Hassan Hajjaj Turns Moroccan Clichés Into London Cool

Hassan Hajjaj Turns Moroccan Clichés Into London Cool

Selling flowers in Camden Market, then clothes, while also promoting underground club nights and working on film shoots and fashion shows, Mr. Hajjaj became a utility player in the emerging London bohemia of immigrants’ children, fed on reggae and pirate radio, that produced bands like Young Disciples and Soul II Soul. His clothing label, R.A.P., sold streetwear before that was a fashion category. His Covent Garden shop was a central-city hangout and haven from the ambient racism and class hierarchies of the time.

“In the ’80s you have to remember that London was just starting to blend,” Mr. Hajjaj said, in the North London accent he acquired on arrival. “We all came from different backgrounds. We had to create something to find our space.”

Simon Baker, the director of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie — and a former Londoner himself, previously curator of photography at Tate Modern — said that Mr. Hajjaj was a quintessential Black British artist, in the expansive usage of that time. The retrospective, Mr. Baker said, “tells the story of someone with London street knowledge, network, and background, but who is also very passionate about where he came from.”

Yet it took many years for Mr. Hajjaj to think of himself as an artist.

“I didn’t think I was worthy,” he said. “I had all these friends who studied art, music, fashion, who prepared themselves, who were technically very good. I just took pictures. It was more to hang out with people, to listen to music and create a mood.”

By the time he started showing his photography, in the mid-1990s, he had reconnected with Morocco, following a trip in 1993 to take his daughter to meet her relatives. Even among the London set, Morocco evoked tedious stereotypes — “caftans, hashish, camels,” Mr. Hajjaj said — that irritated him. What he found was the place he remembered, at once ordinary, with its canned goods and fast fashions, and vibrant according to its own cultural mélange.

“I wanted to show my friends that we have something cool,” he said. “And that I suppose is what started me entering the art world.”

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