Scarred, stretched, pierced, hairy, burnt, marked, bleached, tanned or discoloured - every aspect of the skin of a woman’s body is a matter of constant discussion, albeit one of either absolute glorification or criticism. Such is the breadth of judgement that women themselves do not discuss their body openly. They often limit their vision to bodily imperfections. Zuhra Hilal’s project Surface, subsequently, is an attempt to break down the established ideals around the female body, and focus on its exterior surface - the skin.
Born in Afghanistan and based in Berlin and Copenhagen, Zuhra Hilal is an avant-garde artist and fashion designer. She uses art as a means to ‘challenge the perception of women in society’. Her practice always centres on the female condition and body. In this light, Surface springs from Hilal’s personal experience with body hair. Often typecasted as a ‘woman of colour’, Hilal states, “My body hair is more visible. However, living in a time and society that shames female body hair, declaring it unhygienic and un-aesthetic, I was provoked to delve deeper into the subject.”
The anthology Thinking Through the Skin acted as a catalyst by posing questions like ‘how skin becomes, rather than simply is, meaningful’. Reflecting further on the latter, during a one-month residency at a studio in Copenhagen last summer, Hilal experimented with new materials and forms that could translate her experience into works of art. “Through my work, I want to promote an acceptance of the skin, faced with the changes it undergoes through one’s life. A woman’s body changes over time with, for example, puberty, ageing, and pregnancy. The natural circumstances of life are seen on skin. The idea that we are being sold - ‘a baby smooth and even skin in the perfect tone should be the standard’ - is false," says Hilal. According to her, beauty standards in the present times only negate what is universally natural.
Consequently, to aesthetically represent her concept, Hilal opted to work with latex as she believes, “The choice to use latex is quite pragmatic, I have worked with it before and knew its properties, and it is the best when you are trying to reproduce skin. That is why movie and theatre props often are made of latex. I used my own hair as it is the real thing and it ties me closer to my artwork.” The detailed handicrafting, wherein she glued every single hair on the latex skin by hand, was clearly indicative of her cultural heritage of Afghanistan. As she spent a considerable amount of time working with her own hair, it offered her a period to reflect on her own relationship with her body hair. Initially, she had to overcome her disgust with detached hair, for example, the hair in the shower drain. However, by working intensely with it as a material, Hilal’s relationship with hair evolved, becoming more relaxed and accepting. In this regard, Hilal reiterates, “The project springs from my own personal grievances, and by literally using myself in the piece, I think that I have come full circle.”
Hilal hopes to empower women to do the same and be able to discuss their bodies without prejudices and shame. In her own words, “The skin is the diary of our lives and we should not deny that.”