x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

My Rock Stars: Hassan Hajjaj's new photography show

Hassan Hajjaj's new photography show is the fruit of 13 years of work, taking a pop-up studio with him on his travels. The results capture a vibrant meeting point between North and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Many of Hassan Hajjaj’s prints feature his signature, brightly coloured handmade frames that are made from common materials, such as tyre treads or soda cans.   Photos courtesy of Hassan Hajjaj
Many of Hassan Hajjaj’s prints feature his signature, brightly coloured handmade frames that are made from common materials, such as tyre treads or soda cans. Photos courtesy of Hassan Hajjaj

It's rare that the otherwise laborious process of getting artwork up on the walls comes with its own live soundtrack. But that is the case, and fitting, for Hassan Hajjaj's new solo show of photographs, titled My Rock Stars: Volume 1, that depict the artist's own, very personal "rock stars".

One of these rock stars, the Moroccan gnawa musician Ma'alem Simo Lagnawi, stands in the corner of The Third Line throughout the install. He thuds his hand and fingers at the gimbri in his hands, his voice raising in rapturous tones: the gnawa is a mixture of African rhythm, chanting and Islamic devotional singing.

Lagnawi appears in Hajjaj's new photographs in a bard's wrap of tassels and beads. Other individuals that have had a significant influences on the artist's life also line the walls of the space.

Hajjaj has spent the past 13 years dragging a pop-up studio from London to Paris to Marrakech and Kuwait to shoot impromptu shots of these people. Many feature the artist's signature handmade frames, assembled out of squashed tyre-treads or tiny shelves of Coke cans and tinned meat, making them small sculptures in themselves.

There's a street-level atmosphere to what he does; a mix of market-bought fabrics from across West Africa, tins of foodstuffs found stacked on street-side stalls and his own design pieces cobbled together in his East London atelier.

The indeterminate haze between the Arab World and Africa sparks a lot of the visual material in Hajjaj's work. Here it is explored further, but on a more personal tip, and the show is a celebration of a generation of, what he calls, "new nomads".

Hajjaj was born in Larache, Morocco, in 1961. "My first contact with photography was in the local studio," he says. "The family would get dressed up and walk to the studio so we could send pictures to my dad who was working in London at the time."

At 14, Hajjaj joined his father in the UK and found a connection with other young people from families who had also newly arrived to England from the West Indies, Africa and Asia.

That connection never really left Hajjaj, and a lot of the people shot for this new collection are "driven by something that's taken them to another part of the world".

The Algerian-born restaurateur Mourad "Momo" Mazouz, who heads up a fleet of high-end eateries from New York to Dubai, is captured on one of Hajjaj's handmade furniture pieces. The French-Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra, in a cheap fez, looks down demurely. There are capoeira masters living in London, musicians, fashion designers, boxers and male belly dancers, many with roots in other parts of the world from where they're living.

Hajjaj talks about the series as "documenting" 13 years of his life through the people he's met and been sparked by.

As inspiration, he returned to his first meeting with photography - the studio photograph - and channelled the works of the great Malian masters of the form, Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta.

Both became famous for documenting Bamako in the 1960s, in the aftermath of the end of French colonial rule in Mali. Their images are of brilliantly ordinary people - a generation pumped on self-belief, cavorting at swinging parties and sporting outright threads.

"In Sidibé's pictures you really feel the people in there," says Hajjaj. "They may be black-and-white photographs, yet the style is amazing and the character of his subjects is captured in them. It's timeless work."

Hajjaj has tried to capture that energy in his portraits by creating a similarly impromptu, public environment found in the Malian masters. The pop-up studio he lugged around for this project was set up on the street - naturally, this attracted a horde of onlookers. "It's addictive, and the person you're shooting can't be shy when they're up there. It breaks a barrier between me and the person in the photograph."

Geared up in Hajjaj's outrageous designs - pink Moroccan slippers and a suit made out of sacks used to cart Daz washing powder, for instance - the tension of that public environment is there in the photographs. It is subtle, but it gives the work some spontaneity and stops them becoming simply staged fashion shoots.

The style and visual aesthetic of My Rock Stars: Volume 1 might not be the most striking departure for Hajjaj. Whether it's previous work shooting biker girls in Marrakech (in their Nike niqabs) or the characters who populate Djemaa El Fna, the same punchy exuberance abides.

But that's not a bad thing. In particular, that meeting point between North and Sub-Saharan Africa is wrought into the image with casual flair. It expresses a fluidity of place and identity that, to some extent, characterises the generation of people Hajjaj has photographed here.

Until October 18 at The Third Line, Al Quoz, Dubai. Open Saturday to Thursday, 10am-7pm. Call 04 341 1367 or visit www.thethirdline.com