Hassan Hajjaj’s new exhibit, Kesh Angels, at Taymour Grahne brings the vibrant street culture of Morroco to New York. Starring a gang of young biker babes, the photographs feature women in traditional Muslim garb who modernize the aesthetic with high fashion branding. Think Louis Vuitton hijabs, technicolor djellabah, and Lolita sunglasses on some fierce-looking ladies who ride. Adorning these women are frames created from used soda cans, Moroccan packaging, and other everyday objects. The downstairs installation, which also features limited edition items and furniture designs by Hajjaj, is stunningly constructed from recycled tires, Coca-Cola crates, and branded objects. An array of hand-painted salon-style portraits depicts Hajjaj’s neighbors, friends, and celebrity acquaintences. Combining Western symbols with Muslim dress, the photographs challenge preconceived notions of Arab women and Morocco. We caught up with Hajjaj, who splits his time between London and Marakech, to ask him a few questions about his striking work.
Why is your show called Kesh Angels?
I played with the name of Hells Angels—changing it to Kesh Angels—Kesh being short for Marrakesh.
Is Marrakesh a city where everyone rides motorbikes?
Yes. Marrakesh is really a bike city, everyone rides them. Women, kids, old men, families, everybody. It’s transport, it’s really used for work. Seeing these photos with the bikes tends to give you a different sense of the city, how people get around, the energy.
Is it true you design interior furniture and fashion as well?
Yes. I began working between fashion, music, and art. I had a fashion shop and I used to work with fashion photographers and videographers. 19 years ago I began creating these design installations, and then twelve years ago I created the interior design for a restaurant in Paris, and there is another I collaborated on in London and in the UAE. Years ago, I was working on a fashion magazine photo shoot in Marrakesh in the when I realized everything—all the models, the photographer, the clothes—were from the West and Morocco was simply the backdrop. 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. Today I do photography and I build installations, furniture, and permanent restaurants. It is all connected. I work with local artisans in Morocco, which is important to me because it is giving back. Normally with art you aren’t supposed to touch or sit on it, but I like making things that are interactive.
Why did you choose to work with women in this series?
I’m impressed with their strength, and really aim to show their independence as normal.
You also incorporate lots of brand logos in your fashion designs. Can you tell me more about this?
Moroccans have a strong sense of tradition and we are a very colorful nation. I designed the outfits, these traditional Moroccan djabellas and abayas and babouche with traditional prints and knock-off brand-name fabrics from markets in London and Marrakesh. For all their lightness, I like working with brand logos as both a reflection of my mixed cultural reality—growing up in Marrakesh and moving to the UK—and also to comment on our consumption-focused culture. Our reactions to these symbols really speak to the power of the brands to pull people in. It is also in part from my background in fashion. I wanted to show my side, my story, something that spoke to my friends and my experience.
In the frames of the photographs you reuse branded objects such as soda cans. When did you decide to start doing this?
I have been doing this for many years now. I use products or objects I find in markets: cans of Fanta, tins or boxes of chicken stock, etc. This came from when I was growing up in Morocco as many things are recycled to be re-used. 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.
I heard that when you were growing up in Morocco you were only able to have your photo taken a few times in a professional studio. Did the setting of studio photography influence you?
My first impact with photography was as a kid in Morocco. No one had cameras, so your mom would dress you up, and you would go to the studio with a backdrop, something like the settings I make or in a cowboy outfit on a plastic horse. This was my first experience, going into the room with the lights.
You also draw from influences such as Melik Sidebe. What other contemporary photographers do you like?
Melik Sidebe for his studio work, David La Chapelle for his brightness, and also Bresson, Cappa. My influences are from fashion and everything. I didn’t study art, so I had to learn somehow. My learning was going to galleries and looking at books. My influences comes from being between Morocco and the UK, with experience running parties, doing music videos, fashion, and fashion shoots. I am expressing my side.
Are you working on any upcoming projects?
Yes, I am working on my first documentary film project and have some design projects this fall that I am working on too. You can see my work in New York at Taymour Grahne Gallery and I also have a video installation at LACMA.
Kesh Angels runs at Taymour Grahne until March 8th.