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The warm pillow was my mother. The blanket my father. : A Conversation on Intimacy, Home and the Black-Haired Body with Moshtari Hilal

By: Naomi Joshi

Moshtari Hilal is an Afghan-German artist, mostly working in the visual arts and illustrations field. With an academic background in Middle Eastern Studies, Politics and Gender Studies, in Hamburg, Berlin and London, Moshtari was not educated within the artistic sphere, yet has found her space there as a result of her passion and dedication to her artistic practice. Her latest collection of work titled: The warm pillow was my mother. The blanket my father. was her first major solo show, exhibited at Âme Nue, in Hamburg, Germany. In these showcased pieces, Hilal works with the drawn line as a symbol and means of a new visual language that refers to the black-haired body. Her search for a visual expression narrates the sensual experiences of those who exist beyond our aesthetic conceptualizations and their political conditions - these pieces birth a semi-autobiographical, archival, research-driven body of work, which Moshtari describes as a practice of reconciliation with negated beauty. The works within this collection range from large format drawings on paper, to prints on carpets and textiles, as well as collages inspired by the protagonists of her portraits. The carpets in her collection act as this hybrid form between object, sculpture and drawing; they remain unframed, as objects hanging on the wall, making them that much more tangible. The exhibition is rooted in the concept of togetherness, in regards to Moshtari’s family, as an expression of both lived experience and an origin of inspiration. Struggling with the lack of documentation and archiving when it comes to Afghan contemporary art, Moshtari co-created the AVAH (Afghan Visual Arts & History) collective: a long-term, deep research project and website, where you can gain access to the ever-growing Afghan digital archive, and stay informed on upcoming events and artworks. Afghan visual culture is really fragmented because the diaspora encapsulates the largest refugee communities, all around the world. It is thus quite difficult to collect what they’re producing. Along with other qualified art historians and curators, the collective aims to make a publication that critically engages with Afghan visual culture & contemporary art, in a way that does not reproduce racial and normative ideas. Its members intend to build a space where artists can exchange their experiences with international art platforms, museums and curators.

When did you start making art?

I was always drawing. Drawing was such a natural, organic thing for me to do. At one point, I realized that art, particularly drawing, could be a way of communication - something that I could actually practice with other people. After graduating from school, I went to Kabul, Afghanistan for a couple of months, looking for an art scene. At first, I wanted to become a journalist and write about the arts and music scene over there. But I started showing people my drawings and doing some collaborative work. I realized then, that this is something I could keep doing even while studying something completely different. And with time, my artistic practice just became bigger than my academic one.

How does your art allow you to express yourself?

My practice began with writing. But with writing, there is a much more intellectualized process going on when you use certain language. I felt the differences between using the German language versus writing or speaking in my mother tongue: Dari. And drawing or visual culture is something I could use to communicate more easily with my parents and others, especially when it came to expressing certain things that I didn't intellectually understand yet. I learned what it meant to explore something by looking at it and reproducing it in a way - like taking photographs, for example. But then at some point, I also learned that visual culture is coded, politicized, and really selective - the things we are used to seeing as normal, aren’t actually normal, because there is no normal. Visual culture is just as produced as any other culture and language. And when I learned this, I decided that it is even more important for me to draw and to create a visual language that comes from a personal space, because that's what I felt was lacking on both a representational and collective level. There's not much visually done in contemporary arts, about Afghanistan or the Afghan diaspora, or on working class migrant households. Personally, I always felt a lot of shame when it came to certain things like the kitsch of colorfulness, or having a lot of patterns in your home, having a crowded, chaotic atmosphere, having a big family - the way I look, the way my parents do, this came with a lot of shame, mostly because the mainstream, hegemonic culture, which was the German, white society, was framed as the perfect one, the one I should assimilate into. And because there was no way for me to ever fully do that, I always felt we were wrong. Drawing what I was ashamed of helped me find dignity in that. I paid attention and I understood there is a beauty in complicated patterns, there’s a beauty in strong facial features and body hair. If you don't look at it from a commercial, societal point of view, if you look at it as an object and a muse that you could reproduce with black lines on paper, there's a lot of joy in it.

Can you name a couple of artists that speak to you or influence your style? Is there an Afghan influence within your artistic practice?

This sounds quite cliche, but my personal favorite is Frida Kahlo. My love for her stems from her self portraits, her ability to be so bold in the ways she portrayed herself. She never intended to look sexy or cute, there was so much more dignity in her beauty. And also her radical lifestyle, her political beliefs - she is so different from all the other artists I know. I also came across the work of Kerry James Marshall, an African-American painter, who does paintings of everyday life, and portraits of couples, families and individuals from the Black community. Their skin is so dark, really beyond black, almost a different color. And because that is usually the element that is criticized about Black people Kerry James Marshall decided to over-emphasize it, he overdid it, it became this stylistic element, and I see that in my own work too. As you can see, I'm not that hairy. There are a lot of similarities between me and my drawings, but I overdo it a bit, because I want to create a visual style that is recognizable. I don't want to compare myself to him, but I really like that stylistic element. The Afghan influence is seen through a lot of the everyday objects that you can see in my drawings. They are just borrowed from my upbringing, such as the element of carpets, in this exhibition.

Are there any Afghan pieces of clothing that you particularly love?

Yes actually, this coat I’m wearing. I love male Afghan garments, I think they're so beautiful and I just don't understand why women can't wear them. Whenever I went to Kabul and we got some outfits made for me that I could wear there, I would always ask to use the male textile and the male cut because I found it so much more beautiful. They put so much more effort into it, which definitely says a lot about the local culture and ideologies. This coat, called ‘chapan', is worn by young men in the winter, and the sleeves are really long. It's a traditional piece but people still wear it. I always wanted to have this coat but it can be bought only in male sizes, so, my father made one for me that’s my size, and I'm wearing that today.

What does home mean to you?

Besides Afghanistan, I have lived in other countries as well. I’ve traveled a lot, and I realized that feeling at home has more to do with being able to express yourself and having the network that you need, and less about the actual space or the territory that you're in. There was a time in my life when I thought Afghanistan was my home, and I have to go back. I was raised like that - my parents would always present this narrative, that living in Germany is just temporary. They said, ‘we will go back, we will go back’, but since we're still in a war, there is no going back. Even our visits became more rare. So, home for me is a very theoretical concept. It's not really something I fully understand. It's a privilege to have a home. For me, home is my family, wherever they are, I feel at home.

What was that like, having the expectation of going back to the homeland and it never really happening? Was it this constant fear that you might be ripped away from Germany or was it comforting to know you'd be returning to Afghanistan eventually?

I used to downplay the othering and racism in Germany and not take it very seriously, because I thought, ‘it’s not my country’. But eventually I realized ‘oh, it is my country’. I have nowhere else to go. Germany was never my family's first choice, we didn't want to live here, we wanted to be in Afghanistan. We’re a refugee family, we're not migrants, we didn't choose to come here. It was a lot harder for my parents than for me, to accept that new life. I was raised here, and to be honest, my German is actually more fluent than my Dari, which is kind of symbolic of the evolution of our trans-generational sense of belonging. So, the 'going back' was always theoretical. It would have never worked out.

When we used to travel back to Afghanistan, it felt more like the country of my parents, very foreign and different to me. I would just go back and meet my extended family, with whom I had very little in common. I learned to love them and enjoyed spending time with them, but we were very different. They even used to call me 'Germany', as a nickname. That was hurtful, it always is when people make fun of you because you don't speak a language fluently. And you're like, ‘yeah, but I was raised with a different language. I went to school with a different language’. Sometimes, they forget that there’s a different language that you grew up with. They underestimate your intelligence and personality, because you can’t fully express yourself in front of them. And I always thought: 'this is how my parents must feel', when people can't see your whole person because they just see one cultural and linguistic side of you.


How does the concept of nostalgia flow through your work?

I had a really simplistic and romantic understanding of nostalgia for a very long time, one that was informed by whatever my parents told me. I wanted to break that idea of nostalgia by making art, reframing the idea so that it’s informed by my own experiences, my biography, not a secondhand narrative. I guess I have a really complex relationship to nostalgia because it's so present in everything in my life: the old music we listen to, everything in my household somehow looks back. It's never about looking forward. Even during my upbringing, we always looked back at how life used to be. When my parents and my relatives come together, they always talk about the past, there's definitely a fear of the future. And somehow my work also engages a lot with the past, and I think that this may be the toxic nostalgia that I was raised with.

 

Do you have a target audience that you're trying to speak to through your work?

I'm not the kind of artist that only works in exclusive art spaces - I give artist talks and join panel discussions, anywhere from university settings to political grassroots organizations, and I also don’t shy away from mainstream media platforms or fashion and activist Instagram accounts. I think it's important to not be exclusive. But at the same time it is crucial to have access to these exclusive spaces, be able to sell your work, make a living and engage with professionals in your field. Even though I have the impression that a large part of my audience is emotionally and personally involved, I also don't mind when my artwork is bought by someone who doesn't personally identify with, it but can appreciate the aesthetics. I don't think art should merely serve as a personal connection or be representative. However, in the past I often struggled with white art spaces and their reception of my work. Usually there is a taste and attitude in these spaces that prove a complete disregard and ignorance for identity driven or politically charged work. Either they don’t take you seriously if you are not edgy and conceptual enough, or they reduce your full range of expression to a marketable label such as Muslim, exile, feminist or whatsoever. When I had my opening at Âme Nue, a really diverse crowd showed up. And I think that proved two things. First, we can only open up exclusive spaces, such as galleries, if we give more emerging artists a platform, those who didn’t go to fancy art schools and who come from different backgrounds and communities. Second, we have to allow the artists to frame their work themselves and we have to stop reproducing the same narratives and labels, which mainstream media forces onto creatives with minority backgrounds. I was very lucky my curator Liberty Adrien trusted me and gave me all the support and freedom.

Can you introduce The warm pillow was my mother. The blanket my father?

I started drawing these family portraits when I had my first residency: a studio in Gothenburg, Sweden for a couple of months. I was quite far away from my family, I didn't know anyone and I've never felt so lonely in my entire life. That's when I started drawing my family, because I realized that no matter what, this togetherness that I’ve always had, the personal relationship I have with my family, is something I took for granted. Despite all the ups and downs of a family dynamic, there is an idea of togetherness that is somehow irrevocable and sacred. I realized not many people have this sense of security and comfort. In my work, the figure of my mother is central, and although it is inspired by my actual mother, it’s not actually about her. It’s important for me to clarify, that I am not portraying individuals and their biographies, but instead exploring what they represent to me. So, my work is in many ways about intimacy, memories, relationships, and how the sharing of such bonds can shape our sense of safety and adulthood.

When my family members walk into this exhibition, they sometimes notice the resemblance, but I don’t think they feel that the artworks are directly depicting or exposing them. It was always clear to us all, that this was just me projecting them onto my work, and my feelings onto them. Artists are always just working towards themselves, figuring themselves out, even if they make it seem as if they are looking at someone or something else.

As an artist from a minority background, I am aware of the overbearing ethnographic gaze. This gaze is inherently colonial and eager, to extract information from my work in the same way ethnographers used to objectify colonized bodies, drawing out information in order to categorize, evaluate and control them. I asked myself: how can I resist this gaze? And eventually, I came up with the concept of confusion. The element of confusion is enforced by simply not giving a fuck when it comes to accuracy. I embed a lot of surreal elements, there's a lot of fiction going on - most of the people depicted, they don't actually exist. I stay as vague as possible when it comes to spatial and temporal parameters. Even though I do pay a lot of attention to texture and patterns, like in the carpets, I don’t care about realism. It’s not like these are patterns that I grew up with. Yes, there are certain resemblances, but I’ve made many changes. There are lots of fictional elements here: the things that look ‘ethnic’, I've completely made them up, as a way of resisting the expectation that my work needs to be informative about the lives of others associated with my biography. And also the food, it's not actually the food we eat.

 

Naomi

When I first walked in, I picked up one of those handouts in which you describe your work, and I noticed that it doesn't mention once that you're of Afghan descent.

Moshtari 

That's because I wrote it myself.

Naomi

I personally really liked this aspect of not mentioning that because it made me think that maybe this wasn’t your goal. It reminded me of many Black artists in the United States, who have repetitively said that they want to be able to make art without someone asking them about their Blackness. Of course, their position as part of the Black community is inherent to what they produce, but what if the core aspects of their art isn’t about their Blackness? They wouldn't ask any white artists, 'so, what's it like being a white artist in today's day and age?'

Moshtari 

Yeah, what’s it like making white content?

Naomi

Exactly. So, is that something that resonates with you? Or why is it that you decided to completely leave that aspect out?

Moshtari 

I have this feeling that if people just read the handout, they'll assume that they already got their hands on all the information and then they don't engage as much. But if they come with questions unanswered, or if the handout raises more questions, they’ll want to learn the information that’s lacking, and they'll engage more. Also, I've had moments in life where I’ve had to represent Afghan artists and Afghan culture, and I think I'm not the right person to do that. I was raised in Germany, I'm not an adult, Afghan artist who was here in exile. I've been educated here. So, you could even say this is a German exhibition, right? But I don't really care for labels. They make sense when we talk on a political level - sometimes we need categories to understand something. But when it comes to art, I feel like labels act as a shortcut, in giving you a quick understanding or feeling about what you're seeing. And that's why I just didn't mention that I'm Afghan. I also noticed that other artists, white artists, don't write down where they're born. So why would I do it? It’s become clear to me that if I want to give a certain framework, I have to write all the texts myself, so I've done that for all the exhibitions so far.

Could you tell me a bit about the title and why you chose it?

Moshtari 

What do you think it means?

Naomi

What struck me the most, is that your family plays such a big role here. So for me, the use of the pillow and the blanket was to emphasize the element of comfort, basically having them wrapped around you, just as you carry your family with you wherever you go.

Moshtari 

Yes, that's exactly what I meant. I realized that for many coming to this exhibition, the element of family and intimacy was something really unexpected, because usually, intimacy is very much about romantic relationships. Additionally, the family doesn't play such a big role in German society. So, it’s definitely about comfort, intimacy and security. I feel the most secure when I'm in bed. Also, in my exhibition, I have a couple of objects that represent warmth and comfort, like the carpets, but also the curtain of intimacy. There was this person who came to the exhibition, he said, 'you know, in your exhibition, intimacy is something that happens exclusively indoors. Nothing in your artwork happens outdoors'. The pillow, the carpet and the blanket, they're all elements of home and interior spaces. And then I realized maybe that's because outdoors, we can't have this kind of intimacy and comfort within the German society. For me, there's this idea that home is an interior feeling, I can't feel at home outdoors, and I never realized this until this person made it clear to me.

How has having a black-haired body influenced your experience within the Western world? I’m thinking in terms of how the lack of body hair tends to function as an indicator of hygiene, cleanliness, and femininity.

Yeah, I can really relate to that. I recently read this article written by Mona Chalabi, she does illustrations for statistics. She wrote this article for The Guardian, where she brings together these statistics that she found about female facial and body hair. One study from the late 19th century looked for insanity in European white women, and found that women who were insane, were supposedly more likely to be hairy and by that resemble “inferior races”. This link was based on scientists interpreting Darwin’s book “Descent of Man” in the most racist and sexist way, thus creating a link between mental health and female facial hair. Telling us: the more hairy you are, the more primitive you are, because when you have more hair, you look less civilized, so in a sense you're less human and you're more monkey. When I read this, I thought, 'yeah, this sounds familiar, but I’ve never seen anything like this study'. I think we internalize these racist theories and eventually we’re unable to tell them apart from our most intimate feelings towards our own bodies.

And this is especially the case, if you're part of a racialized minority. You learn to feel like you're not culturally civilized enough, like there's this colonial power acting against you, like you have to assimilate into this superior culture. That also comes with the physical body that you have to try to transform. What really bothers me, is in the white, feminist discourse, they talk about how even in ancient societies, women would remove their armpit and pubic hair. But it's not always about pubic hair. It's about having pores literally all over your body, little black baby hair everywhere. It is about the toxic idea that something is biologically wrong with you. On top of that, I’ve always hated how we are being told that physical intimacy and sexuality is something you can't have as long as you are still hairy. I view hair as a decorative element, some people remove it, some people don't. I’ve literally been disgusted by myself, when I didn’t have the time to pluck my mustache in the past. I wouldn't even let others come near me. So, my goal is not to preach new body codes, but to break the silence. Within my work, that means taking this thing I was ashamed of, and turning it into my visual tool, creating beauty with negated beauty.

I've also had the conversation where people ask, 'why don't you practice what you preach?' And I never understood this, because they don’t understand that I want to break a taboo, I want to break the secrecy but it's not about the right or the wrong way to do it - it's the choice that matters. And this is something that happens a lot when you use the personal in your work, people look at you instead of looking at your work. I personally have kept my arm hair because I realized it's a pretty good filter. I don't engage with people, especially men, who are disgusted by my arm hair, they don't even enter my life. I’ve cultivated an outer appearance that already filters people. I don't attract the kind of people that I don't want to attract.

What was it like growing up in an immigrant / refugee home? How did this impact the construction of your own multi-layered identity? Did you feel torn between cultures, in attempting to assimilate while still staying true to your roots?

There are so many expressions used within that question that I'm trying to leave behind. I don't want to use that term of 'roots' anymore because I think it gives an idea of originality, how people belong to a certain culture more than others. If I'm born somewhere, and my parents come from that space, my roots are there, meaning I can always be sent back to that place. We shouldn’t think about humans as trees because we have mobility. There's much more flexibility and movement possible in a human life. And the only reason why it's limited, is capital and politics. It's not human nature. This expression of being ‘between two cultures', I don't feel that. I think that's a really common image, but I might have lived in Germany and my parents are from Afghanistan, yet I consumed American culture my whole life. I'm able to speak English better than my mother tongue. And then I was also raised with Bollywood - the music, the popular actors, the movies, that was a really strong element in my cultural upbringing too. The list goes on, I was raised Muslim, but that’s different in every country too. And then we became refugees, that is a very particular experience too. Having a university degree or working in the arts is very specific as well, and even rare in my extended family. I think these subcultures and hegemonic cultures need to be taken into account. We tend to simplify and talk about two cultures because we physically moved between two dots, but I think we're able to consume and embody more than two cultures.

Do you consider yourself to be German? If so, what does it mean for you to be German?

I feel like my identity is very contextual. I exist in relation to the people I encounter and to the spaces I inhabit. So, I do consider myself German because I live here, I co-create this space, and so it's my space too. We have to claim that, because otherwise our right to exist here will be challenged. Sometimes, I'm really scared of that. It happened once, it can happen again. We have to claim this society just as much as the 'original' people do. I do not believe in nationalism, but in coexistence and community. It should be about who is there and not about imagined and exclusive barriers.

 


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