London artist Hassan Hajjaj was born in Morocco, and returns regularly to photograph the vibrant street culture of his native city of Marrakech. He’s gained a reputation as the ‘Andy Warhol of Marrakech’ for his artistic mashups of trans-national brand logos and traditional Arabic clothing and settings. Like Warhol, he enjoys sticking a finger in our expectations, while exposing our prejudices and vulnerabilities to propaganda. His photographic series ‘Kesh Angels’ , (‘Kesh being an abbreviation of Marrakesh), generated significant media attention, and led to a full-length film, ‘Karima – A Day on the Life of a Henna Girl’ (the trailer can be seen below).
When it debuted in 2011, news outlets breathlessly reviewed the exhibit, but inaccurately described the subject as ‘Moroccan motorcycle girl gangs!’ The truth according to Hajjaj is more prosaic: “Most of the bikes [in the photos] are their own bikes, Marrakech is really a bike city, everybody rides them – young kids, men, women. It’s a feast for the eyes, you’ll see a woman riding with a sheep behind her and her husband behind that, or 2 guys with a big sheet of glass between them. An inspiration for me was Kerima, a 3rd generation henna painter in the main square, who rides her bike back and forth to work every day. She speaks 4 or 5 languages, works 8-10 hours a day, raises two kids, and built her own house.”
Hajjaj riffs on multiple layers of Moroccan culture, from traditional African portrait studios (such as Malick Sidibe and Jean Depara) to Pop art use of soda cans and extensive appropriation of designer logos on definitely non-designer clothing. His mashup of bad-girl attitude with luxury-branding on their veils and djeballah (head-to-toe coverings) certainly pokes fun at stereotypes of Islamic women, as well as the current trend of women riders self-promoting on Instagram. What does it take for a girl to be cool? In Marrakech, just as in LA, it’s all about a motorcycle.
The trailer for ‘Karima – A Day on the Life of a Henna Girl’