Hassan Hajjaj brings colour to Somerset House

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Arriving in the UK in 1973, British-Moroccan photographer Hassan Hajjaj has always felt torn between two cultures. It is a clash that informs his cosmopolitan mix of colours and patterns in his photography, which is going on show at Somerset House from 05 October as part of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair.
“The colour really comes from Morocco; in England, we live in black-and-white because of the weather,” says Hajjaj. “That moment of being in colour is really creating a little bit of happiness and bringing life and identity back.
“If you’ve been to Morocco I think you’ll understand that we’re a very colourful country, a colourful people. We see every colour being worn. I realised along the way that growing up in Europe, there is a study of colour and we are told that this colour should go with this and that colour shouldn’t go with that. In Morocco there is the clash of colours, and an attitude not to be scared of colours.”
Embracing these patterns and colours predates Hajjaj’s career in photography, going back to the street fashion shop he ran in London in the late 1980s. His experience of working with materials and designs for shoppers, and his later stints working in nightclub promotion, finding venues and styling them, gave him an eye for production that married the traditional with the unexpected.
“It’s all about identities and trying to fit those identities in in this city,” says Hajjaj. “Morocco gives a base from my culture and my country, and London opened my eyes into the cultures of the West, into influences from different parts of the globe, including art, music, film, fashion. It was using the two things. It had to be in both places for me to express what I’m doing. If it was only in one place, it would be a completely different body of work.”
La Caravane, the artist’s first London exhibition in seven years, brings together Hajjaj’s eclectic work. Part retrospective and part new material, it features the bold Kesh Angels series and the second part of Hajjaj’s My Rock Stars. Both works draw inspiration from Hajjaj’s time in fashion, exploring how clothing, labels and traditions can be bound up with how we interpret other people and their identity.
“I’m just tapping into how all the traditions and cultures have power. Every country and culture has a style, has a tradition. Within the traditional clothing, there’s a style, there’s a couture. For example, with a Nigerian man or woman with their outfit, they would normally buy the material for the outfit, take it to someone who sows, they will measure them and they will make the piece for them. So it becomes more couture than going and buying a pair of Levis or a top from Gap,” he says.

Kesh Angels, photograph by © Hassan Hajjaj, courtesy of the artist and Vigo Gallery
Rider, photograph by © Hassan Hajjaj, courtesy of the artist and Vigo Gallery
Hajjaj particuarly likes unique styles and personalities; Kesh Angels shows female bikers in Marrakesh, for example, an aspect of Moroccan culture that seems to jar with Western preconceptions. For Hajjaj, its part and parcel of moving the stereotypes beyond “tea, mint tea, sand, the Sahara, Hashish and those kinds of things”.
In My Rock Stars Experimental: Volume 2, Hajjaj brings his travels to the forefront, mixing material from Brick Lane, or Barbès in Paris, or Venice Beach in LA, wit international brands. For Hajjaj it’s a trick to try to reinvent our relationships with the big companies, another approach he learnt back when working in fashion and trying to reclaim identities for ethnic minorities.
“At the time these big stores and big brands didn’t really design for people like me and my friends,” he says. “But we wanted to be part of these big brands – we wanted the Burberry and the Louis Vuitton, but the things they designed we wouldn’t wear. Around the late 1980s we would buy the counterfeit fabric and sow it on the jeans and jackets and sneakers we wanted to wear. We were taking away from those labels and recreating and redesigning something that we wanted to wear that we had designed for ourselves.”
La Caravane features as part of The Charles Russell Speechlys Terrace Room Series at Somerset House, from 5 October, free entry.
Abimaro & Lakwena, photograph by ©Hassan Hajjaj, courtesy of the artist and Vigo Gallery
Hindi Rockin’, photograph by ©Hassan Hajjaj, courtesy of the artist and Vigo Gallery
Mimz, photograph by ©Hassan Hajjaj, courtesy of the artist and Vigo Gallery