Can veiled women and street art be compatible? Here are two artists that based their work on the Muslim veil. Is it opportunism or demand, provocation or food for thought?
After the Bonom article, the Doel Article, and Rock's trip in India, this is the new article in a series of FatCap's best french articles, translated for our english readers by our new FatCap Team member, Jacqui.
Hijab, veil and Street art.
It’s common within what’s known as “the street art movement” to convey messages through works of art. It’s one of art’s unique and inherent qualities. In the case of street art, however, the messages have a stronger impact due to their position in the street. And so we have the campaign against big brands led by the street artist Zevs, which mobilized public opinion and the media, and the works of Bansky that are appealing because they generally transmit an intelligible, funny or sometimes disturbing idea. Remember, for example, when he painted the wall separating the Palestinian and Israeli people. Another well-known example: the celebrated posters of Shepard Fairey (aka Obey) who subverted the imagery of political propaganda...sometimes to political ends.
The main goal of art is usually to create something beautiful and not necessarily to convey some sort of message. However, certain works of art do happen to be provocative and in the absence of communicating a clear and intelligible message, they shock, pose questions, or force us to confront our preconceived notions.
This is perhaps the case with two artistes we would like to introduce you to: BR1 and Princess Hijab.
The first artist is Princess Hijab. Her approach seems somewhat violent and anti-establishment since she works through antagonism and visual shock. She places veils on the often-revealing women that are presented to us through the omnipresent advertising posters in our cities. However, her work is not limited only to women, she “hijabises” men also. She invented the terms “Hijabism and Hijabizing” to describe her action. The only color used is black - a dripping, striking black. At first, many people thought it was a new Muslim extremist movement advocating the use of the veil and a return to feminine modesty. A movement brought by surely dangerous, bearded villains, or perhaps by reductionist feminist fanatics...
It’s actually none of those. Princess Hijab is a character created in 2006 by a Parisian artist. She defines herself as an insomniac punk, influenced by various cultural movements but not ascribing to any particular religious or political ideology. She’s an anonymous character that fights for a cause. Which cause exactly? It’s up to you to decide.
The first works that we saw were veiled women on advertisements with the note “hijab-ad.” The debate about wearing the Islamic veil in public incites passions in France, a country that proclaims itself as non-religious. However, Princess Hijab’s art is meant to do more than add fuel to the fire of an already inflamed debate. She wants to challenge body image in advertisements and go past cultural and communal limits imposed by society. Her inspirations tell us a lot about her approach: The American Adbuster movement, Roger Brunet’s anti-monde, visual terrorism, anti-consumerism movements, Naomi Klein, pop-culture, fashion, “Nerd-centrism”, atheist creed, as well as diverse reflections on the ideas of identity, genre, public space, and the secular rules of our societies.
Picture by Kai Juenemann
Picture by Christophe Meires
Even Cinderella dancing with her prince charming in a Walt Disney ad did not escape the Princess and saw itself hijabised. The visual conflict between the hijab universe and Walt Disney can’t be ignored. According to the artist, her art isn’t done “for the beauty of art” but as an attempt and a proposition to think more comprehensively.
According to her manifesto of 2006, Princess Hijab wants to maintain a physical and mental integrity in a world overloaded with visual capitalist terrorism. The right to express oneself was taken hostage by advertising and the capitalist machine; only street art offers the possibility of taking that right back. She uses the Hijab outside of its religious connotation as a personal tool that aims at emphasizing men, women, and the representation of the body in public space. Another idea that asserts itself in her work is that of social liberty and equality. She attempts to make use of models to set aside differences and she uses the veil as an equalizer. It’s within this ambivalent position that the veil takes on a whole other dimension.
Besides these underlying ideas, what is interesting about her method is that she stays to observe the reactions that she sparks off in using such a polemic tool. In place of conveying a clear message, she poses questions. Thus the spectator can believe one thing and also its opposite.
For example, one can believe this project wishes to countermand the current tendency to use naked women and bodybuilders to sell instant coffee...but one can believe the opposite as well: that wearing the hijab in a western society is automatically judged as a negative and repressive reaction to a sexually aggressive environment. Or it could even be about satanizing women and their liberated bodies, like a fundamentalist Christian would do. Finally, one can wonder towards which grand ideas this art is trying to drive us and if this art attempts to establish that the debate about the veil can be much more global. Here to complete these interpretations are some questions that come to mind at the hands of Princess Hijab’s work:
- To whom should public space and its powers of propaganda belong to? Advertisers? Artists? Political entities? Vandals?
- How should we think about secular rules that are imposed by each society and its history in a growing, diverse world and the inevitable mix of cultures and communities?
- How should we assess the manner in which certain minority communities are integrated into our society?
- Where is this constant evolution of thinness, nudity, and objectified women going to take us?
Picture by Antoine Breant
Princess Hijab’s method shocks as many Muslims as it does those with no denomination, as many women as men, and as many artistes as advertisers. This aspect of her art is what makes it powerful. The symbols and the manner in which she uses them pose many questions. Our desire to understand it and the absence of an explanation offer us even more paths towards understanding.
Here are some quotes from the artist found on the net. We’ll include them here so that those who wish to know more can read Princess Hijab’s own words:
“Guerrilla art is innocent, criminal, ancient and dystopian, intimate and political. I chose the veil because it does what art should do: it challenges, it frightens, it stimulates the imagination.”
“My Princess Hijab persona thinks the veil is no longer all white. She feels contaminated. PH will go on, veiled and alone, to maintain her mental integrity. During the day she wears a white veil, synonym of purity. At night she wears a black veil, the expression of her vengeful battle in the name of a cause.”
Picture by Christophe Meires
Picture by Antoine Breant
The second artist is Italian and is called BR1, short for Bruno. BR1 creates unique, painted posters with the help of vivid colors and free-hand drawing. These posters are inspired by images taken from Arabic magazines that often represent prominent people of the Muslim world. He then takes these images and glues them onto the streets of major western cities. On the surface there is nothing too remarkable about them, in part because these posters merely depict veiled women in daily-life situations.
According to BR1, street art should be a tool to convey social messages and to raise awareness between different groups of people. The artist thus claims his style is social. BR1 studied many different types of veils including the North African veil, the Afghan burqa, and the Iranian Chador. His approach is softer and more positive in representing veiled women as mothers, as friends having fun together, or simply in random scenes of everyday life. He wishes to show that the only difference between a veiled woman and a western woman is the veil itself.
“Women have inspired artists since the dawn of time. Why should veiled women be an exception? My point is to show that veiled women have the same needs and the same nature as the majority of western women.”
His work is received differently according to where it’s placed. In Torino, for example, his art was met with a certain ambiguity. They ripped it down and they vandalized it, yet at the same time others liked and protected it. The articles and commentaries that you can read online about BR1’s work also vary from ecstasy and admiration to disgust and xenophobic rejection. The veil is a strong symbol and so the imagery and ideas found in his work are also strong. In placing these posters in the streets, BR1 provokes lively reactions that open the door to deeper questioning.
To see more of BR1’s work, check out his flickr.
BR1 and Princess Hijab are part of a group of artists that takes street art in interesting directions that differ from the simple (yet honorable) search for beauty, comedy, or emotion. If you know other artists of this genre, please don’t hesitate to contact us or, simply participate by commenting.
Pictures : BR1, Antoine Breant, Kai Juenemann and Christophe Meireis.
Text : French original article by Koubiak
Translation: Jaqui Munger