In Conversation With Moroccan-British Artist Hassan Hajjaj

Hajjaj in his London studio, 2013
Hajjaj in his London studio, 2013 | © Jenny Fremont. Courtesy Hassan Hajjaj
Culture Trip

Landing in London in the ‘70s, Hassan Hajjaj remembers his arrival as “grey, depressing, sad, lonely”. Now he celebrates London as a place where “foreign people feel freedom”. Hajjaj discusses the culture shock of arriving in London, dropping out of school at 15, and the persistent problem of racism. This interview is taken from Thames & Hudson’s London Burning: Portraits From A Creative City, a celebration of Britain’s capital and creative hub.

Where were you born?
In Larache, Morocco; it’s a small fishing port.
And you landed here at the age of thirteen?
In Angel, in 1973. I came with my mum and my sisters. My dad was here from the ’60s. My mum and my dad had no education so they can’t read or write. My dad came here to work in a kitchen, because then it was easier to get a contract for foreign people to do day jobs. My mum also worked in a kitchen in a hotel.
Close your eyes and think back to age thirteen. What do you remember of London?
Grey, depressing, sad, lonely. I didn’t speak English. We lived in one room, seven of us, with no bathroom. Also, coming from Morocco where it was all sunshine, I grew up by the beach, barefoot, had all that freedom… To have that taken away and be put somewhere else at that age was a bit difficult. Everything was new.

Hassan Hajjaj at his shop near Arnold Circus. Photograph by Robin Friend

Not friendly?
No. This was back in the ’70s; it wasn’t as easy as it is now. London wasn’t as mixed, and people made you feel you were a foreigner.
Are you still a foreigner after all these years?
I feel I’m not British, but I’m a Londoner.
What does it mean to you to be a Londoner?
We had to create our own village within a city. My first friends were foreign and coming here they had the same journey as me. So we had to create a place where we were gonna hang out, the music we wanted to listen to, the kind of food we wanted to eat. Which became, I suppose, a melting pot. Now the influence from my background and my friends’ background lingers in music, fashion, food, art, because we were the first generation that came at a young age.
So you made a home and a life out of creativity?
Well, by the time I got to fifteen I stopped going to school. I didn’t take exams so I got zero qualifications. That was hard. So I was coming out from school and trying to find my path in life.
Did you get into trouble back then?
A little bit. I had a problem with my dad, I moved out of the house, I had problems with drinking and experimenting with drugs, lived on the street. It was a strange time. A lot of my friends got in trouble with the police; some went to prison.
Did you get stopped by the police?
No, touch wood. I learned at a young age that I can be invisible to the police.
There’s a great deal of talk about racism being tackled or addressed in London. Do you feel that is actually happening?
Racism is always going to exist.

Hassan Hajjaj out and about in Camden Lock, the neighbourhood he thinks of as home. Photograph by Robin Friend

How did you end up being an artist?
I left school, I worked in Woolworths, I worked in a timber yard, I worked as a gardener on Hampstead Heath – that was probably my favourite job – and then I was unemployed for about six years because I couldn’t find anything I wanted to do. Within that six years I started doing Camden Live at the weekends. That’s when I started getting involved with the underground clubs, organising parties. Then I planned a store in Camden, and from there I found a shop in Neal Street in 1983, just before it became trendy.
What role did creativity play in that process?
When I was doing clubs, it meant I had to find an empty space, I had to redecorate it to make a backdrop, I had to put the DJs on, audio equipment, do the doormen, the cloakroom, so that was teaching me production and also to work in a team. Then when I got a shop in Covent Garden, Ron Arad had a shop two doors away, and then you had the hat shop, the bead shop, the music shop, the card shop, the comic shop, which meant people came from all over England for this street. I was the first fashion shop there, before it became trendy. That period of time was my university.
How did you get into the music, art and fashion scenes?
I started designing a label of my own, R.A.P., in 1984. The first person who came to borrow stuff was styling a shoot. I started assisting him for catwalk shows and photo shoots. My friend Zak Ové had just started to do videos, so I would do locations and get people, working behind the scenes. Then I started doing art shows in my shop. I had a record shop in the basement. It was in this golden time when London became a club culture. I was at the forefront with the rest of the people that started around that time.
In ’92 the recession came. I closed the shop; then I had a warehouse, then another shop, and then I started going to Morocco regularly in ’93, and my daughter was born. There was that kind of bridge to what I’d left behind. My idea was to do a body of work, so I was also going to New York and fusing New York with London. I wanted to show something from my culture, I suppose Arab culture, in a cool way to turn my friends on. I’d done this body of work thinking this was gonna be a one-off thing, and it was the first time I signed my own name; that was a bit difficult. My first show was in Marrakesh in 2000. Pino Daniele (he’s a big singer in Italy) bought a piece, and about six or nine months later he called me up and said, ‘I want to use your image for my album cover.’ I made a deal with him, so then I went to Italy to do a launch. When I was sat there I thought, Hold on. This has been about a year, I’ve done so many pieces, I’m here in Italy, maybe I should start this a bit more seriously. So I’ve worked hard to prove to myself first that I could be comfortable to say I’m an artist.
What is it about London that makes it special as a place for germinating creativity?
London is a place where foreign people feel freedom. They can be anybody, and they feel like everybody else. If you took everything away of what foreign people put here, London would be a sad place. Obviously for me the city’s changed; it’s become a bit harder, and sometimes a bit unfriendly.
How so?
Well, it’s bigger, it’s divided a bit, it’s more rich and poor, it’s lost that village feel. I call it a ‘grinding city’. As soon as you step out of the house, it’s expensive
As a creative crucible, how would you promote this place? We’re talking about creativity as being a kind of explosive force, right?
I’ll give you an example. Look at fashion. We have a big industry here, but all the designers have had to go to Paris because the government don’t back up the arts. So for somebody from Morocco, to fight to be part of London and to be accepted in the establishment, that’s even harder. The government are trying to take more from people than help out.
Recently you’ve had some success in New York. If you were offered a lot of money, would you move there?
No. I could go and spend time there, but I don’t know if I could live there. I’m Moroccan, a Londoner. I’m a misfit in both countries; I’ll always be a misfit to a certain degree.

London Burning Cover

London Burning: Portraits from a Creative City by author & editor Hossein Amirsadeghi, executive Editor: Maryam Eisler, is published by Thames & Hudson, £58.00 hardback.
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