So I don’t think the label says a lot about my work today. You can look at it in two ways. On the one hand, it is a compliment being called Andy Warhol. On the other, you can see it as something that restricts you, something that puts you in a box. It is the same with all labels. Like I said, I don’t mind it really.
You are a self-taught artist. What does that mean in your case?
Well, I did not study art or anything. In fact, I came out of school with zero qualifications. But I always loved photography and I had lots of friends working with photography. At some point I just bought a camera, a Pentax, and started taking pictures. And I would ask my friends for advice all the time. And that is how I gradually learnt. That is what I tell young photographers as well: just go out there and shoot.
People who did art school or something similar have more technical background, know more about the history of art and are better prepared to deal with the market. I had to figure it all out myself. And that was often a slow process in many ways. I mean, nowadays, with a digital camera it is very different of course. Now you can take as many photos as you want. But I started with film. So I could only take 36 pictures per film, which was expensive, so you had to be selective. And film needed to be developed. So you had this waiting game. This beautiful waiting game. I must say, I am very happy I started with film. It makes you think more.
As you are into music, what is today’s playlist?
Warrior Charge/ Aswad
Chalice in a Place/ U-Roy
Money in my Pockets/ Dennis Brown
Chameleon/ Herbie Hancock
Lay You Down/ Jose James
Magic Look/ Marques Toliver
N15/ Miraa May produced by Salaam Remi
Excursions/ A Tribe Called Quest
Sound of da Police/ KRS-One