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Hassan Hajjaj’s exhibition “Kesh Angels” at the Taymour Grahne gallery is full of vibrant furniture, photographs, and traditional Arab clothing, mostly designed by the artist himself. Documenting his international array of friends, Hajjaj captures the spirit of Moroccan women fabulously clad in Louis Vuitton headscarves and custom made kaftans, riding on motorbikes, and looking seriously cool. We caught up with the multi-talented artist to talk about his new series.
WHITEWALL: Did you design all of the interior and furniture?
HASSAN HAJJAJ: The rugs are from Ethiopia. The Coca-Cola crates I’ve been using for many years. In Africa people sit on them. So I wanted to update these things and give importance as a seat and play with brand names, as well. I’m playing with a lot of Arabic graphics and calligraphy. You can read that it’s Coca-Cola even though it’s in Arabic. I got the old stop signs and transformed them into tables and changed the color scheme. I wanted to do something new and semi-recycle these items. The photos are hung salon-style. I hand-painted the photographs. It’s sort of like a family portrait album. They aren’t actually family, but you know.
WW: Who are the models?
HH: Well, for example, this guy right here makes my lamps. This woman is my neighbor in Marrakech. I’ve known all these people, so it’s personal. The frames are made out of motorbike tires, and I hand paint them as well.
This was another body of work. The dolls are only sold wearing western clothing, and I wanted to make an Arabic couture doll. I used the brand label scarves and made Kaftan outfits. I did the motorbike from West Africa. The girls on bikes are a limited-edition.
WW: You also do the fashion design for the models.
HH: About 90% of the clothes in the images I design. If someone has a certain style, I try not to touch it as long as it has the same spirit as my work. But I always have a semi-plan and then see what works best.
WW: Do you plan the color schemes?
HH: Growing up in England, I studied color. This should go with this and so forth. Then I realized that in Morocco, because of the economy, people clash colors. So sometimes I do that, I’m not scared to clash colors any more, but there is a kind of thought behind it.
WW: I notice that you use women in this series.
HH: The title of the show is “Kesh Angels.” Kesh is short for Marrakech, so it’s kind of like the Hells Angels of Marrakech.
I always get asked, “Did they really ride the bike?” I want to show that that Arab women are not passive, and that they can ride bikes. I want to address the misunderstanding of Arab women by journalists who misconstrue them because of religion.
Because I’m living in Marrakech, everyone rides bikes – young kids, women, and old people. Some wear western clothes, and some wear traditional clothes. I want to keep it more to do with tradition and about sharing power. It’s staged, obviously. I play around with textiles from different countries and elements.
WW: I read you’re inspired by traditional African portraiture.
HH: I’m a big fan of Malick Sidebe and that school of photography. Growing up in Morocco, I didn’t have a camera for 13 years. We had to go to a studio. I probably only have five pictures from that period. We would stage the pictures with cowboy horses and such. That was my first taste of photography, studio photography. I’m from another generation and I’m being scattered around. I have a lot of friends around the world, so I want to document them. I add my design and get my friends to pose. It’s a personal journey, and I’m trying to keep the studio style alive. Even to put the pictures up, I’m trying to frame them in a new light and make it contemporary.
“Kesh Angels” will be on view at Taymour Grahne through March 7.