Hafid Lalaoui’s Portland
by Chris Busby
“I got slapped by God,” Hafid Lalaoui said with a laugh, recalling the accident that brought him to Portland almost 20 years ago.
The Moroccan-born 69-year-old came to America in 1980 to study photography at the School of Visual Arts, in Manhattan. A gallery show in Casablanca of Hafid’s street photography had earned him some recognition and caught the attention of administrators at the college, who offered him a full scholarship. He earned a BFA in photography four years later.
When Hafid arrived in New York, he thought the plane had landed in the wrong city. He and the five other African artists he was travelling with thought everyone in America was tall and blonde, with blue eyes. The city’s diversity was the first of many culture shocks he experienced.
The son of an itinerant trader, Hafid grew up during a tumultuous time in Morocco’s history. Its people were rebelling against the French and Spanish, who controlled the country through separate protectorates until 1956. He remembered seeing a lot of soldiers as a child, “bullets and fights, kids running in the streets.” In addition to Arabic and Berber, Hafid learned French growing up. He picked up English on the fly in New York, and speaks it well, with a heavy accent and a smoky tone that his many Portland friends love to try to imitate.
After graduating from the School of Visual Arts, Hafid got jobs in New York working as an assistant to commercial photographers, and continued to document street life in his spare time. (Selections from a series he did on Chinese gambling dens were published in The Café Review, a Portland-based journal of poetry and visual art.) Hafid got to meet some of his idols, like the Beat photographer Robert Frank and rock portraitist Art Kane. But more significant connections were made among the anarchist squatters on the Lower East Side, who successfully took over several abandoned tenement buildings in the late 1980s. Allen Ginsberg was a spiritual (and, sometimes, financial) supporter of the squatters, and he befriended Hafid, who lived in the tenements at the time. “He always would give me 10 bucks, five dollars in my pocket,” he said of the poet.
To escape the heat of summers in New York and make some extra money, Hafid raked blueberries around Machias and other Washington County towns in the early 1990s. The lifestyle suited him — it wasn’t that different from life in the squats; workers cooked and lived together with few comforts or possessions. In the late summer of 1997, rather than return to New York, where the weather was still stifling, he and a friend decided to pick apples for a couple weeks. Hafid was high up in an apple tree when the windy hand of God gave him a swat that sent him crashing to the ground, badly injuring his arm.
“My accident actually was a blessing,” he said, because it brought him to Portland for medical treatment. “It was sleepy and dead, like nothing going on,” he said of his first impression of the city. “Then I discovered the Free Street Taverna.”
That’s where I met Hafid, in 1998. As we sat for this interview over beers at Congress Bar & Grill — a block from the old Taverna, which closed a decade ago — we recalled the regulars in that bohemian scene: the painters Paul Brahms and Mike Libby, photographer Jim Merrill, poet Steve Luttrell (the editor of The Café Review), filmmaker Gary Robinov, and many other artists, actors, musicians and writers.
This was a fertile period for the arts in the Forest City. Unlike today, there were actual art galleries in the Arts District, and a variety of small venues for live music, spoken-word poetry and stand-up comedy. But the Taverna hosted it all, and the synergies and energy this confluence of creativity spawned still radiate through the city today, like the light of a distant star.
Hafid got a job making custom black-and-white prints at the photo-processing shop Portland Color, but the growing popularity of digital photography ended that gig about 15 years ago. He’s since made a living doing odd jobs, mostly house painting and light carpentry. An early attempt to set up a squat in a vacant West End apartment building failed after about two weeks, when the owner discovered evidence of the trespassers (Hafid and his friend, the journalist Autumn Phillips) in a second-floor unit and had the fire escape town down, thus eliminating their means of egress and access to all their stuff. In addition to the lack of galleries these days, Hafid sees the unaffordability of Portland’s rental market as a major barrier for artists.
Hafid has boxes and boxes of negatives and contact sheets for photos he’s taken in New York and Portland, but aside from a show at the Taverna years ago, and a recent exhibition of his Moroccan photography at the Congress Street nightclub Blue, he’s never exhibited his work here. That’s mostly because it costs money to get prints made and framed, and Hafid isn’t much interested in money. For example, he could pursue commercial photography to earn a living, but this self-described anarchist doesn’t dig the idea. “I don’t want somebody to give me money to do the photography that they want,” he told me. “I want to do the photography that I want. So that’s what it is.”
Hafid’s influence on Portland’s arts scene is unique in that it isn’t based on his art, but rather on his attitude. His seemingly bottomless bonhomie and enthusiasm for fellow visual and performing artists (Hafid also plays Moroccan fiddle) is like a sparkplug that prods others to motor on through tough times. During periods over the past 10 years when I’ve felt beaten down by the pressures to keep this publication afloat, the jolt of enthusiasm from a chance encounter with Hafid helped me appreciate how important it is to keep the spirit we felt back in the Free Street days alive.
“A city without art is a dead city,” he said. “Art gives soul and character to any place.”
Hafid has been back to Morocco for visits many times over the years (he has dual citizenship), but he recently decided to return for good. I’m glad to have known him, and honored to share some of his Portland photographs with you in these pages.
Farewell, old friend. And thanks for 18 years’ worth of inspiration.