The woman’s face is invisible, but see her long, angled limbs spread to the sides. She stands elegantly on tiptoes like a dancer frozen in the middle of a maneuver. Her most prominent feature, though, is her crotch, adorned with a bright red, jewel encrusted inverted heart, out of which long, thick threads spill like vines. The woman lives on a sticker, pasted in various public places by Zuhra Hilal to publicize her avant-garde fashion project, “An Exploration of the Nameless Anatomy.”
Hilal is no stranger to provocation; her body of work is full of pieces that alternately enchant and perturb, from painstakingly crafted necklaces to shining facemasks that encase their wearers’ heads like drawstring bags. She was creative from an early age. Hilal’s family migrated to Germany from Afghanistan in her childhood, and she recalled, “Back then my mother would sew our clothes, and I would sit next to her learning the skill by following her hands.” She carried this experience with her to university to study fashion design begin her earliest experimentations with the medium.
Her early garments are often neutral in color but cut bold shapes and silhouettes, like a short dress that evokes a half-woven basket and another silver tunic dress that wouldn’t be out of place in a science fiction film. From the early collections one can also detect the influence of Afghan decorative traditions, especially in her jewelry. Hilal reflected, “For me it’s important to honor the traditions of handicraft and I give a lot of attention to details and embroidery. It could be read as a subtle reference of my personal heritage from Afghanistan, where extremely detailed handicraft has always been a central part of visual culture.”
Eventually, Hilal’s artistic practice became a way for her to post questions about difficult topics. “Over time I realized that fashion is not just about dressing people, but about communication and that it can be a medium to emphasize or discuss bigger issues.” She considered how conversations about the (cis) female body never took place in her family. Female sexuality was opaque and taboo. Fashion gave her a means to explore these topics on her own terms, as well as in the abstract and conceptual sense. It was out of this crucible of new ideas that projects such as “An Exploration of the Nameless Anatomy” arose.
That project began with a question: “What do you call it?”
“It” was the vulva, a word that Hilal admitted she once did not even have in her vocabulary. “I grew up surrounded by women,” she said, “but we had never discussed this.”
Hilal began to wonder who did and did not have a vocabulary to describe the vulva, and what that vocabulary, or lack thereof, said about social attitudes towards the female body. After asking around at first, Hilal posted the question on social media. The responses were surprising. “I saw how many silly, vulgar and degrading nicknames people are using for the vulva without ever addressing the negative effects of such names. Facing that experience I discovered how disempowered a woman becomes through her lack of knowledge,” she said.
The project continued with these lessons learned. Hilal explained that her creative process is usually varied, and she often likes to challenge herself with new materials and techniques. For example, in “Exploration,” she made heavy use of the color red, noting, “Growing up, red represented for me a loss of honor and pride through, for example, period blood or the loss of virginity. By using the color in my work, I want to redefined this association by showing it as something natural and beautiful.” The finished works were visually striking and foregrounded Hilal’s facility with minute handicrafting. The “nameless anatomy” of the vulva is highlighted, bejewelled, embossed and attention-grabbing against the muted background of beige bodies worn by the models. Hilal’s goal was to glamorize and beautify the vulva without eroticizing it, as a way of countering the derogatory language she heard used to describe the vulva, and by extension women’s bodies and sexualities.
The response to her work was varied but emphatic.
“I got much feedback from people, ranging from people with genital mutilation who felt touched and empowered to talk about their experiences, to people who simply got offended by a visual depiction of female sexuality. But most of all I am very happy to see that people of all genders can find inspiration in my work.”
And Hilal’s work has certainly begun to travel. She has had exhibitions at Heidelberger Kunstverein in Germany and the Aks Minorities Festival in Denmark. She is even planning now to take “Exploration” to India to collaborate in a shoot with local artists.
Yet despite the personal growth and public recognition her projects have spurred, Hilal lamented that she still contends with the disheartening struggles that come with being a woman of color in the art and fashion worlds. “Many people think the fact that I’m a woman of color creating art is more interesting than my art in its own respect.” Her applications to exhibit in art and fashion events have been rejected with organizers telling her they have already filled their “Middle Eastern” or “migrant” quota. The white art world persists in seeing creators like her as tokens or “ethnic” and hence unrelatable, even though her works on subjects like gender and sexuality have broad topical relevance and aesthetic value. Hilal reflected on these impossible standards, noting, “I don’t have to only make good art, I also have to justify making art.”
Nevertheless, her work has been appreciated at more radical venues like the Aks Minorities Festival, and across social media. She constantly deals with the difficulty of maintaining a critical voice in an environment designed to silence people like her, and in the struggle has managed to carve out a space for dialogue about controversial subjects mediated through delicate handicrafts and visually stunning pieces.
“I personally can see that by presenting my work, I have become much more comfortable with openly discussing the female gender,” she said. “I hope I’m not alone in this feeling.”