Veiled women gesture boisterously from behind their motorbike handles. Geometric patterns dizzy the eye from toe to veil. Handmade frames advertise “Helwa” and “Target” from the re-used packaging of canned food and boxes. With so much going on, it’s hard to look away from Kesh Angels, the striking 2014 photo series by Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj.
Kesh Angels pays tribute to the young, female biker culture in Marrakesh, Morocco. “Because of the old medina, everyone really needs a bike to move around in Marrakesh. You have women wearing traditional clothes on them, women in modern clothes on them, even kids and old men and women,” says Hajjaj.
On May 13, 2015, Hajjaj followed up by revealing his latest project: a feature-length film that dives into the world of one of his muses from the Kesh Angels series, a henna artist named Karima.
Premiering at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Karima: A Day in the Life of a Henna Girl follows a typical day in Karima’s life as a henna artist, painting intricate designs on customer’s bodies as decoration for weddings and other special days.
“I’ve been shooting Karima for 16-18 years. I wanted to present her to the world,” says Hajjaj. “A lot of my subjects are my neighbors, people that I’ve known, or friends of friends—people who know my work and trust me,” he says.
The photography in Kesh Angels is elaborately constructed: Hajjaj designed the outfits himself, shaping contemporary knock-off designer prints into traditional silhouettes, and working with local artisans to produce the found-object frames. But Karima breaks somewhat free from Hajjaj’s virtuosic aesthetic control.
“With photography, it’s all staged: you do the set up, you know the location, the cast, what they’re going to wear, and the color composition you’re going to create in the picture,” says Hajjaj. “But with film, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Perhaps as a result, Karima also goes beyond Hajjaj’s usual fierce poses and quirky clothing and straight to the skin, focusing on the sophisticated craftsmanship behind Karima’s creations. “Normally people don’t think of much of henna, but henna people have been doing it for ages,” Hajjaj says. “Karima is an artist.”
Karima: A Day in the Life of a Henna Girl will be next shown at Art Basel in Switzerland in June 2015.