Photo: Hassan Hajjaj, Toca Feliciano, 2011, Metallic lambda print on 3mm dibond, 39 5/8h x 53 1/2w in / 100.5h x 136w cm
Born in Larache, Morocco in 1961, Hassan Hajjaj remembers there were no cameras growing up, only two or three photographers in the town; one had a studio and the others were downtown with the cars and horses. During our conversation, he finds a portrait with his mother and sisters, and holds it up, saying, “It all started with this photograph. We had to dress up and go into the studio, wearing our best clothes then end the photo out to everyone. You can see the backdrop, lighting, sitting, standing—this is the first thing that stuck in my mind when I started doing studio shoots of my own.”
In 1973, Hajjaj’s family moved to London. It was culture shock. He remembers, “Europe in the ‘70s isn’t like it is today. It was difficult. I didn’t speak the language. I was a bit of a misfit. I had a different culture, a different rhythm of life. It took some time to get used to it.” Along the way, he picked up the camera. By the late 1990s, he began taking portraits. He began setting up shoots outdoors at street level, guerilla style, incorporating the backdrop into the design. As time went on he began to refine his subject to the people oh his world, the artists, musicians, characters, and friends in his circle collected in Hassan Hassaj: My Rock Stars currently on view at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, TN, through September 4, 2016.
The exhibition includes a series of portrait photographs and video installation, My Rock Stars Experimental, Volume I (2012) that spotlights nine characters that captured the artist’s imagination. Each of these people is someone close to Hajjaj, representing the new generation of which he is a part. He observes, “I’m documenting a moment that I am a part of as well. It’s about being there, and putting out the work. These are the people I have become friends with. They are characters I go around with.”
In a world where news breaks at the speed of light, there is now a growing sense of the global identity. Fusing North African, Arab, and British sensibilities, Hajjaj brilliantly blend of luxurious elements every step of the way. Beginning with his subject, Hajjaj carefully conceives of every aspect of the piece, including the creation of the clothing, the backdrops, and the frames. But it is not just this attention to detail that distinguishes Hajjaj, it is his eye for patterns and the color palette of his native land. By incorporating African fabrics, global luxury brands, and bold patterned backdrops into each work, Hajjaj evokes the spirit of the African marketplace and the African photo studio at the same time.
“The response has been positive—it has been overwhelming. When I started this I never imagined any of this. My friends are hanging with me in a museum as well. It’s the character in the pictures that speaks to people. I’m not using models. I’m using real people and you can feel their energy and their spirit. The world has changed. It’s really mixed up, and there are many different cultures. It helps people to see themselves in the work.”
Indeed, each of the photographs becomes an archetype all its own, a spirit made flesh then translated back into the world of art. The photographs, printed on metallic lambda paper are over four feet high and three feet wide, imbuing them with the presence of a modern-day icon. We are introduced to figures like “Helen, the Venus Bushfire” and “Mr. Tolliver”, each one a mystery, like the figures in a deck of Tarot cards. The mystery of My Rock Stars is in the singularity of Hajjaj’s heroes, and the lengths he goes to honor them, offering us the opportunity to share and delight in the beauty without and within.
All Photos: Courtesy of Hassan Hassaj, the Newark Museum, and Taymour Grahne Gallery, New York.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.