In the 1990s, Hassan Hajjaj assisted on a magazine photo shoot in Marrakesh when he had a realization: All the models, the photographer and even the clothes were from another country. Morocco, the country he grew up in, 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," he says in an interview on NPR's Morning Edition, "and play with it in that fashion way."
So Hajjaj began photographing his friends — savvy, smart women who live and work in his neighborhood in Marrakesh — for his playfully titled photo series "Kesh Angels." He photographs them dressed in veils and traditional robes, called djellabahs, poised atop motorcycles and smiling behind stylish sunglasses.
He says he combines the influences around him, including hip-hop, motorcycle culture — and the friendly, familiar feel of brands like Fanta and Nike — to introduce viewers to the less-familiar sight of Marrakesh bike culture.
According to Hajjaj, motorcycles are just another part of life in Marrakesh. Everyone uses them to get around, including the women he photographs.
Hajjaj, who moved to London as a teenager, attributes his visual style to nostalgia for the place he grew up: Bright, contrasting color, bold textiles, and even the brand repetition around the frame, which he says is a nod to Moroccan mosaics.
"All those elements I take and try to rebrand them," he says. "I'm just highlighting my culture with the bike culture."
Hajjaj's work is currently on exhibit at the Taymour Grahne Gallery in New York and the Gusford Gallery in Los Angeles. His other work will be housed at the Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visual Art (MMPVA), opening in 2016. MMPVA will be the biggest photography museum in Africa, according to Hajjaj. He is one of 10 Moroccan photographers whose work was chosen for the MMPVA collection.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The new photo exhibit "Kesh Angels" is on view in New York City.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Think of the images sort of like "Charlie's Angels" - women in glamorous clothes.
INSKEEP: Or like Hell's Angels, the biker gang.
MONTAGNE: Though the women in these photos are not exactly like anything you've seen. They are Moroccan women in Western clothing brands on motorcycles. Here's NPR's Leah Scarpelli.
LEAH SCARPELLI, BYLINE: Morocco has always been a place where outsiders come for inspiration or escape. From Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca to William Burroughs to Crosby, Stills and Nash.
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SCARPELLI: So Moroccan English photographer Hassan Hajjaj wanted to show the view from the inside. He recalls working on a shoot in Marrakesh.
HASSAN HAJJAJ: All the models were either German, French or British. The photographer was, you know, from the West, the clothes, everything. And I was like, wow, they're just using, you know, all this trip as a backdrop. From then I said it would be great to present my people in their environment in their kind of way dressing and play with it in that kind of fashion way.
SCARPELLI: In his photo series, "Kesh Angels," young women pose in traditional Moroccan robes and veils made of eye-popping polka dot and camouflage fabrics. Some wear Luis Vuitton slippers or heart-shaped sunglasses. Many of them are friends of the photographer who work in Marrakesh's main square painting henna on tourists.
HAJJAJ: On their hands, arms or feet, and they all wear veils and they all wear it an exotic way to attract the tourists with the eyes and the see-through veil. And they're very sharp, very street, very wise.
SCARPELLI: And they pose with motorbikes. Hajjaj has been asked if these Kesh Angels are a real biker gang like the notorious Hell's Angels. He says definitely not.
HAJJAJ: Marrakesh is actually a bike city so you get everybody using them, from young kids, old women, old men. So I'm just highlighting something that's actually there.
SCARPELLI: Hajjaj is part of a growing art scene in Morocco. He splits his time now between London and Marrakesh.
HAJJAJ: I can feel the day differently from there to London 'cause you have the morning sunlight, the midday, the afternoon, the early evening, so you can feel the day. Where in London sometime, you know, if it's gray, it could be 10 o'clock or 3 o'clock in the afternoon. It's like one tone.
SCARPELLI: "Kesh Angels" is in New York through early March. It's one of two shows Hassan Hajjaj has in the U.S. right now. The other is in Los Angeles. Leah Scarpelli, NPR News.
INSKEEP: You can see photos that pay tribute to Marrakesh's biker culture at NPR.org. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.