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Morocco’s Biker Girl Gangs Featured In Colorful New Doc

Artist Hassan Hajjaj’s “’Kesh Angels” film showcases the badass women that are breaking gender stereotypes in the Middle East.

Kesh Angels, by Hassan Hajjaj. Courtesy of Taymor Grahne Gallery

Images of Middle Eastern women in the media from the last few decades fall into two stereotypes, either dutiful housewives or victims. This cramped worldview, however, leaves very little room for the reality of their rich and vibrant lives. Moroccan photographer and filmmaker Hassan Hajjaj set out to shatter these misconceptions with his celebrated Kesh Angels series, which debuted in 2014 at the Taymor Grahne Gallery in NYC. Through stunning, technicolor images of Marrakesh’s “girl bike gangs,” he paints a more complex vision of contemporary Islamic gender roles. Now, after spending two more years on an accompanying documentary project, Hajjaj will unveil A Day In The Life Of Karima: A Henna Girl at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), as a major feature of LACMA’s ongoing Islamic Art Now programming. In it he follows one of his favorite “angels” Karima, who is known for breezing through Marrakesh on her bike with her vibrant veils and textile abayas and djabellas fluttering in her wake. In addition to being a local icon, Karima is also a normal woman who works eight or ten hours a day. She is also an artist, wife, mother, and graduate of what Hajjaj calls “Jamaa Fena: the university of street life.”


Berlin-based writer and GOOD contributor Nadja Sayej, who interviewed Hajjaj in 2014 for Vice explains the “real” ‘Kesh Angels: “They’re not ‘real big gangs,’ of course. The girls are the artist's friends, who usually paint henna tattoos on tourists in the main square; but you still wouldn’t want to run into them in a dark alley. These girls are tough, speak up to five languages, and are full-time moms who work ten-hour days.” The series, and now the doc, is a redefinition of what it means to be a “badass” woman—it’s not just bling and bikes, but also living life to the fullest, taking on stereotypes while being true to oneself.

Kesh Angels by Hassan Hajjaj. Image courtesy of Tayme Grahne

Hajjaj will also celebrate Kadima’s fearless spirit at LACMA with an accompanying music video by Koma, which recently made an appearance on OkayAfrica.

Hajjaj’s Kesh Angels series was first inspired by a photoshoot he did several years back. “I was working on a fashion magazine photo shoot in Marrakesh in the 1990s when I realized everything—all the models, the photographer, the clothes—were from the west and Morocco was simply the backdrop,” Hajjaj told Vice. “From then I said it'd be great to present my people in their environment in their kind of way of dressing, and play with it on a fashion level.”

Kesh Angels, by Hassan Hajjaj. Courtesy of Taymor Grahne Gallery

Recruiting friends, artists, and many of the “biker women” so ubiquitous in Marrakesh’s cycle-friendly streets, he set forth building a theme and technique that he felt best represented his view of Marrakesh. Once he shot the images, Hajjaj built “frames” using everyday products and packaging, which included chicken stock boxes, cans of Fanta, and colorful tins. Hajjaj explained, “This came from when I was growing up in Morocco, as many things are recycled to be re-used, and this has somehow come into my work. I wanted to use the repetition of labels in a slightly humorous context, often directly relating to something happening in the photograph, but I also wanted to create a repeated pattern in the frame to evoke the mosaics of Morocco in a modern context.”

A Day In The Life Of Karima: A Henna Girl will premiere May 13th at LACMA’s Bing Theater.

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