Moroccan photographer and filmmaker Hassan Hajjaj, who you may recognize as the man behind Kesh Angels, a portrait series of Moroccan women looking straight pimp on their mopeds, is shedding more light on the fierce ladies of his home land in his soon-to-be-released documentary,Karima: A Day in the Life of A Henna Girl. This time, Hajjaj focuses on one woman, Karima an artist, mother, and full-time businesswoman adorning the hands of millions who pass through Marrakech’s, Jamaa Fena. Regarded as a graduate from the University of Street Life, you get to follow Karima and her crew rolling deep through the beautifully walled city, cell-phone in hand, looking Moroccan street-chic. Curious about Hajjaj and his latest project, Milk Made’s Karenna Insanally spoke with the director to discover just where the heart of Marrakech lives, as well as learning about its most extraordinary asset—Karima and her peers.
You’ve been spending some time in the states. What’s been on the agenda?
Well I’ve been here about two to three weeks. I had to do a talk in Ohio, and then I had a talk at Newark Museum where I had a workshop and a show. And I love New York, so now I’m here just for hanging out.
It’s a common belief among Westerners that Islamic women do not have much power when it comes to expressing themselves, and being independent. How does Karima, the subject of your film, who is a strong, multi-faceted, woman subvert this notion?
I’ve got my mom, aunties, sisters and lots of women around me that are from a different culture, and religion if you want to put it that way. For me, it’s interesting because I’ve lived in the West, so I understand the mentality the West has when it comes to someone from an Arab country, or African women, or Indian women. I was trying to highlight this and show that women from my background are just as strong as any from around the world. They have husbands, sons, brothers and they have to work. It’s all sort of fused in one. Karima is a strong character. She’s an artist in her own right, and a lot of my work has been focused around me telling the story, so this time I wanted to step aside and introduce one of my characters. You get to spend a day with her, and to see what inspired me and attracted me to a strong woman like this.
You describe Karima as being a graduate of the University of Street life.
Basically. Djemma el-Fna is the square where she works, Jen Ma means gathering of the square is eternal, and the square has been there for hundreds of years. It’s a meeting place where people swap stories. There are snake charmers, and monkeys, there’s food, orange juice, story tellers, boxing, and music -it’s like theater. The square is the heart of Marrakesh to me and it’s on the street, so these people that work there have a role. Whether they’re a snake charmer or a henna girl, they have to react to different people coming in trying to make a living. So through this they learn a lot about people, it’s like the world comes to them. Some of them come and learn to read and write, they learn different languages, they learn the psychology of different people, from Italian people to French people, to the local Moroccan people of different cities. It’s like a street life. If you say there’s hip-hop street life in New York, or there’s street life of reggae in Jamaica, this is kind of the equivalent of that. It’s about life on the streets, so I look at it as university.
Fashion is a large part of your work. Was Karima totally self-styled?
Karima wears all of her own stuff. All the main characters do. I wanted to keep everything real. I didn’t want to confuse the audience about what’s real and what’s not real.
What do you find special about a Moroccan woman’s sense of style?
It changes, believe it or not. They have a fashion sense that has to do with the sun, the light and texture. It’s a very colorful country, and the winter looks change from the summer looks. People might not notice it because we’re used to Western clothing, but in any country whether it’s the sari, or a Nigerian woman’s head wrap, there’s a style to these cultures. We just oversee this because we’re interested in Gucci and all that stuff.
You’ve been creating for a while now, how do you think you’ve grown as an artist?
Well I think I’m always trying to learn and I’m always trying to push. But after a piece of work comes out you really start to learn about yourself. I’ve gained confidence, and I’m progressing and always trying to make something better than the last time. This film is hopefully better than the last film I’ve done. I also try to play around with different mediums that I’m not technically good at, that way I can eventually stop being scared of them.
What do you have planned next?
I’ve got a couple of things coming up. I have a solo show, next year at Taymore Grahne during Frieze time, and then I have one in Dubai. So I’m working on these projects basically, and shooting/filming little projects in between.
How do you hope viewers will react to Henna Girl?
To see the film and see these people like any other people around the world and maybe if they’re coming from a different culture or religion I want them to oversee the veil and oversee the kind of stuff that people have this fear about and just get into the characters. If I can get that towards people I’ll be a very happy man.