“It was really nice to break the stereotype that Afghans can’t make culture,” says Moshtari Hilal Image Credit: Supplied

In a buzzy Berlin cafe, 25-year-old artist and illustrator Moshtari Hilal describes Kabul in a way that few would find familiar. “In 2012, I decided to seek out the creative scene there,” she recalls. “I found intellectuals, writers and artists; ended up hanging out at rock shows and exhibitions and went to the market to buy art supplies. It really opened my mind.” The irony of this creative epiphany occuring in a city known mostly for war does not escape Hilal. “It was really nice to break the stereotype that Afghans can’t make culture,” she smiles.

Sterotypes are a currency Hilal learned to deal with early in life. Her family had fled Kabul for Germany in 1995, when she was merely two years old. Despite being too young to remember the actual journey, the experience of dislocation is part of her earliest memories. “We had a big family and there were always relatives who had freshly arrived [in Germany] and didn’t have a home of their own yet. So the rooms were crowded with people of different ages,” she recalls.

As a child, she struggled with the negative connotations of being an outsider in a society where Afghanistan was perceived as a place of misery and violence. Hilal began drawing as a way to fit into school. “I became the creative one, and that became a part of my personality.” Her sketching remained casual — she worked while watching TV, or chatting with her siblings.

“As refugees, we grew up with no network — no financial or cultural resources,” says Hilal. The world of art and museums seemed a distant one, one that could only be entered by “assimilating into white culture and speaking with a cultivated accent” This changed with her trip to Kabul in 2012.

Hilal had travelled to the city several times, and as a child had played on the streets with her cousins. “But all that goes as soon as you turn into a woman,” she says. Subsequent trips had been spent mostly indoors with her family members. At 18, she decided to strike out on her own, and returned with a transformed sense of the world. “For the first time, I realised that being from Kabul is not a burden but a resource.”

The same year, she began working as an artist and illustrator. Since then, her striking images have travelled the world — from Denmark and USA to Iran and Canada. Hilal has got attention for her characteristic monochrome style, as well as for her intimately observed content which challenges notions of migrants, beauty and belonging.

Ironically, Hilal never went to art school as her parents were firm that she “study something proper.” Even now, she says, “they don’t really understand what I do, though my mother has kept a lot of my drawings.”

Post-colonial literature

Back in her hometown of Hamburg, she picked Middle Eastern studies as a “way to understand my identity, only to realise that Arab countries are quite diferent from Afghanistan,” she laughs. But studying post-colonial literature helped her learn critical thinking. “It fed into everything, from understanding my family’s point of view to my own artistic practice.”

During a residency in Sweden, for instance, Hilal used her large studio space to create massive family portraits, sometimes using old photographs. She drew relatives during their early days in Germany, “wearing really colourful, random clothes, which used to embarass me as a child, but now I love for the beautiful patterns and textures.” Her drawings have the stamp of her self-taught process, evident in the images of tightly packed birthday celebrations, hairy bodies and prominent noses.

“Everything that is censored and smoothened out in mainstream media — the stuff that is flat and plain — is the opposite in my work,” says Hilal. “All the things that I initially considered flaws are what I used to create my signature style.”

For inspiration, she looks to American artist Kerry James Marshall for his “everyday lives of black bodies, making them darker than in reality.”

Everything that is censored and smoothened out in mainstream media — the stuff that is flat and plain — is the opposite in my work. All the things that I initially considered flaws are what I used to create my signature style.

- Moshtari Hilal

Frida Kahlo is another important figure, from her personal appearance to her work. “She was a hairy woman who was visible, which was important for me. I liked that she didn’t pluck her eyebrows and that she used herself as a model,” says Hilal, who also began with self-portraits. “Male artists have used naked women as muses. Kahlo decided ‘I’m going to draw myself, and that’s okay’.”

Besides her solo work, Hilal has also collaborated with photographer Lukas Birk to transform old negatives found in the studios of Peshawar into portraits. Their book, We Were Drawn Here, captures the faces of strangers from the 1960s and 1970s, and reveals a cosmpolitan city at the crossroads of countries and cultures.

In 2017, she created a series of portraits called Embrace the Face, that interrogated western ideas of beauty. Even in Bollywood, she notes, there is greater pressure to conform to European ideas of beauty. “My sister and I grew up watching a lot of Indian films because we had no pop culture of our own. The actresses now all seem to have straight hair and light skin, and the men have to be sexy,” she observes.

While Hilal describes her work as semi-autobiographical, she is wary of being feted for her heritage alone. “Quite early on, I realised I would be invited to speak on the arts scene in Kabul like an informant on the exotic Other,” she recalls. “It was my identity that was being invited. But just because I am an Afghan doesn’t mean I have to be political. If a white male artist draws his family, they aren’t expected to say something about German history. I thought I would free myself of that responsibility and work on whatever I wanted.”

In Berlin, Hilal is part of a collective called Nachbild (Afterimage), that aims to build more diversity in artistic spaces. “Being a creative person opens doors, you can talk to strangers anywhere you go through art,” she explains. “Its a way to access the world, and yourself.”

For the last three years, Hilal has watched Germany grapple with the arrival of refugees, including many from Afghanistan. “To listen to the news, it seems like this ‘crisis’ is new and overwhelming.” she says. “But it’s a constant, like climate change. When people acted like we were starting from zero, instead of using previous experience and knowledge, that was strange for us.”

The deportation of Afghan refugees has also had an impact on her — artistically as well as personally. “I have family members in Afghanistan who want to get out, so I can’t tell anyone not to leave. But I also know it’s not easy to make a life here,” she says candidly.

On the other side of the route, the erosion of the buzzy arts scene that inspired her in Kabul saddens her. “I know many artists are now in Europe, but I try not to intrude on that space too much,” she explains. “I am not an exile, and I have many privileges they lack. If I claim my Afghan identity too closely there, I will be taking away their opportunities.”

For her, it seems important to sidestep cliches, and to speak only in her own voice. Once, she recalls, she was invited to participate in an exhibition in Europe, where she found her work labelled as belonging to Afghanistan. “I told them, ‘You didn’t buy my ticket from Kabul, I didn’t even need a visa to come here. I am not an Afghan artist in Germany. I am a German artist in Germany’.”

Taran N. Khan is a journalist based in Mumbai. She reported this story as part of the India-Germany Media Ambassador fellowship.