One look at your portfolio, and it’s clear how much inspiration you draw from people’s faces. However, in pieces such as ‘Holy’, you’ve decided to cover the face entirely. What was the inspiration behind this?
I have different issues I address with different approaches. My portrait approach, ‘Embrace the Face’, is about creating visibility and showcasing a distinct face which is lacking in the mainstream discourse about beauty and desirability. For me, the portrait format is the visual embodiment of identity. My piece ‘Holy’ is part of my ‘Namus’ series, which is a metaphorical approach to gender narratives within the Afghan community I grew up in. ‘Namus’ is a concept which describes the honour of a family, or male family member, and often includes female family members as vulnerable objects – the property of a collective identity. You can attack the Namus of a family by simply questioning the modesty of its female members. What I tried to visualize is this patronized and also idealized idea of female virginity and sexual modesty – so instead of misusing an image of a female face or body to symbolize Namus, I decided to visualize Namus as what it is – a cultural construction, artificial and imposed on the human body. This series is inspired by the work of my sister Zuhra Hilal, who is a fashion designer, and created a collection on Namus.
Your work is semi-autobiographical. How has this affected your understanding of your identity? You’re also currently studying the Middle East and politics in Hamburg. How would you say your art informs your studies (or vice versa)?
On one hand, questioning identity within my art, but also in my academic work at university, greatly helped me to understand and reflect upon myself and my family background. On the other hand, my personal experience with racism and sexism forced me to question the basic ideas and concepts of our society, and these conflicts were the foundation of what I expressed in my art. There is a dialectic between my personal experience and my artistic and intellectual examination of identity. I understand for myself that there are many collective dynamics, history, economics and politics involved in the construction of who we are and who we can become. I follow the idea of Stuart Hall, who described identity as becoming and being, as a fluid process which can be intentionally controlled but also unconsciously influenced.
I don’t have any authentic or original cultural roots – only plants have roots.
You mention in another interview that you are interested in the concept of hybridism. What is it about hybridism in people that fascinates you? Do you feel that way about yourself? Is it possible to point to one integral moment that inspired you to explore these themes in your work?
I grew up in a family who fled war from Afghanistan, migrated to Europe and faced racism. There was always a struggle with identity, the question, “How can we conserve our identity from back home for our children, and at them same time adapt the new social dynamics of this new home? What is essential and must be conserved, and what can be unlearned?” People start to declare random aspects essentially Muslim or Afghan, and another aspect suddenly symbolizes the Western culture or the imperial hegemony, and must be rejected. At the same time, colleagues try to measure how German or Oriental you are, as if there was a racial essence in any of these artificial collectives. This simple binary division of culture and identity in “white Western” cultures and “the Rest” has a lot to do with colonialism and western imperial protectionism in the global south. Hybridism, on the contrary, is a theory which describes how adopting ideas is not the process of copying an idea, but making it to your own, combining it with your own set of abilities, and contextualizing it within your reality. Phenomena like modernism or knowledge production is never a monolithic process caused by one source, like the European enlightenment, but a global dialectic process, affected by many different people at the same time. Ideas and concepts travel and change. Europe doesn’t own rational thought – there is not only one definition of feminism or freedom. That means I am not split between two worlds, because my parents left one place and moved to another. There are more realities than two. I don’t have any authentic or original cultural roots – only plants have roots. I am an individual who is capable of moving, and so can be affected by any culture and any environment, depending on where I live.
Your illustrations are in black and white. What is the reason for this?
Oh, it is really simple – I like minimalism, black ink and complicated patterns.
Your style has been described by Kajal magazine as being “somewhere between graphic novels and more naturalistic portraits.” In what way has your style evolved over time?
I started by adapting different styles which were close to realistic drawings or minimalist comic art to prove to myself that I could choose any style. I ended up drawing like I do now, because this style felt the most natural to me. I could emotionally relate to the patterns and repetitive elements like the big eyes, hair structure and even the crappily drawn fingers.
What was the collaboration process with Birk like? Do you plan to do similar work in the future?
Lukas Birk, who travelled to many countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, found many negatives from photo studios and collected them in his personal archive. Many of these photo studios have so many negatives, and they don’t know what to do with them other than destroy them. One could say he saved the negatives and created access to a source of collective history. He donated many negatives to museums and image foundations. Some negatives inspired him to make new projects, like books or huge prints, such as his human-size fashion photography posters in Mahabandoola Park in Yangon, Myanmar. Our art book collaboration was another result, inspired by his archive material. He found me on Instagram and emailed me. When I saw the material, I was shocked at how familiar all these people – their posing, clothing and faces – appeared to me. They looked like the embodiment of my illustrations. And then also the atmosphere, the intensity of their look, their eyes took over my mind. I had to work with the material, and Lukas told me I was free to do everything I wanted – it just had to result in an art book. I decided to respect the original, but also to keep the interpretation as close as possible to the original. The material meant a lot to me – I felt it to be a form of access to a forgotten collective memory of the region. Today, Peshawar is the hot spot for refugees from Afghanistan. We think of the area as a refugee camp, a border zone. But these portraits show a different face of everyday people in Peshawar, from a time before the war. We decided to work on a second book, more experimental, including more material, and also more affordable for a broader audience.
My family, but most of all the media, tended to essentialize and generalize ‘The Afghan’ experience and identity.
Your work has been exhibited in many places – Germany, Denmark, the US, Canada. In 2012, you returned to your birthplace, Kabul, where you painted at Afghanistan’s first rock festival, ‘After Ahmad Zahir’. Can you tell us about your experience returning to Kabul as an adult artist, and what it was like to paint in front of an audience?
I actually grew up visiting Kabul every year as soon as it was possible, because the majority of my extended family and relatives still live there. However, I didn’t see much except for my grandmother, my uncles, aunts and their children – hopping from living room to living room, drinking tea and having huge family gatherings with lots of food. It was always a really restricted, private experience. Afghanistan was first of all and even exclusively my family, and a lot of nostalgia and grief about the loss of what this country was, could have been and now turned out to be. 2012 and the following years happened to be a turning point for me and my relationship to Kabul, because I met other artists, activists and people who didn’t look back, but forward. It was so inspiring and overwhelming. I unlearned self-stereotyping, and learned about the diversity of the society. My family, but most of all the media, tended to essentialize and generalize ‘The Afghan’ experience and identity. I was able to look beyond these simplistic images, and discover new possibilities for myself. I remember telling a friend after this journey that I grew up feeling restricted by my identity as an Afghan female, but now I realize how revolutionary and inspiring it can be. It’s no longer a burden, but a resource.
In 2016, you had a show in Hanover, titled ‘Empathy Won’t Save Us’, looking at art as grounds for social change. How is that happening today? Do you have any advice for artists looking to do the same?
Many problems, conflicts and misconceptions in our societies seem so huge and eternal, but can be way more concrete and obvious when we break them down into different mechanisms and practices. Deconstructing huge monstrosities such as sexism in to language, knowledge production, education, media, work, medicine, etc. can help to concentrate on one field, and start to achieve change in the small steps. I am an artist and I study history and politics in the Middle East, so these are my fields. I realized that what I could do is educate myself, and translate my knowledge into visuals, pop culture and art. There are two approaches in my body of work: first, I talk about the tradition of stereotyping, white-exclusive beauty standards, colonial attitudes in our mainstream/‘malestream’ media. I do this to tackle what already is. However, in my visual work, I also try to create alternatives, instead of reproducing the language society taught me. I want to find a new visual language for my very personal experience, playing with and mixing symbols until I find one. If people find this visual language relatable, and can diffuse their emotions, and find their thoughts expressed in it, I am happy to be useful for a greater cause. However, it is not my aim to please or serve any community, identity or market – in fact, art is a way out of these commitments. The only responsibility artists and public personas in general have is to care about political conflicts and power mechanisms, and to avoid the reproduction of oppression and complicity with the oppressive hegemonies.