Art Interview Interview

Top image: Rider, photograph by Hassan Hajjaj.

Open from today, Somerset House plays host to contemporary artist Hassan Hajjaj’s first solo exhibition in seven years. Having travelled the globe for the last twenty years, the artist views this new show, La Caravane, as a homecoming of sorts, where the work he has produced in the last two decades can be shared with both friends and the public. “Having been on the road for the last twenty years, I’ve got back with all these goodies, so this is an opportunity to show people the mixed media that I work with.”

Born and raised in the town of Larache in Morroco, Hassan moved to London at twelve and now constantly travels between the UK and Marrakesh. Taking inspiration from his immediate surroundings, the artist blends the glossy aesthetic of a fashion shoot with traditional Moroccan street culture, resulting in images that challenge western perceptions of Moroccan society.

One of his most famous series Kesh Angels features a unique subculture of young Moroccan women who navigate Marrakesh on motorbikes. The series, which was first exhibited in 2014 juxtaposes traditional muslim garments with modern Western branding, appropriating popular culture in an almost humorous and Warhol-esque manner. The vibrant photographs explore female authority by subverting popular Western expectations of North African culture. La Caravane sees this series placed alongside video installations, sculpture, music, design and handcrafted objects.

Describing this exhibition as one of the ‘mischievous’, here we chat to Hassan about his homecoming.

Thalia Chin: Could you tell me a bit about how you first got involved with photography and the visual arts?
Hassan Hajjaj: I bought my first camera in 1989 from my friend who was also an artist and I was just taking pictures for fun. But I was also doing a lot of stuff then like running parties, assistant styling fashion shoots, working in music videos and stuff like that, so that was where the influences came from. I was basically just doing a lot of street fashion, since 1984, so a combination of that lead me to do my work

Thalia: Can you tell me a bit about your up-coming show at Somerset House, La Caravane? It is your first solo show for around seven years.
Hassan: Yeah so I’ve been doing a lot of group shows in the last seven years, but this is my first solo show since about 2010. I am almost looking at it as a sort of celebration of the last twenty years, in which I have been on the road doing shows. So this is me coming back and sharing the work with my friends and the public and it’s a compilation of lots of different mediums, some old work and some new work. That’s the basic idea.

Kesh Angels, Khadija, photograph by Hassan Hajjaj

Thalia: The way you apposite contemporary culture is very Warhol-esque.
Hassan: I’ve been tagged Andy Warhol-esque, I basically have it written on my back [laughs]. I guess because I am working with brands and products, it’s easy for the comparison to be made as it is popular art. I’m influenced by everything really from products to films, recycled objects.

Thalia: Who are the models in your photography?
Hassan: Well they are My Rockstars and it is a body of work that features lots of different people, from a boxer to a dancer, an acrobat to a singer. For this show I am only showing my musicians, a piece of film with nine stills, and most of them are friends or friends of friends. I just realised that there are a lot of talented people around me, people that are not mainstream but all possess something that inspires me. It’s almost about documenting these people who are from different parts of London and Paris and places like that and have all made a similar journey to myself. So those are My Rockstars. The Kesh Angels are all to do with the bike culture in Marrakesh, they are all women, the photos are highlighting this culture that exists there, with my finger print on it.

Thalia: They act almost as a tribute to those people around you.
Hassan: Yeah, so when I started doing this I was looking around thinking, ‘What can I say?’ And as I said, I was very lucky to have all these trusting and talented characters around me. The photos are documenting a journey both for me and for them, when my work is hanging on the walls I will have my friends hanging around me as well.

“…the idea is to fill the room with mischievous people who will each find something in the work.”

Abimaro & Lakwena, photograph by Hassan Hajjaj

Thalia: How influential to your work is your own childhood past growing up in Morocco?
Hassan: I was born in a town called Larash, a fishing port just north of Morocco. I’ve been going back and forth from Marrakesh for about 21 years now. Both places have major influences on me, growing up there until the age of twelve. When leaving Morocco and getting involved in London, everything that I had left behind kind of highlighted itself and I began to view the place from a Western point of view. I also began to introduce my culture to my friends in the West. If I had known one place without the other I probably would not be doing the same work. If I had grown up in Morocco and not moved to London I definitely would not be doing the work that I am doing.

Thalia: What would you like audiences to take away from your work?
Hassan: I’m hoping that all kinds of people will be able to see something familiar to them in my work but also discover something new. The idea really is to share my work in a way that is familiar to most people, especially through the products that I use, but I also want the Arabic writing to introduce them to something new.

Thalia: How important is it to you that your work is interactive?
Hassan: It is very important to me because I am coming from a background where I didn’t go to galleries when I was younger, they were a world away from us and I was almost too scared to go into galleries or museums. Most art you are not supposed to touch so it is always nice to me when you see somebody sitting on one of my chairs and having their picture taken or laughing at something they’ve seen. This show is all about this interaction, there’s music you can listen to or you can sit and look at the art, the idea is to fill the room with mischievous people who will each find something in the work.

Hassan Hajjaj: La Caravane runs at Somerset House until 7th January 2018 and is presented in collaboration with 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair that runs until 8th October.