In 1960s Larache, Morocco, a young Hassan Hajjaj and his family would get dressed up and head downtown to the photographer’s studio. It was a ritual they’d perform every so often for his father, who at that time was living in London, England, to make sure he had an up-to-date snapshot of his wife, son and two daughters. ‘I always remember that,’ Hassan reminisces, ‘the studio, the lights and the smell.’
This, he says, is what initially inspired him 30 years later to start his My Rock Stars series of photographic portraits, which is being shown in an exhibition for the second time ever in Doha this month.
Studio shoots are something he’s been doing since 1998-99, he explains. ‘For me, it was interesting because I see myself as the next generation where I’m lucky to be able to travel and to be able to take a picture of my friend in London from Brazil, or if I’m in Paris I can take a picture of my friend from Nigeria,’ Hassan says. ‘It captures my friends at that moment and also this new generation where we’re all sort of moving around.’
He calls them his ‘rock stars’ because ‘it’s also people who live by their code,’ he tells me. ‘All of them are not mainstream. You’d normally think, Rock star: long hair, leather jackets and a guitar, but I wanted to change it around so it could be a local person from a local area or the henna girl, or the snake charmer or the boxer or a singer or a fashion designer.’ These are mainly people who stay true to themselves, like Hassan himself.
‘They live what they believe in,’ he says. ‘They have a certain freedom and what they do is their lifestyle as well… they might not make it mainstream or make money but they always live by what they believe in... They’re all doing something from their heart.’
The finished results are brightly coloured portraits using mixed media to present a fresh, contemporary style of art to an increasingly globalised world. Hassan not only takes the photos but he also directs, dresses his subjects and makes their clothes. He then tops it off by constructing a frame out of various objects such as plastic mats and Coke cans.
His work is reminiscent of 1960s pop art but it’s been brought straight into the modern world with influences from the Middle East and North Africa. The pieces, while vividly paying homage to people Hassan has met, seem to raise questions about the role of consumerism and globalisation too.
Merging such profound concepts with an eye-catching and fun style is a talent Hassan has taught himself over the years. ‘When I was growing up I wasn’t doing photography,’ he explains. ‘But later on, as I was growing up with my friend who is a professional photographer, I started to meet a lot of people who are photographers. Then I bought my first camera and [my friend] showed me how to use it. Technically, I’m not brilliant, but it’s more about trying to capture images.’
Because that is his passion and Hassan finds inspiration everywhere he turns. He lists influences right through from photography to hip hop videos and Chinese martial art films. When asked what inspires him on a day to day basis, he says, ‘You know what… every day, touch wood, Alhamdulillah, it really is different.
‘It could be anything from a song or food. It could be travelling, Morocco, because I’m designing and I’m looking for fabrics and I’m seeing the artisans. Every day there is something going on in that kind of way and regularly I have to pinch myself to say how lucky I am to be in this position because I know it’s not easy out there.’
When I speak to him he’s in London, where he’s been living ever since he was 14 years old. His attitude is calm, relaxed and he talks easily in his cockney accent even though his life is obviously very busy. He’s also working on Volume 2 in the Rock Star series for an exhibition in Los Angeles, US, as well as two other shows in New York City, another photography project on stylish potato pickers in Morocco, and he’s just finished working on a documentary and another musician series film.
With so many projects in the pipeline and so much more to offer, I ask Hassan what he thinks his mission is as an artist. He laughs. ‘I don’t know. I suppose do what I normally do, stay true to myself and try and share the work around the place.’
Hassan also hopes that this current exhibition allows the public to discover his muses and realise their talents. ‘I feel like I’m travelling around with my friends and putting them up all around the world,’ he says. ‘I just hope that people enjoy the show. It’s fun and you get to see another layer of people that don’t get seen in the mainstream.’
The exhibition will run from Sep 4-Oct 24. The Gallery, Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, Education City (4402 0555).