All Consuming Culture: Hassan Hajjaj

This feature was commissioned and published by Canvas Magazine

Moroccan-born Hassan Hajjaj is best known for his graphic visual language and a Pop Art tilt. The rich patterns of his vivid, staged portraits framed by textures and brands sit somewhere between art and commerce. The versatile and self-taught artist settled in London in the early 1970s, where
he made a name for himself first as a fashion stylist. Anna Seaman pays a visit to his design shop-cum-studio to discuss his Warholian-style oeuvre that includes installation, performance and recycled Coca-Cola crates.

 Hassan Hajjaj, Feetball (2006). Image courtesy of Hassan Hajjaj.

Hassan Hajjaj, Feetball (2006). Image courtesy of Hassan Hajjaj.

Entering Hassan Hajjaj’s shop on a surprisingly quiet and leafy street in the middle of London’s Shoreditch district is like stepping into a three-dimensional version of one of his iconic portraits. The first thing you notice is the colour. Then, the sheer capacity of stuff crammed into the small space. As your eyes take it all in, they rest almost subconsciously on the familiar. The red and white cursive script of Coca-Cola is instantly recognisable, despite the fact that the words are in Arabic. The Nike swoosh, instead of being emblazoned onto sports-wear is sewn into pairs of Moroccan leather slippers stacked up in the window. It is a small alteration that makes this traditional footwear instantly cool. The jars, cans, bottles and tins and many other items bearing distinctive logos that populate Hajjaj’s shop are in fact, the tools of his trade. For he is well versed in the power of the language of branding.

“The strength of advertising is enormous,” he says. “I use cans in the frames of my photographs and people don’t even look at the image. The first thing they see is the logo; the brand. This is how our brains have been wired. For me, branding is a language that communicates with people around the globe, which draws them in. I am fully aware of that, my hope is that after I have got their attention, they might learn something new.”

As I visit his shop on a sunny summer afternoon, I ask him how he feels about his relationship to Pop Art. Coined in the 1950s and 1960s and nowadays personified by Andy Warhol, the Pop Art movement emerged with the globalisation of pop music and youth culture and, by its very nature, was anti-establishment. Although Hajjaj is practising more than half a century later and has no desire to be compared or, indeed, contrasted to Warhol, he is playing on the same tropes and is certainly about keeping art out of the stuffy and sterile realm of the gallery.

“I am a child of the 60s so I grew up with the new wave of consumerism,” he muses. “But I also come from the counterfeit culture that sprung up in London in the 1980s. We could never afford the real thing. My work represents that in a way, the struggle and the striving to be part of the mainstream. I like to think of my art as being for the people and about the people.”

 Yassin Alsalman a.k.a. The Narcycist as shot by Hassan Hajjaj. Courtesy of Hassan Hajjaj

Yassin Alsalman a.k.a. The Narcycist as shot by Hassan Hajjaj. Courtesy of Hassan Hajjaj

It is this kind of democratic approach that can be compared to Warhol’s choice to paint Campbell’s soup cans. They were what Kirk Varnedoe, a prominent American art historian referred to as a “steady common denominator” relevant across every age and class. With Coca-Cola and other mega brands that transcend language, Hajjaj is also choosing a commonality to connect audiences living in the image-saturated world of the 21st century.

He is also, however, using the hook to then tell his story as well as attempt to demystify and personify the Middle Eastern culture. By blurring the lines between Western consumerism and Arab identity – photographing an Arab model wearing a niqab made from a Louis Vuitton scarf in Eyes On Me (2000) or by making a Moroccan slipper with a Nike swoosh a football boot in Feetball (2006) – he is making multiple statements. On one hand, the Arabisation of Western brands can be seen as an implicit critique of global American cultural superiority, but it can also be interpreted as an Arabisation of non-Arab products or an appropriation of the foreign. Ultimately, however, he is exhibiting and interrogating the mix of culture that he himself is a product of. With a thick British accent and a street style that is completely at home in the uber-cool district of East London where he lives and works, Hajjaj is a product of the West and the East and he embraces both sides. As we talk, he takes a call from Morocco, immediately shifting to the street slang of his home nation and then, after lunch – a salad and a beetroot juice from the vegan café across the road – Hajjaj tells me about his shop.

“I didn’t plan it, it just evolved,” he says. “I opened it as a studio, meeting place and a shop but really it is a place for me to connect and keep up contact with people. The way it has developed makes me think it has a personality of its own.”

 Hassan Hajjaj. Eyes on Me (2000) Image courtesy of Hassan Hajjaj.

Hassan Hajjaj. Eyes on Me (2000) Image courtesy of Hassan Hajjaj.

But that personality is actually an extension of his own. The shop has an open, friendly atmosphere making you feel immediately at home and also dazzled by the myriad influences simultaneously at work. Arabic script is found in all corners of the space and in some images, even filling the frames of his subjects. In the 2006 work Feetball, Arabic lettering is embossed onto Lego-like blocks slotted into the elaborate frames. But like all the other script in his work, Hajjaj is not interested in meaning. He is instead interested in what the combination of letters, colour and graphic design means for us in the age of globalisation and how that can be used to connect rather than divide us.

Rather than placing emphasis on the text, he prefers the visual signifier of the Arabic lettering. It is part of his culture placed within a Western consumerist format. His work is the fusion of both cultures, which overall favours graphics over meaning.

I end our conversation by asking what word he would choose if he had to photograph only one as a portrait. He said it would be love. Love, the most universal emotion and one that unites us all. Ultimately, no matter what cultural or linguistical differences Hajjaj is exploring in his work, it is this answer that is most revealing about his practice.

 Hassan Hajjaj by Jenny Fremont. Image courtesy of Hassan Hajjaj

Hassan Hajjaj by Jenny Fremont. Image courtesy of Hassan Hajjaj