African art in Dubai

British-Moroccan artist tells us the idea behind his wacky creations

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‘My first experience with photography was in the ’60s, when I was a kid living in Morocco with my mother and sisters,’ explains British Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj. ‘Every two years we’d visit the town’s local photographer so we could send a family portrait to my London-based father.’ These visits ingrained in Hajjaj the importance of photography and why he feels it should be preserved. ‘Seeing the camera and props used in the portrait marked my childhood, and I recall anticipating every visit to the photographer’s studio,’ he says.

Now, the desire to recreate that studio has become his life’s work. His ongoing project, ‘My Rock Stars: Volume 1’, has been over a decade in the making. The 51-year-old photographer, fashion designer and artist, who grew up in both London and Morocco, has spent the past 13 years creating pop-up studios on the streets of London, Paris and Marrakech in order to shoot fellow artists. His friends, dressed in outfits Hajjaj made from scratch, feature with found objects in environments that he says ‘best suited them and were the most natural fit to their character’.

According to Hajjaj, achieving this harmonious relationship involved venturing into the landscapes with which his subjects most identified, and shooting them well within their comfort zone. ‘Instead of shooting in a studio, using the street and natural lighting puts the subject at ease, giving way to more uninhibited spontaneity. It could almost be categorised as a form of guerilla contemporary art – not quite street art, but typical to contemporary art forms,’ explains Hajjaj.

Luckily for Hajjaj, it just so happened that he had a colourful friends list to work with: his images feature British fashion designer Joe Casely-Hayford, a Moroccan musician by the name of Cisco (though not the same delightful chap who sings about thongs), and two masters of traditional West African folk music. The photos are on display at The Third Line until Thursday October 18.

It’s the astonishing colour of the images that immediately jumps out, a trait that Hajjaj attributes to his roots. ‘Culturally speaking, Africans are very colourful people: the fashion, the landscapes and the history all reflect vibrancy and brightness of colour as an important attribute to our daily life. I feel it’s necessary to introduce colour into our world to awaken creativity among artists and people,’ he explains.

Fashion design is one of the ways that Hajjaj feeds his own creativity. ‘One of the reasons why this project took so long is because each individual’s outfit was one of my bespoke designs,’ he says. He informs us that old parasols were sourced to create Joe Casely-Hayford’s outfit (above left), while an old Coca-Cola kaftan acquired from the souk was dyed to fit his vision for one friend (above far left). ‘It’s an important part of the work I do, because it reflects a part of me and, to the best of my ability, part of the subject,’ says Hajjaj. Suffice to say that as well as artist and fashion designer, Hajjaj should surely be considered a rock star himself.

The Lowdown

Exhibition: ‘My Rock Stars: Volume 1’ until October 18 at The Third Line, Al Quoz 3 (04 341 1367).
Artist: Hassan Hajjaj.
Price of works: From Dhs29,000.

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