| Mathilde Charras | Février 2021 |
Colours surround us. They pervade our daily life, emerging from nature, ordering our reality, so much that we forget their symbolism and to what extent they are a construct. Nothing natural about colours then? Let us have a look at the long occidental history of colours and their presence in art. A closer look at the photographer Hassan Hajjaj’s work and his relationship to colours might help us shift focus to go beyond this western scope.
Palimpsest of colours
Without being quite aware of it, we associate colours with realms of our reality’s grasp. Colours are moral and immoral, they express feelings, facts or political sympathies. One can notice the intimacy existing between colours and concepts through colloquial or historical expressions. How natural it is for us to say that someone is “red with anger”! Our young minds have not yet forgotten that the communists were referred to as the “red peril” throughout the 20th century.
What we might have forgotten though, is that colours are ambivalent. Their symbolical meaning shifted several times in history, often influenced by religious revolutions and societal constructs. Therefore, when we associate a female new born with the colour red, we are ignorant of its traditional scope of representation: blood, war and fire. Red is worn by soldiers, whereas blue is the colour of the Virgin Mary. It is not until the Protestant Reformation, with its praise of humble and discreet colours, later seized upon by the bourgeois morality, that one can witness that shift and blue started to become a rather masculine colour – if such a thing even exists.
Colours’ symbolism is as fascinating as it is overwhelmingly deep. In two paragraphs, it seems the main question has not been asked yet: what is colour? As familiar as this word might seem, a proper definition is hard to find. Burying oneself in the dictionary, the following explanation emerges: colour is “an attribute of things that results from the light they reflect, transmit or emit in so far as this light causes a visual sensation that depends on its wavelengths”.  This scientific definition inherited from Newton, underlining the relationship between light and colour, still allows interpretation.
Michel Pastoureau, a French medievalist historian, considers colour, this “attribute of things”, to be a mental category; namely, a concept. In order to feel their existence, to perceive their nuances, one does not need to see colours. One can imagine them and feel their texture through words. That is how an adult blind person is deemed to have the same colours’ culture than a sighted one. The historian concludes from this statement that any intellectual interested in colours needs to withdraw from the only realm of “vision” to study them.
Following his instructions, it is now time to address colours’ omnipresence in our written culture and representation’s system or how colour can be defined as the new word.
Colour, the new word
Expressing ourselves, telling the world that we belong to humanity and to the universe requires colour. The three first colours ever to be used to paint and dye clothes were black, white and red. An attentive reader will find them at the heart of many mythologies, folklores and tales. Among them, the fable of the fox and the crow pictures a black bird, losing a white cheese for having listened too trustfully to a red fox. And one could go on.
Tales were told before they were written and that is why this colourful triad subsists for so long as until the 19th century and the Brothers Grimm. Their primitive symbolism, black meaning darkness, white daylight and red industry – blood, fire, tools – is still pervasive in our modern societies. It is yet interesting to realise that a division, introduced by Newton’s light spectrum, occurred in the arts and in the history of arts, leading black and white to become the ugly ducklings of colours.
It is not until Edouard Manet, that one can see black reintroduced as a rightful colour, its use previously considered as soiling the other colours. The 20th century and cinema played a specific role in uplifting black and white among artists, while still contributing to their isolation from other colours. François Truffaut for instance declares that colours distract the viewer while black and white unify. Art means transformation and to work with black and white poeticises reality.
Colours and artistic expression are truly intertwined. But this occidental focus fails to grasp the depth one can find when picturing colours’ symbolism and omnipresence. The Anglo-Moroccan photographer Hassan Hajjaj, best known for his unique use of colours, helps us to put this understanding into perspective.
Hassan Hajjaj, the clash of colours
A full-length portrait emerges from a frame made of daily-consumption items. Cans and bottles draw our attention to the picture, as an opening door to fine art. The clash of colours fills the spectator with its catching energy. When asked about his relationship to colours, the photographer Hassan Hajjaj immediately links it to his childhood spent in Morocco. The bright light, the sun and the gentleness of the climate induce people to wear colourful clothes as to match the surrounding nature.
Having lived in London since he was twelve, he noticed how colours were there pushed aside and used with precaution. When shooting people, he includes himself into the backdrop, immersing himself into a colourful horizon, sharing the energy he asks his model to give. “What I focus on is body language. It’s like cinematic, as if my picture was a scene extracted from a movie. It’s about capturing people’s energy. Coming from Morocco, people are not afraid of clashing colours. And shooting in London to recreate that is my escapism”.
Escapism from the grey day but ownership felt by the artist and his models. Through colours and through friendship, together they “take [their] own orientalism back”. The model and the photographer, sharing the same roots, discard the often fantasist intervention of a third western party. And yet, Hassan Hajjah has been compared to Andy Warhol as he was accessing the western art world. Even if he turned this patronage into something positive – a clothes label called Andy Wahloo, which cheekily means “I have nothing” in Arabic – it is quite puzzling that this need of appropriation still exists. Especially when Hassan Hajjaj’s colours and pop are the very expression of Morocco’s modern culture and society.
If colours have become his signature and his way to express how Morocco is his “world in Technicolor”, Hassan Hajjaj also works with black and white. When he shoots in colour, he always slips black and white rolls in. When asked why, he replies that he is a “huge lover of black and white because it succeeds in capturing time. Colour is more about celebration, black and white is more about time and texture”.
Let us celebrate together then, and feast our eyes upon such colourful delights!
Once lockdown is over, you can discover Hassan Hajjaj’s universe in his studio and shop in London: Larache Shop 30-32 Calvert Ave, Shoreditch, London E2 7JP.
 Collins Concise English Dictionary © HarperCollins Publishers
 Pastoureau, Michel, « Des goûts et des couleurs avec Michel Pastoureau », sur France Culture, série présentée par Laure Adler du 23/12/2013 au 27/12/2013. https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/hors-champs/des-gouts-et-des-couleurs-avec-michel-pastoureau
 Truffaut, François, Entretien avec Jacques Chancel, Radiographie, 17 mars 1978.
 Interview by Mathilde Charras, 28/10/2020