Hassan Hajjaj Rocks NYC with “My Rock Stars” and “Vogue: the Arab Issue”

9 May, 2021
Hassan Hajjaj in front of Bristol's Arnolfini Gallery, 2020 (Photo: Lisa Whiting).
Has­san Haj­jaj in front of Bris­tol’s Arnolfi­ni Gallery, 2020 (Pho­to: Lisa Whiting).

Melissa Chemam

Rarely does an untrained artist con­quer the world the way Lon­don’s Has­san Haj­jaj has New York this Spring — the last time an auto­di­dact got this much atten­tion might have been when Jean Basquiat was the rage. As the pace of life in down­town Man­hat­tan begins to pick up again, Haj­jaj has not one but two big shows on —“My Rock­stars” at the Yos­si Milo Gallery through May 29th, and “Vogue: The Arab Issue” at Fotografiska New York, at 281 Park Ave S., through Novem­ber 7th. “Vogue: The Arab Issue” exhibits 30 years of fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy with a wink at high fash­ion of yore, turn­ing Vogue’s “Sep­tem­ber Issue” on its head. Both shows incor­po­rate the British-Moroc­can artist’s flam­boy­ant col­ors and schemes, invok­ing a world of dreams and fan­ta­sy rem­i­nis­cent of the Bea­t­les’ Yel­low Sub­ma­rine, if it had all of Moroc­co’s flare. 

In “My Rock­stars” Has­san Haj­ja­j’s 33 col­or pho­tographs live in cus­tom artist’s frames, on dis­play against white walls with green and yel­low accents/moldings at the Yos­si Milo Gallery, 245 10th Avenue in Man­hat­tan’s Chelsea quar­ter. The works are metal­lic Lamb­da prints on Dibond, in spray-paint­ed white frames sur­round­ed by a vari­ety of tins, cans, and pop cul­ture items. Phys­i­cal image sizes range from rough­ly 29×19 to 41×59 inch­es, with most works at 44×30 inch­es. The works in this show are priced between $19,000 and $30,000, based on size.

I inter­viewed Has­san Haj­jaj last year when his work came to Bris­tol. As a pho­tog­ra­ph­er and artist, his visu­als con­tin­u­al­ly dia­logue with his dual iden­ti­ty, through his per­son­al jour­ney from his birth­place in Larache, Moroc­co, to Eng­land and now beyond, through his expe­ri­ence work­ing around the world.

“I first grew up in Moroc­co, a world in tech­ni­col­or com­pared to Eng­land,” Haj­jaj told me, “so when I arrived in Lon­don at the age of 13, I felt like I had land­ed in a film noir.” 

Haj­ja­j’s East Lon­don neigh­bor­hood was full of Jamaican, Pak­istani, Indi­an, Bangladeshi and African young peo­ple; he was the only Moroc­can he knew at the time. 

“As a kid in East Lon­don, our immi­grant neigh­bor­hood became my melt­ing pot,” Haj­jaj said. “My train­ing hap­pened in the streets more than any­where else, among friends. We did­n’t have many places to hang out, so we just met in the cor­ner of our par­ents’ place! But we were all dri­ven by our desire to be a part of this Lon­don scene. We would­n’t go to uni­ver­si­ty. Lat­er, one became a cook, anoth­er friend a video mak­er, anoth­er a fash­ion design­er, many oth­ers worked in music.” 

Their inspi­ra­tion did­n’t come from gal­leries but from radio and tele­vi­sion, infused with a love of reg­gae and hip hop. 

“I was doc­u­ment­ing our oth­er­ness, I think,” Haj­jaj said. “That’s why there is col­or in my work, address­ing reli­gion a bit, and a touch of pol­i­tics. You know, I left school at 15, with no qual­i­fi­ca­tions. My friends and I were too uncom­fort­able to go to a muse­um or a gallery, a world far away from us. So as a group of cre­ative peo­ple we just nour­ished each oth­er. I used to pro­gram the par­ties; I would find the DJs, etc. And had a small bou­tique for street wear called RAP that became a meet­ing point for us, and for oth­er untrained artists.”

Since the late 1990s, his film and pho­tog­ra­phy work has been inspired by Lon­don’s immi­grant cul­tures. It has now toured the world, graced the cov­ers of the likes of Vogue and the pages of the New York­er, work­ing with Bil­lie Eil­ish and fel­low Moroc­can, vocal­ist Hin­di Zahra. 

As a result, Haj­ja­j’s work is an invi­ta­tion to a clash­ing voy­age, full of unex­pect­ed encoun­ters, vibrant colours and patterns.

His series of por­traits “My Rock Stars” inspired by Moroc­can youth, shines with ener­gy and joy, and cel­e­brates Black cul­ture. We see African musi­cians wear­ing clothes designed by Haj­jaj that ref­er­ence mod­ern African pat­terns and habits, in bright yel­low, pur­ple and green. Among them are Boubacar Kafan­do, Man­disa Dumezweni and Luzmi­ra Zer­pa. We also find vocal artist Car­di B. and actor Riz Ahmed. Whomev­er he chore­o­graphs and pho­tographs becomes a Has­san Haj­jaj creation.

art photographyhip hopMorocco

Melissa Chemam is a cultural journalist, lecturer, and the author of a book on Bristol’s music scene, Massive Attack – Out of the Comfort Zone. A TMR contributing editor, she writes a monthly music column in which she explores Arab music and the greater Middle East, and how they influence music production around the world. She tweets @melissachemam.