Hassan Hajjaj on Bringing Noise, Kitsch, and Joie de Vivre From Morocco to Miami Beach

Arsalan Mohammad
Dec 5, 2014 3:38PM

Bringing zinging blasts of sunshine from the souks of Marrakesh to UNTITLED, Miami this week, British-Moroccan multimedia artist and photographer Hassan Hajjaj’s new works included at Taymour Grahne’s booth mark an intriguing sidestep from his previous photographic series. Garish hues, street fashion from the medina, clangorous color clashes, and a pop art palette that celebrates all that is bright and kitsch are all present. Yet in place of the faces that usually peer from Hajjaj’s confrontational portraits, here we are presented with a selection of legs and feet, clad in dizzying tones and colors.

Hajjaj, 53, is well known in the Middle East, North Africa, and UK as a photographer, DJ, riad owner, interior designer, magpie-like multimedia adventurer, recycler, and re-appropriator of junk and pop iconography. Over the past 20 years, he has also been (generally unwittingly) a key catalyst for the revival of a contemporary visual aesthetic in and around his operational base of Marrakesh, from which he hops back and forth from his adopted homeland of Britain. His distinctive portraits typically feature the weird, wild, and wonderful characters that populate the souks, alleyways, and tea-shops of Marrakesh. And now, legs and feet. 

“Basically in between all the portrait work I was been doing [in the past],” says Hajjaj in his cheery London growl, “I was taking pictures of feet—people walking along the street. In the olden times, people walked everywhere, like, your grandparents would tell you stories like, ah yeah, we went to Algiers, it took three months of walking. So I wasn’t really doing it as a body of work at the time, I was just curious. I found myself shooting the bottoms of their legs, which became this series in Miami. You don’t see who they are. I started putting them all together and they started to look interesting…”

The previous series with which Hajjaj has found global acclaim and success include “Kesh Angels” and “Rock Stars,” the former featuring sassy Moroccan biker girls gazing coolly back at the lens, the latter a celebration of Hajjaj’s friends and acquaintances from around the medinas, usually clad in fantastically outré designs (many of which have been designed by Hajjaj himself, recalling his peripatetic career as a fashion designer in the late 1980s). Fashion, textiles, and color remain prime obsessions, as does his habitual use of unexpected textures and materials in which his portraits are encased.

“The frames I found were with bright plastic mats inside and then [I added] the motorbike tires, which were painted. It made them very kitsch and easy to look at. I am very curious to see how people perceive the work, as there’s no heavy story that comes with it.”

Having lived in the UK since the age of 14, the greyness and relative drabness of 1970s and 1980s London fuelled a yearning for the Morocco of Hajjaj’s memory. Today, this duality transfers into a series of juxtapositions and loud clashes, which soak the eyeballs in a wash of noise, life, joie de vivre—and kitsch. Does Hajjaj baulk at the concept?—“I mean, it depends what sort of kitsch you’re talking about! Growing up in Morocco, we were very kitsch in so many ways and especially with color. In Morocco, they are not really scared of clashing colors. So it’s about clashing, and when I do the work, obviously, I clash the colors, but I don’t want to spend too long thinking about it and analyzing it. If it works, it works, you know?”

Arsalan Mohammad