Photo via Tracy Clark-Flory
"My work supports right-wing radicalism like Taxi Driver supports cabbies. I'm using the hijab for myself."
For the past few years, a mysterious street artist, supposedly a 21-year-old Muslim woman, has hit Parisian billboards, shrouding the models gracing the slick advertisements in black hijabs.
Her work, has at times, seemed a Rorschach test for the culture wars. Critics swore that she was an Islamic fundamentalist, intent on blotting out images of sexuality. Others saw her works as sly feminist subversion, pointing out that she often left model's legs naked and covered male figures as well as female.
Or is it?
Lately, the Princess has become less mysterious. A May article in Der Spiegel revealed that she's not, in fact, Muslim at all, and featured the first known photos of her at work. In September, she released a manifesto. Her statement reads, in part:
Princess Hijab knows that L’Oréal and Dark&Lovely have been killing her little by little. She feels that the veil is no longer that white. She feels contaminated. When she was a teen, she heard about movements such as Adbuster; but since 9/11, things have changed. She does not subvert images in an American way. Princess Hijab will go on, veiled and alone, forever asserting her physical and mental integrity. By day, she wears a white veil, symbol of purity. By night, her black veil is the expression of her vengeful fight for a cause (custom ad). With her spray paint and black marker pen, she is out to hijabize advertising. Even Kate Moss is targeted. She knows all about visual terrorism! And she will not spare her right of expression for the likes of publicists.
The Princess' handiwork
The same rant proclaimed her independence from all religious and political causes. Instead, she maintains, she's "an insomniac-punk" and "the leader of an artistic fight, nothing else."
She also has a clear desire to hit a nerve — "visual terrorism"? — and hit it hard. The hijab is extremely controversial in France (it's banned in the country's schools) and elsewhere. Minarets were just prohibited in Switzerland (a stark reminder that freedom and direct democracy often conflict) and right-wing political parties are pushing for far worse. It's notable how quickly critics lined up, eager to place the young street artist's work into one of the shouting match's easily defined boxes.
Things only get more fascinating with Arwa Aburawa's excellent article for Bitch, in which she interviews Princess Hijab and brings a more balanced perspective to her work:
She notes that, in France, “You’re always being asked your origin, which religion you follow. It’s something that is very French, actually; you don’t see it in New York or Berlin.” Hinting that she is a racial outsider in France, Princess Hijab states that she is never taken at face value, but instead pushed into a homogeneous social group and then judged by a corresponding set of stereotypes. With stratification by gender, religion, place of origin, and sexuality, she asserts, comes groups that are closed off from one another’s experiences. Even during her time at university, she recalls her modes of expression being explained away by her origins: “I would be told [that it was] ‘natural,’ given my background, that I would work on [one] topic and not on another. I felt trapped.” But by highlighting everyone’s potential “outsider” status by imposing the hijab on public figures, PH asserts that she is “trying to create a connection with and between people.”
If the solution to fundamentalism is, as Johann Hari puts it, not multiculturalism but miscegenation, then Princess Hijab is a sign of hope. She's taken a garment often used to bury female identity and turned it right back around to bludgeon mass-marketed beauty.
In doing so, she, like a proper insomniac punk provocateur, has drawn from some of the artistic and alternative cultures that provide the strongest anti-bodies to shuttered minds we've yet devised. Her art is hers individually, yet provides an example of the cultural hybridization that's one of our only hopes for a better world.
Anyone who manages to give the middle finger to fundamentalists and the body mill in the same act should be cheered.
It's a reminder, too, that clothing, symbols and ideas are all ours, to break and do with as we please. We try to fix their meanings down; declare something evil (or sacred) and nothing else. This is foolish: our ability to transform what we are given makes us human. It means that tomorrow can be better than today.
Fight on, Princess.