Moroccan-born, London-based artist, Hassan Hajjaj is best known for his “Kesh Angels” series, a collection of photos and collages centered around a fashion-forward motorcycle gang of women in Marrakesh. Hajjaj’s portraits, which started in Marrakesh in the ‘90s, have been instrumental in debunking Western notions of Muslim women as disempowered or alienated by modernity. As a gang of sartorially savvy entrepreneurs, the Kesh Angels counter those generalizations. His subjects wear traditional djellaba, head scarves and veils fashioned in modern fabrics and bold patterns. Their styling is a collaborative effort led by Hajjaj’s garment creations and finished with pieces from the women’s own collections.
In his latest body of work, a documentary entitled “Karima: A Day in the Life of a Henna Girl,” Hajjaj delves even deeper, allowing the viewer to step inside the lives of the women that grace his stylistically saturated portraits. The focus of the seventy minute film is Karima, a thirty something -year old woman who spends her days in the bustling Jemaa Fnaa square in Marrakesh’s old Medina district designing henna art on tourists and locals alike.
Despite what political conversations may be floating around in the viewer’s head upon seeing his stylized artwork, with Karima, Hajjaj keeps the approach simple, offering an organic view into his subject’s life. Karima is religious, and she praises God with ease in conversation. She rides a motorcycle out of necessity for navigating the Medina’s narrow passageways. Like her friends, she has a love of fashionable fabrics in bold prints and modern styles. Hajjaj’s representation of Karima in portraiture is far more sensational than the day-to-day. The strongest depictions in the film are of the subtle highlighting of the globalization of Moroccan life that Karima experiences on a daily basis. Other than her native Arabic, she speaks three languages, which helps her communicate with tourists. She makes friends with people who live all over the world and wears Western-inflected fashions, but Karima remains a proud Moroccan who says she’d never live anywhere else. Hajjaj’s film isn’t designed to ask big questions, but rather give a glimpse into the sometimes culturally conflicting reality of this Muslim metropolis.
This May, Hajjaj premiered Karima at the Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA) as part of its ongoing “Islamic Art Now” exhibit, a collection of works that draw connections between traditional forms of historical Islamic art and present forms within the Middle East and its diaspora. The FADER was in attendance for the premiere and the post-screening Q&A, in which Hajjaj fielded questions about the film’s production and Karima talked about allowing the world see her life up on the big screen. Here is an edited transcript of that discussion.
LACMA: How did the documentary come about? HASSAN HAJJAJ: The series Kesh Angels was taken around the late nineties and Karima was one of the first people I took the images of and she’s been doing this [Henna] for ages. The word “Kesh Angels” is taken from Hells Angels. It’s a play on words with “Kesh” coming from Marrakesh. This has been an ongoing work [of mine] since ‘98.
How long did it take to shoot the film? HAJJAJ: We spoke about it for a while. We had to figure out all the shooting but it took about two days to shoot. One day in the square. We started very early. God bless them, they came out at about seven in the morning, and we shot quite late. The next day we shot the opening scene in the morning and then went back to the square.
Is this what you expected to get out of the film? HAJJAJ: I got more out of it. I’m not a filmmaker so this was new territory for me. On a documentary you can’t script. You have to just hope. Then I was trying to add my flavors to the film to make it more of a B Movie/documentary, that’s what I was hoping for. I grew up on movies like Easy Rider. I wasn’t making a movie for the mainstream. I wanted to make something that looked cool and to do it with music as well from [Moroccan rapper] Komy.
Karima, how did you feel about Hassan making a documentary about your life? KARIMA: Extremely happy. HAJJAJ: With Karima we had been working at it since the 1990s, so this is a trust thing. This is something I approached her with maybe ten years ago. It was really a matter of getting to know each other, building a friendship and then it happened from there.
In the Kesh Angels series, you designed a lot of the garb that they wore. HAJJAJ: Yes some of it is costume. The costume Karima was wearing—that djellaba—I asked her to wear that. Her auntie wore her own clothes. I kind of mixed it up. The influence, you can see where it’s coming from. The slippers are all mine. The socks are from the market there so it’s something people wear anyway. [The slippers] was really the only thing Karima wore from me. The veil and the scarf, we spoke about it, but she has great textiles to chose from.
The film is literally a day in the life of Karima. It’s a very long day. It starts early and goes very late? KARIMA: What you see is a very normal day. The length of the day doesn’t matter because I have a good attitude towards being there and doing a good job. The day depends on the time of year. In the summer, you are there from about nine to two and then come back at six and work until midnight because Jemaa Fnaa square is extremely lively. HAJJAJ: What you have to understand is that Karima’s life is connected to the square. If you spend time there you know it is very vibrant. It is the heartbeat of Marrakesh. The women sit together, have visitors, but there is a kind of beauty in being together.