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The Motorcycle Gang Girls of Morocco

Everyone says Copenhagen and Amsterdam are bike cities, but what about Marrakesh?
18 February 2014, 7:00am

Everyone says Copenhagen and Amsterdam are bike cities, but what about Marrakesh?

London-based Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj tapped into the bike culture of Marrakesh in his latest series of photos, Kesh Angels, on display at the Taymour Grahne Gallery in New York until the 8th of March. Hassan’s version of Hell’s Angels comes from a personal tale: He once worked on a photo shoot in Marrakesh in the 1990s. Everything about the shoot was foreign – the photographers, the clothes, the models. Nothing was actually Moroccan.

The artist’s latest shoot can be interpreted as a response to what should have happened back in the 1990s: a super pop North African photo shoot with everything that nods to local tradition fused with a twist – from the polka dotted abayas to the camo djellabahs. The photos here capture Moroccan girl bike gangs with smug looks, intimidating sneers and badassness short of a rock video.

They’re not “real big gangs”, of course. The girls are the artist's friends, who usually paint henna tattoos on tourists in the main square; but you still wouldn’t want to run into them in a dark alley. These girls are tough, speak up to five languages and are full-time mums who work ten-hour days. I spoke with Hassan about bike culture in Marrakesh and his definition of badass.

VICE: How did you come up with the idea to photograph your friends this way?
Hassan Hajjaj: I've been working in this way for years now. I want to show something particular to Marrakesh, and to show that even though we have different cultures and religions, we share a lot in common as people. There's a group of women who work painting henna in this main square in Morocco that's popular with tourists. One I know, Karima, was an inspiration for this series. She wears a veil and these really amazing textile abayas and djabellas and also rides a bike to work and back – she's a normal woman who works eight or ten hours a day. She speaks about four or five languages, is a housewife to two kids and built her own house.

It feels like a North African fashion shoot, did you want to honour your roots with style?
I was working on a fashion magazine photo shoot in Marrakesh in the 1990s when I realised 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.

What is the bike culture like in Marrakech? Generally speaking, do bike gangs even exist there? How big are motorbikes?
Marrakech is really a bike city; everyone rides them. Women, kids, old men, families, everybody. It's transportation; it's really used for work. A few of the bikes in the photos are from friends of mine we borrowed, but most are their own bikes. There are no real bike gangs.

**Are your friends often dressed this way? Are these badass, colourful outfits easy to find? ** Moroccans have a strong sense of tradition and we are a very colourful nation. But I design 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. I also build the frames for the photographs using products or objects I find in markets: cans of Fanta, tins or boxes of chicken stock. This came from when I was growing up in Morocco, as many things are recycled to be re-used, and this has somehow come into my work. 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.

What was the goal of this shoot and what was the best moment of shooting this series?
I'm impressed with their strength and really aim to show their independence as normal. If these photos were taken in Paris or Rome, I imagine I wouldn't be asked what is so unique about women’s biker culture.

If you had a bike gang who would be in it?
My gang would include women like you see in this series; women who just naturally have this strength, swagger, freedom.

Click through to see more of Hassan's photos.