Karima: A Day In The Life Of A Henna Girl – Interview with Hassan Hajjaj

Brittney & Marina Iordan, Art Radar, July 15, 2015

Art Radar speaks to the London-based Moroccan artist about swagger, escapism and the theatre of life.

Following the world premieres of Karima: A Day In The Life Of A Henna Girl at LACMA and Art Basel, Art Radar delves into the mind of the astonishingly versatile artist Hassan Hajjaj.


Bathing in trip hop beats intermingled with Arabic lyrics, henna-adorned hands perform the morning routine of dressing into multiple layers of colourfully printed clothes. Then, the hands grab the handles of an equally colourful motorcycle, and along with ‘the crew’, ride through the narrow streets of Marrakesh.


The hands belong to Karima, a recurring protagonist of Hassan Hajjaj’s (b. 1961, Larache, Morocco) pop photographs whose characters step out of their static form to narrate the film Karima: A Day In The Life Of A Henna Girl. At the crossroads of documentary and B Movie, Hajjaj’s first film takes us to the Jemaa el-Fnaa market place in Marrakesh, where Karima, her aunt and assistant Anouar spend their days interacting with tourists and locals alike, painting henna on their bodies while discovering the strangers’ lives and telling their stories in return.


Art Radar speaks to the artist about the photographic works that first catapulted him to fame and his recent forrays into film.


I remember reading about the start of your photographic career: you were assisting at a photoshoot in Morocco and realised that the models, the photographer and even the clothes were foreign to the country. So you set off on a colourful, photographic journey to reveal your homeland. Would you say your practice is a homage to your country and its people?

Partly that, but also the fact that I am coming from a very colourful country, with colourful people. If you look at Africa and the Caribbean, where I have travelled and been influenced, and growing up in England and living in its greyness, my work was in a way escaping from myself, like a Pandora’s box of colours to escape to. Although I am a big fan of black and white pictures, my works came out very colourful and clashing, because I only listened to my mind and my heart when it came to colour combinations.


Your work weaves between installation, performance, fashion and interior design, including furniture made from recycled utilitarian objects from North Africa, such as upturned Coca-Cola crates as stools and aluminium cans turned into lamps. What leads you to experiment with so many different media? Which are you the most comfortable with?

I think it’s because I am not good at any of them! I didn’t study any of them. If I had been trained in all these techniques, I would probably spend much time analysing them and would end up working differently. What I do is trial and error. The recycled work dates back to when I was growing up in Morocco; it was natural, it was there and I didn’t have to think about it – it just happened along the way. It gives me joy to be able to work with metal, wood, fabric… When I see a table, I think how it probably had three different people working on it and that journey tells me something about my culture, about myself, about people.


Photography, on the other hand, is my love. It’s [a form of] escapism and something that I am more in control of, although it took me a while to get to that point because of the different aspects over the years that I ended up putting together. So when people tell me that I have an identity in my work, it’s probably because of all of these elements that cross each other.


An incredible energy emanates from your photographic portraits, not only through colours but also through the characters’ strong auras. How do you choose your subjects and how do you achieve this intensity in your photographs?

It definitely has to do with the people. If you look at the characters I’ve shot over the past years, you will realise that they all do something in their lives that is more than money or fame, whether they are a boxer, a henna girl, a belly dancer, a fashion designer… They have a passion, they have the swagger and I think that’s the reason they inspire me. Growing up in London, I had a lot of people around me with this energy – friends I grew up with and later I shot as part of “My Rock Stars”. Once you have a person in front of you that oozes this kind of energy, by dressing them up or allowing them to wear their own styles, the strength of their personality instantly comes out.


Besides strength of character, what else do you think makes for a strong portrait?

Most of the characters I have shot could easily be actors, because they have these theatrical abilities. For example, the henna girl is dealing with people on the street the whole day so she has this personality; she already brings something to the table. I try not to make the photographs too fashionable, because they are about people and the outfits are secondary to me. I am trying to find cheap garments and dress them up to look like the past, now in the future.


Do you usually photograph your friends and acquaintances? Or have you also really admired someone and sought to meet and photograph them?

Normally, it’s friends of friends of friends. It always starts this way. Then there are people I really look up to that I want to photograph. When I approach them, I am like a little kid in a sweet shop and get all nervous and surprised when they say yes to me. I was particularly nervous to shoot Mustafa Bakbou [a renowned Moroccan musician] and Khadija El Ouarzazia [leader of Bnet Houariyat, a six-women band from Marrakesh] because I am a huge fan.


The major part of your movie Karima is set in Marrakesh’s Jemaa el-Fnaa, defined by you as the ‘University of Street Life’. Why did you choose this particular location?

Because it resembles a theatre full of people playing roles. Karima is the henna girl, but there is also a snake charmer, a monkey man, a storyteller, a belly dancer… And then there are people coming to the square from all over the world, which means the local characters have to react. For example, if you are from Spain, they will speak Spanish to you; so in a way they are acting in a local theatre. Also there is information that has been passed on for centuries in the square. Some of its people can’t read or write but they master five languages.


In the movie, Karima reveals that her henna business started in the square in 1998. Is this where you met her? Tell me about your first encounter with her and the characters surrounding her.

I met Karima when she was 14 years old. I used to sit in a café in the Jemaa el-Fnaa and she was a little girl running around selling things to tourists. There was just something about her. Later on she started doing henna, at a time when I used to organise a lot of parties in Marrakesh and invite my friends from Europe. When somebody asked for a henna person, I would call her. Time went by and a friendship started forming. As I was taking pictures, she understood my madness.


Anouar has been around on and off for a long time. When he was about ten, his mum asked Karima to keep an eye on him and have him help out. So he started running errands for Karima. When Anouar got into his teenage years, he decided to stick with Karima who taught him the practice of henna. He has been in a couple of films as an extra, such as Hideous Kinky (1998) with Kate Winslet. Besides him, there is a small group around Karima – girls she brings around if they want to learn henna.


You said in an earlier interview that you wanted the focus to be on Karima, not on you. What made you choose her as a protagonist?

I’ve shot Karima in photographs from 1998 up until now. I’ve seen her grow up, getting married, having kids. And today she is still in the square; in fact, she is the third generation to be there. So I thought… what a great character to be my film star! It was also the opportunity to stand on the side and show people why I am attracted to this character – her energy, her strength. Over the years, I got questions about the veil, religion, politics. But for me it has always been about people first, whoever they are. Karima was the first person to bring this out, showing the richness of her character and how normal she is. People go past the veil, the tradition. They see this woman and her group of people working as artists, in a sense.


The pop dimension and colourful playfulness of your photographs is perfectly translated in Karima. Did you feel like it was important to keep the same tone, transitioning from photography to film? How did you find a match to your style when it came to selecting the soundtrack?

I wanted to include my trademark in the film and create a bridge for the people who knew my work, between the photographs of great characters and the same protagonists in motion. The music was very important for me – it mixes traditional sounds with drum and bass, reggae and hip hop, which bring a certain street element. I wanted to have something with roots from my country, but also something that could be worldly, a sound that people hadn’t heard before but that would still be warm to the ear.


The Karima track came naturally and was composed by Komy, a friend of mine who is a rapper. I shot him for the ‘My Rock Stars’ project and he came by my riyadh [traditional Moroccan house with an interior courtyard] when I was doing the interview with Karima. I asked him to compose a song by inserting sounds from the square into his beats. An hour later, he had the track down.


Your film was shot in a day and a half. How long was it in the making?

Most of the outdoor scenes were shot in a day, from early morning until late night. The second day, I shot the beginning of the film, when characters are in their homes, getting ready for their day. The idea of the movie was born a couple of years ago, or even more in a sense. Then it just had to do with timing. Once we agreed with Karima, I spent about two weeks working on the camera composition, borrowing material, selecting outfits. As it was a documentary, I wanted the film to keep going, without any stop and repeats.


When shooting your photographic series “My Rock Stars Experimental, Volume 1” in 2012, you designed the sets and styled some of the subjects yourself. Was this also the case in Karima?

In “My Rock Stars Experimental”, certain people had their own flavour and I just added sunglasses, and a hat or socks. But I did design about 80 percent of the outfits. In the movie, all that Karima is wearing is hers, except for the shoes and socks. For Anouar and the aunt, I did not touch anything, whereas the girls in the background are wearing clothes I designed. So it’s really about blending reality with fantasy into an indistinguishable madness: you wouldn’t know what is set up and what is true.


From the Art Radar website.