Moshtari Hilal is an illustrator based in Hamburg (Germany), where she studies Middle Eastern Studies and Politics. In July, her book We Were Drawn Here was published, an art book inspired by the meaning and power of portraits in establishing an identity, and based on photographs collected by artist and conservator Lukas Birk. Throughout his research in Peshawar (Pakistan), Birk collected photographic negatives from photo studios, of portraits taken during the 1960s and early 70s. The stories accompanying the images Moshtari Hilal illustrated for this book project are fictional narratives Lukas created. The result is a first attempt to revive the portraits as a source of collective history and memory through art. We asked Moshtari Hilal about We Were Drawn Here, decolonizing the mind, and transforming photos into drawings.
Could you tell us something about your work?
“I am really interested in the idea of hybrid characters, since I know many people like this and identify myself as a person beyond dichotomous concepts. Phenomena like migration, globalization, social media, and affordable travel opportunities lead to more complex realities and identities, questioning stereotypes and the idea of a strict collective identity or nationality. These thoughts are the theoretical background of my visual work. I aim to generate new images and narratives through illustration and portraits that embody and express this idea of hybrid identities, and offer an alternative to mainstream media.”
On Instagram you encourage people to decolonize their minds. Would you say this is a message you try to convey through your work too? If so, how?
“I hope so. I realized for myself that many of my insecurities and anxieties could be traced back to racist narratives I grew up with as a Muslim refugee girl of color. I tried to hide my Afghan roots, because the only thing German people knew about Afghanistan was drugs and war. Sometimes I was embarrassed about my parents because we were poor, lived in a refugee camp, and they couldn’t speak German. I thought everything was our fault, and that we weren’t as civilized, free or beautiful as the white people. I really grew up with these feelings and I know I am not the only one. Society and people made me feel this way. Either you isolated yourself from the world outside, which was a symbol of white supremacy, or you totally assimilated to their ‘western’ culture and started to grow self-hate towards your roots and your own community. I only knew these two ways to handle my identity within white cultural imperialism. Yet I didn’t want to choose and didn’t feel like I was fitting into any of these collective identities. So I started to study Islamic history, searched for Middle Eastern and Afghan contemporary art and culture, and learned a lot about feminist and post-colonial approaches. I just had to change my point of view to see how complex and beautiful contradictions can be and how wrongly and narrowmindedly the mass media, our history books, teachers, and even parents defined everything. If you take a closer look, you will realize that many things we still believe in are affected by the racist and sexist ideologies of the colonial past: what we learn at university, what we wear, and with what kind of ‘beauty’ surgeries we treat our ethnic characteristics with. I aim to create portraits of people who exist beyond this struggle, or who overcame this self-hate and the anxieties the colonial past and industries teach us.”
How would you describe the work of Lukas Birk?
“Lukas Birk describes himself as a storyteller and conservator since he collects a lot of material whilst travelling and then makes it to his own for his projects. I would say he is saving material and giving it a second chance to tell a story. This material can lead to a book, a film, chronicles or a simple but unique archive. He grew up travelling and has collected material in China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Myanmar.”
Could you tell us something about the photos the illustrations in We Were Drawn Here are based on? What do these photos say about Peshawar in the 60s and 70s?
“These images, largely from the 60s and early 70s, are much more than just the product of random photography studios in Peshawar. Of course they are random portraits from that place and that time, but for us, in the present, they are a source of collective memory about the society and the aesthetics of that time. In the 60s Peshawar was a city of crossroads – linking East and West, connecting Afghanistan to subcontinental India. The looks of the portrayed individuals reflect that hybrid identity of the region. We can also see the influence of the hippy-trail and the passage of a global movement though the region. There is liberty in the air. You also have a beautiful modern record of transnational Pashto culture, since the Pashto majority crosses into Afghanistan freely. The 1950s are the beginning of a new area with photo studios providing cheaper and more available studio portraiture. By the 60s this was a very common practice, even for those with lesser financial means. These images have been taken 50 years ago, in a Peshawar that was very different from how it is today. It must have been a place where creativity and affection could be expressed more freely. Although the photo studio is not the real world, it is very obvious that photographs of men and women hugging each other, of women without any type of veil, and men dressed in stylish outfits were rather usual. This is something that isn’t done anymore. This playfulness is gone. The city, the habits, the behavior has become more serious within the photographic world and that reflects what Peshawar is now and how it must have been in the 1960s and 1970s.”
Why did Lukas Birk collect the negatives of these photos?
“Lukas told me that he had been working on a research project on photographic culture with a focus on box camera photography in Afghanistan. This research also took him to Peshawar, where he had been for the first time in 2005 for another project. There, he encountered photographers who still had such deposits of negatives but had no more use for them. Some completely neglected them whilst others had already burned them. He collected them in order to save them, but also to understand what this specific time was like in a photographic sense. He and his research colleague are in the works of a book on photographic culture in Peshawar, which is rich and diverse yet faces growing problems from various ideological points of view.”
How are identities established through photographs, and through these photographs in particular? How would you describe the power they have?
“I can respond to this question by describing a really personal connection I felt to the material. When I got the material from Lukas and looked at the portraits for the first time, I felt joy, excitement, and nostalgia. I have never been to Peshawar and grew up in Germany, I don’t speak Pashto or Urdu, but it still felt like I was looking at really familiar faces. I felt a sense of empathy. That’s strange, isn’t it? As a former refugee kid I grew up in an Afghan exile community and was always confronted with the memories and nostalgia of my parents, relatives, and the other Afghans. That probably left its mark on me. Maybe their stories and memories turned into surreal images I created by myself later on, inside my head: a combination of abstract feelings of loss and longing, knowledge about the historical and political context, and old family photos. When I saw the portraits I recognized the same mood. Their faces, make-up, clothes, the landscape background, the way they were posing in front of the camera – it was the photographic incarnation of a collective memory I grew up with. And that is exactly what photography, portraits, and art and culture in general can do. They are able to conserve and embody stories and moods that are fading in reality, but stay in our minds eternally.”
Why, and how, do you translate photography into illustrations?
“Why not? I always start to illustrate faces and people I like. It’s a habit. But it’s also a way of embracing the beauty and meaning of a person. My mother, for example. She is such a beautiful soul, but she would never agree to be photographed and have it published in a book or on social media. People also wouldn’t really relate to a random photo of a random lady; they don’t see what I see in her. But if I pick a certain moment, a certain style and mood, create a portrait, put her in the right spot, everything changes – she becomes art. Same thing about the photographic material of Lukas. There are too many portraits and he can’t just publish them without a context or without framing them. At the end they are all real people, maybe dead, or old and living somewhere. Illustrating them, creating a collage, writing poems or a research based on the portraits is an interpretation of the material, and allows us to publish them as a source of collective memory.”
What is gained through translating the photos into illustrations, and what is lost?
“There are of course a number of issues when dealing with images of private people. Creating an interpretation of an original source could be seen as less authentic than the original material itself. But we already have lots of material in archives, museums, libraries – and people don’t care. People only start to care and share the old material when something new is done with it. I am an illustrator, so this is my contribution to create access to a culture and region often underestimated. Reinterpretations like the one we are working on have become another layer of our archiving endeavors. Lukas can give us something we don’t have, which is access to the material from the past, and I contribute a personal present to the past. What we make out of this becomes an alternative form of history telling.”
Lukas Birk created fictional narratives to accompany your illustrations. Doesn’t this fictionalization destroy one of the book’s goals, which is to serve as a source of collective history and memory? How does the creation of fictional narratives by a white man to go along with these images fit into the continuing decolonization process? Why not have the illustrations accompanied by real memories of the people photographed, the photographers, or at least people living in Peshawar when these photographs were taken?
“The material is a collection of untold and unknown stories of people he never met and probably, actually really certainly, will never meet. There is no access to their names or stories except the time and place they took the picture at and how they put themselves into the scene such as their look, way of dressing, and posing. The added narratives, written by Lukas Birk, are fictional yet not invented. They are not absurd and totally out of context and have nothing to do with Lukas Birk being a white male and his perspective on the region. In fact they are also a collection of stories he was told and of people he met during his stay in Peshawar. They are in that sense a summary of his encounters. Places, names, and dates might not be correct, but that doesn’t matter since they contain information about the region, culture, and political context nonetheless. I would even say that the fictionality of the narratives supports our aim to make these individual portraits relatable and universal, as a source of collective identity. Random photographs become art, and tell stories beyond their actual moment and context.
Could you explain the title of the book?
“The title has to do with both me and Lukas. We are both not at a certain place, yet there is a reason for us to be there. Something draws us there and it also draws us together, however for different reasons. On the other hand you can read it as something the people in the portraits would say, that they have been drawn or illustrated in this book.”
What was the production process behind We Were Drawn Here like?
“Lukas sent me a selection of images from the archive and I picked the ones I liked to illustrate. I didn’t have any strategy, nor did I make a selection based on any specific categories. It all went intuitively. I sent him the final illustrations and he turned them into woodblocks through laser and manual cutting. Each woodblock is individually printed and so is the text in Dari and English, the front, end papers, and the spine images. We made use of letterpress printing. The book has cardboard and cloth covers, both screen printed. It’s hand bound with a drum leaf binding.”
What inspires you?
“Faces. Portraits! I can’t tell why exactly, but I think faces are the most interesting thing about human beings. I love old people and how they look, and people with remarkable facial characteristics like big eyes, big noses, a moustache, glasses or birthmarks. Before I had access to the internet I studied magazines and books, and looked for strangers and their faces I could fall in love with, to recreate them as illustrations. I grew up with a big admiration for Frida Kahlo and women in old photographs from Iran. I also spend a lot of time looking at old family photographs from Afghanistan before the war and during our first years as asylum seekers in Germany. These photos and how we look tell everything, they sum up everything I remember, feel, and am today. I illustrate them so I can show them, and communicate through them. Currently I feel really inspired by people of color who I follow on Instagram or Tumblr. I like that I can relate to their thoughts and looks, and I feel empowered by their shared selfies and old family photos. Examples are Ayqa Khan, Elif Küçük, Brohammed, Darkmatters, Tasnim Baghdadi, or Fariha Roisin and Zeba Blay from Two Brown Girls, just to name a few.”
Which other projects are you currently working on?
“I am collaborating with Elif Küçük and Tasnim Baghdadi on an art collective to empower and embrace narratives by people of color in the German art world. We want to tell the stories that are overlooked by white mainstream media through avant-garde art and design. And then there are also my own portrait projects like the series inspired by Frida Kahlo, Embrace the Face, questioning our beauty standards.”