Editor’s note: today marks the birth date of one of our most tireless and incisive contributors, Mr. David Forbes. For his birthday, David gave us a present: an interview with elusive street artist Princess Hijab. Thanks, David – happy birthday!
A spectre is haunting Paris. For five years, Metro-goers have rounded corners to find heavy, black marker strokes obscuring the idealized arcadia depicted in subway advertisements, the airbrushed bodies of the inhabitants — men and women — disappeared behind a heavy veil. Princess Hijab has struck again.
When she started her “reign” in 2006, observers initially couldn’t decide if it was the work of a modernity-hating zealot or some sort of rabble-rousing commentary. The year before Paris had destructive rioting. France has its own serious racial and ethnic issues, and culture wars are never a place for nuance. The hijab is now, controversially, banned in public.
But from her work, there is no hiding, Parisians still pour out of trains to find the mark of Princess Hijab.
She hasn’t exactly hidden from the media, either. But strangely, in an era craving constant revelation, her identity remains a closely guarded secret. She claims to be around 22 years old, poor, from an immigrant background, and not a Muslim. Those who meet her aren’t even sure if she’s female.
Via e-mail, Princess Hijab, the alias chosen to represent “a mixture of precarity and aristocracy,” has chosen to draw back the veil, just a bit, and tell us about how — and why — she chose her domain.
“I have always been drawing, since I was a teenager. As long as I can remember, I see myself making all sorts of collages. I composed them, starting with pictures of miscellaneous news, and mixed them with the celebrities from the magazines.”
She started with graffiti at the age of 12.
“For me street-art is something completely natural. It’s normal to draw on the walls, even more so if one doesn’t have any money, no place to work,” she says. “Street art becomes one’s axis, and I feel totally comfortable in it.”
The very people debating her work had perhaps rubbed shoulders with the artist in earlier days: she performed in a Zentai suit in the metro, trying on guises.
In 2006, when she was 17 (according to her) she had it: disguise perfected and marker in hand, Princess Hijab sprang from the shadows.
“The societal and urban impact were very favorable for my character,” she writes. “The alias fit perfectly.”
She says her mind was filled with a combination of fashion, gender and societal change; visions of both the French Revolution and France’s struggling minorities.
“To my eyes this reality was evident, and no other,” she says. “Everything came together in a mixture of romance and allegory, through this name.”
She tells The Independent that at first she’d wait around to see the reaction, a habit she’s since abandoned, but the rush remains.
“The Metro is an escape from the monotony of things,” she writes when I ask her about the risks of street art. “Why? Because I find there a certain form of rough potentiality.”
“Obviously, the illegality increases the pressure, but that’s the way it is!” She compares the feeling of practicing anonymous street art to “a cold shower … I wash my old impressions away and redefine an other ego that has more affinity with my emotions and my own environment.”
“The wall is a physical boundary, the law an abstract boundary. I paint on top of both.”
The first face was Diam’s, France’s best known female rapper. The ads for her new release were transformed, like so:
The targets, she says, were carefully chosen — claimed.
“When I engulf myself in the entrails of Paris, and sneak amongst the travellers, I visit my kingdom incognito… It is in this venter full of swirl, that the eye of publicity excels in effective persuasion, whereas most of the travelers hurry to get to their work or to get home.”
A manifesto soon appeared:
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.
She calls her work “a survival strategy in urban settings.” The Metro is the densest subway system in the world, after all, and Paris’ underground, from catacombs to hidden temples, has a history of hidden deeds stretching back to ancient times. “Paris is a fantastic city, loaded with mysteries and full of history,” she says.
Looking back, she writes that the decision to call out L’Oreal came after it had just acquired a line of “ethnic” beauty products. In her view, they acquired that market, and she, by “hijab-izing” their ads, acquired them, besides, she adds: “I love the sentence ‘Are you Dark & lovely?’”
As observers sought to define her work, she bit back, growling in the pages of Bitch in 2009: “My work supports right-wing radicalism like Taxi Driver supports cabbies. I’m using the hijab for myself.”
That defiance — her insistence that her art is its own reality — hasn’t wavered. She has consistently refused to answer questions about her position on the burqa ban, and I don’t have any better luck.
“If I didn’t answer your question it’s because it didn’t interest me,” she responds. “As soon as one speaks about symbols, it makes me run away.”
“My work is not linked to any event but more to my personal approach,” she emphasizes.
Later, though, she acknowledges “I think that I have felt certain things, changes here in France and abroad. All this has played a role in my work.” They’ve certainly played a role in furthering her own fame. Just after the French Senate passed the ban, this film surfaced:
In this way, Princess Hijab represents the latest iteration of something quite Western, she told the Independent that she’s inspired by “a certain French Romanticism”: the mysterious artist, continuing with their work, leaving others to place it in context, refusing to involve themselves in the cut-and-thrust of contentious politics, on no side. An impossible vision, perhaps, but it remains powerful for a reason.
Much is made of the modern world allowing people, especially immigrants to its bustling metropoli, to redefine themselves through a mix of talent, fantasy and ego. In same ways Princess Hijab is simply taking the promise at its word, and playing it to the hilt.
For all Princess Hijab’s repeated assertions that she, and only she, defines her work, the hijab and niqab remain explosive issues in her home, and elsewhere.
Last year, authorities fined a French woman after she attacked an Emirati tourist, ripping her veil off. Two other French women, meanwhile, dubbed themselves the “Niqabitches” and combined the head covering with heels and mini-skirts to highlight the absurdity of the ban. As the prohibition went into effect in April, French police arrested protesters.
As the tension over the hijab has risen, Princess Hijab has seen increased media focus. The attention has its downside, too, she claims, taking up the refrain of artists throughout the ages, that some media simply seek to fit her into a category, articles “deviate towards viewpoints that are too far off or even are a caricature” of her work.
She also creates animated gifs, and hints at other art, before drawing back from more specifics. “I do not show all my practices,” adding that “street-Art best describes my current way of expressing myself right now,”
Not least in that is the power she feels her secret identity gives her work. “Anonymity is a gift, being seen is an illusion,” she replies. “There’s a profit in staying hidden.”
“The metro is my universe and my home,” she declares. “And in the future, every visitor that treads on Parisian ground, will be obliged to have some thoughts about me.”
Over-the-top? Yes, but that’s part of the point of a persona. In her own way, Princess Hijab seems to send the age-old message that nothing in any culture, from any part of the globe, is off-limits from art. Even in the heat of controversy, her ribaldly covered figures declare, there’s room for enigma and charade.
In the midst of all of this, she hopes “people have the curiosity to come to Paris, in the subways and the catacombs, to know me as well. So we can keep a bit of mystery.”
My sincere thanks to Vanessa Page-Ngambi for her translation assistance with this piece.