Zuhra Halil interview with Blacklisted

Reestablishing a connection between clothing and art

Copenhagen-based Afghan artist Zuhra Hilal speaks about her training in fashion design, and her use of clothing and textile, to explore larger conceptual ideas.

Published: March 22, 2018Words: Zuhra Hilal & J.Scott StrattonPhotographs: Susanne BaumannArtist Link: zuhrahilal.com

Fashion is one of those creative industries which has always had one foot in the modern and one foot in the archaic. When looking at Haute Couture, or high-fashion, there has always been a sense of conceptual artistry there that works to shape modern trend. The work of designers like Alexander McQueen, Iris van Herpen or Ying Gao and could fit into a white cube as easily they do on the cat walk. Yet in contrast to this perception of modernity, the industry behind the curtain can look antiquated and archaic.

The fashion industry is still the main perpetrator of the objectification of the female form. It perpetuates heteronormative and cisgender values – even though the majority of the industry is driven by women and gay men. As an example, ask yourself when was the last time you saw unisex anything?

In an industry that is directed by commercial goals, I find it refreshing to discover designers or “artists” that use the medium of clothing or textile to address larger issues – to explore their own understanding of conceptual ideas, rather than working to simply “build a brand.”

Zuhra Hilal is one of these individuals. When you look at her work, it doesn’t come across as fashion. It’s not something that you project onto a runway. You don’t see as something that you could wear on a Saturday night. The clothing is clearly a medium for a broader conceptual idea, not a commodity.

With that said, it is no surprise that Hilal, even though trained and educated as a fashion designer, presents her craft more in the context of a white cube than a runway. She works more with performing artists rather than models, and has made very little effort in the way of building her own “fashion empire.”

I find that Hilal’s work succeeds in establishing a connection to the idea that clothing does not have to be a commodity. Clothing can be thought-provoking and a driver of awareness. It can be the facilitator of artist expression. It can break down the established ideals around the perception of the human body.

So, you’re an educated fashion designer, but you work a lot with performance, installation and visual arts in more of a white cube setting. Can you tell me what led you to aim your focus towards the “artistic” rather than the commercial?

Already during my studies, I was more interested in the artistic aspects of fashion design. After I graduated, I worked in the commercial branch to earn a living, but at the same time, I kept working on my projects after work.

Last year, I moved to Copenhagen {from Hamburg} and decided to work full-time as a freelance artist.
 The reason why I’m drawn towards the arts rather than conventional fashion design is that it gives me much more freedom in several ways.

First of all, I don’t have to consider trends and seasons when I decide what topic to discuss in my work. Also, I can express myself freely through my materials and craft without thinking of the practical utility of my work – instead I can focus on the message and concept. Last but not least, art gives me a way to non-verbally communicate complex issues to an audience.

As a person, I’m not very outspoken, but through my art, I have found a voice with which I can address topics and problems that I find important to discuss. That way I can create a room where I can share my visions with the public without being in the center of attention as a person.
 That being said, I am happy to have a background in fashion design because it gives some tools and skills that differ from many other artists.

There is brief mention on your website about you disrupting Berlin Fashion week with a guerilla performance. That caught my eye. Can you tell me that story?

To be honest, I don’t know exactly why I decided to do this, but in hindsight, I guess that this was my way of breaking away from the world of commercial fashion design and into art.

In the summer of 2015, I went to the Berlin Fashion Week with a photographer and four dancers wearing the “An Exploration of the Nameless Anatomy” collection. I had not given notice, as I wanted to see the unfiltered reaction from the audience.

Zuhra Halil interview with Blacklisted
Zuhra Halil interview with Blacklisted

By performing at the entrance to one of the shows, we could interact directly with the people exiting the area. We received the full spectrum of reactions: from surprise, bafflement, and distaste to genuine interest. Some people attended the whole performance and came to me afterward to discuss and share their feelings about the subject of my project. So, my purpose of challenging people and giving them food for thought was achieved.

Even more interesting was the aftermath of this event. While in Berlin, I put my stickers everywhere in the public space to raise awareness. Some days after I had returned from the Fashion Week, I received an email from a young woman who had seen my sticker while waiting in line for her veggie burger, and she had later checked out my work online. In her email, she told me how profoundly she had connected with my art. As a child, she had undergone FGM {female genital mutilation} and had never before experienced an artwork that could give her a medium to reflect on it.

She was overwhelmed by the effect that my work had had on her, and she expressed her gratitude. It was a turning point for me, as it was the first time that I saw how my art could empower women so directly.

What is your viewpoint on fashion and textile design being used for creative expression outside of the commercial world?

In my opinion, textiles and related materials are not only for practical purposes. The variety of colors and textures is even broader than many other more conventional art materials. This gives the artist an extreme degree of flexibility to work in different dimensions and involves people – as during a performance or as a body to the look. This, in turn, makes it easier to include and interact with the audience.

So, I see textile as a very dynamic and organic material to work with, and I see no reason not to use it in art.
 I have been inspired by several designers-cum-artists, such as Rei Kawakubo, Hussein Chalayan, and Alexander McQueen, but many other artists also use textiles without ever having worked with fashion design. Also working for Iris Van Herpen and Bart Hess gave me an insight into fashion art.

It is clear that you work with provocation for what you have described as an attempt to, “challenge the perception of women and their sexuality in society.” Would you care to unfold why gender issues and gender rights are so important to you specifically?

If people are provoked by my art, it’s their own problem. What I want to do is to draw positive attention to some issues that are simply not discussed well enough.

Zuhra Halil interview with Blacklisted

When I research for my art projects, I can see that – despite an increasingly strong feminist discourse – there are still many areas that we need to be more comfortable with discussing. I often hear that there’s no more to talk about when comes to sexuality and that the subject is not worthy of artistic attention, but then I also see huge gaps in the understanding and appreciation of the female gender.

This lack of knowledge among all gender is very disempowering for women, as they are often made to feel ashamed of discussing their own sexuality.

You’ve recently exhibited works from your collection ‘An Exploration of a Nameless Anatomy’ (displayed images) at Huset for Kunst og Design. That particular work is couple years old, so tell me, what you have been working on recently?

Currently, I’m on several different projects. One will be a collaboration with a performance artist here in Copenhagen end of April – I will post about it on my Instagram when all the details are fixed.

I’m also working on a bigger project related to breasts and how women perceive that part of their bodies. For that work, I will organize get-togethers in Copenhagen and Hamburg where I’ll invite women to come and sketch their own breasts and discuss how they feel about them. I’m not yet sure where this will take me, but I have already received several very interesting contributions from around world.

Finally, I’m working on a big portrait of a vulva made with thousands of small metals pins put through a transparent plastic sheet.
 As you can hear, all of these projects revolve around the female sexuality and the perception of women’s bodies and gender.