A Moroccan artist helps us navigate the inspiring maze of shops, galleries, and restaurants in the heart of Marrakech.

Photographs by Michael Hanson

Growing up in Morocco in the ’70s, we recycled everything. We could pay the rent, but we weren’t rich. My mom used to empty out condensed milk cans, add a handle, and turn them into coffee cups. My sisters and I would create our own games. When we had plums, we’d use the pits and some Coke bottle tops to play gambling games. Or we’d find bamboo cloth and make kites. Or we’d collect seashells and try to sell them to tourists. We were always creating something with friends.

Old Jewish Quarter (Mellah)

Spices in the Old Jewish Quarter (Mellah).

When I was 13, I left my home in Larache, Morocco, and my mom and my two sisters and I moved in with my dad in London. By the age of 15, I had left school and entered the real world. I worked at Woolworths and at timber yards. In my early 20s, I opened a shop on Neil Street in London’s West End and started selling clothes made by friends and by labels from New York. I was also running underground clubs with DJs and painters and filmmakers. I was always around people who made or produced fashion, music, and art.

I didn’t return to Morocco until the early ’90s. Visiting Marrakech after being away for years was like falling in love. All of a sudden, I was staying there for three months at a time. It offered me something both very traditional and very modern. I bought a riad [a Moroccan house built around a courtyard] in the Medina with some friends and started living there.

The art pieces I made after I moved back were inspired by my earlier trips. When I went to visit my aunt in Tangier, I started picking up rubbish like I used to do as a kid. I’d pick up tomato cans or shampoo bottles. I lined shelves with soda cans and turned them into frames for the photo portraits I took of people from different subcultures in Morocco. I also made furniture from found objects. I took an old plastic Moroccan Coca-Cola crate and turned it into a seat with a Louis Vuitton cushion. Soon I was creating entire installations from found objects. It was all very pop and fresh.

Riad Yima in Marrakech

Hajjaj’s staff always welcomes visitors to Riad Yima with a cup of mint tea.

In 2000, I showed my work at Ministero del Gusto, a showroom and gallery in the Medina. At that time I still wasn’t sure if art was my career. It was just a body of work that I wanted to show friends. But I sold quite a few pieces. A musician from Italy bought a piece and asked if he could use it for his album cover. Two years later, I bought a place where I could live and work. I now have a shop on the ground floor for people to visit and have tea. It’s called Yima, which means mum [mom].

In the last five years, the art scene here has gone into overdrive. People are coming to Marrakech, sniffing around, looking for that gem hidden amongst the stones. Many international people from the art, fashion, and music worlds now live in the Medina, but it’s still the heart of Marrakech. It’s a certain way of living. Life as an artist isn’t always easy, but it’s definitely exciting if you live in the Medina.

Hassan Hajjaj on where to eat, shop, and play in Morocco’s Medina. 

This appeared in the August/September 2014 issue.