What is ugliness and why do we shy away from it? The Hamburg artist Moshtari Hilal explores these questions in a book of essays.
Instead of a diary: Moshtari Hilal repeatedly drew himself for many years Photo: Moshtari Hilal / Hanser Verlag
“Before I enter the room, my nose enters. She casts a shadow that swallows me. Wrapped in black, I look out of it”: This is what Moshtari Hilal tells us in her book “Ugliness”.
So far she has become better known as an artist and curator; Her drawings, mostly self-portraits or pictures of her family, are dominated by black and white contrasts; she combines large areas with fine lines and many details. For her art, she uses photos of herself and from her family archives with the stated intention of questioning ideals of beauty and ideas of ugliness.
Was this type of access no longer enough for the book to be created? The art was obviously no longer enough – in “Ugliness” there are always images that have long been part of Hilal’s art.
Born in Kabul in 1993, Moshtari Hilal fled from Afghanistan to Hamburg with her family when she was two. Growing up as a racialized person in a white, German majority society made her feel alien from childhood. Hilal uses the word “racialization” himself; it describes the classification of people based on certain characteristics into a supposedly natural group that can be distinguished from the majority.Hiklal Moshtari
“Ugliness is not isolated. It’s never just my feeling, but: What does that look like in the larger context?”
Her visual talent helped her process her emotions as a child: by drawing. In the book there is the picture “Cartography of my ugliness”. Hilal says it is a cartographic representation of her body during puberty.
“Ugliness” combines text, sometimes even poems, and images: sometimes they are works by Hilal himself, sometimes they are more material-like, such as a Charles Darwin caricature that could perhaps be made into a work of art.
Hilal takes readers on her own journey through life, an examination of her own ugliness. She found herself ugly very early on. “I made very cynical, negative drawings of myself for a long time,” says Hilal. That was for her what the diary is for others.
The focus is on her self-taught artistic examination of viewing habits and beauty standards: “In my visual work, I tried to convince myself, but also others, through an aesthetic and intellectual classification that these characteristics, be it the big nose or hairy bodies, can be beautiful or aesthetic.” The result is also self-portraits that are beautiful, but not according to the most widespread standards.
While she initially wanted to define new concepts of beauty as an artist, she now breaks this down in the book and asks why there is this need to expand our idea of what is beautiful. Beauty, says the author, only works with its opposite, the ugly. Her book is also about why we are still afraid of ugliness.
Based on her “personally perceived ugliness,” she tried to classify it historically in order to emphasize “that she is not isolated,” says Hilal. “It’s never just my feeling, but: What does it look like in the larger context?”
Hilal studied Islamic and political sciences with a focus on gender and decolonial studies in Hamburg, Berlin and London. She consciously decided not to study art, even though she had always had an interest in it. As a student, she took part in art workshops and was always around people who had something to do with it.
As a refugee, as an Afghan woman who grew up in Germany, she had many political questions that she wanted to answer for herself. “It was clear to me that I wouldn’t get this knowledge from an art degree,” she says. But she “also worked on these topics further through drawings”.
Her first exhibitions focused on the themes, not the art: for example, as part of a group show on “contemporary Afghan art in the diaspora”. She was often exhibited in contexts “that exhibited me because of my identity and not because of my art.”
Writing an entire book in German was a new experience for Hilal, and also for a large, well-known publisher. One result: a whole new audience and much greater interest from the media – “an interesting experience, but also strange”. After all, the book deals with very specific things; Hilal starts from a minority perspective.
The topic of “ugliness” is anything but new; Hilal mentions books like “The History of Ugliness” by Umberto Eco. To gain her own perspective, she turned to herself and her personal vulnerability: “I tried to deal with my face in the same way that I would deal with a topic that you research and take seriously.”
When she was writing, she imagined writing the book that she herself would have found helpful. “This is my perspective and my attempt to historicize my personal sense of ugliness here as an example for everyone else and thus show them that their personal sense of ugliness did not arise in a vacuum, but concerns all of us.” The book doesn’t stop there personal individual case, Hilal is interested in the discourses around ugliness and its opposite.
To do this, she primarily looks at the 19th and 20th centuries. For Hilal, the time in which our current understanding of humanity was shaped – for better or worse: Marx and Darwin, but also colonialism and racial thinking. “Everything is a result of our conditions and our environment,” says Hilal, “the economy in which we live, our upbringing, our socialization.” After all of this, those who ask themselves seemingly personal questions have to ask.