I sit down with my laptop in a quiet, central Brooklyn café, not far from Prospect Park on a slightly overcast day in August to interview the mysterious Parisian street artist Princess Hijab. I order a San Pellegrino with lime; she abstains from any snacks or beverages. Despite the time difference from France, she’s alert and ready to engage with me. I go into the interview knowing how she guards her anonymity, and the concrete details of her identity remain elusive – this is an email interview after all.
I start off by asking her about her inspirations. Her work brings to mind a more cryptic sort of Adbuster culture jamming: cloaking, not necessarily entirely, the bodies or faces of advertising’s scantily clad models in dripping black hijabs, female and male alike. She responds, “I sort of have a sealed vocabulary at this point, and expanding it takes a lot of energy. Mostly I’m inspired by contradiction. My other inspiration is the frenetic Parisian night … [T]he lit advertisements are everywhere, and they’re relentlessly penetrating.” The parallel between the cover of night and the cover of the hijab is an evocative one: both are oft romanticized as possibly hiding sinister secrets and activities, a drape over unknown fetishes. Princess Hijab references this herself when I ask what she finds the source of the veil’s power as an image or garment: “The veil is a thing of secrets and the hidden, of neo black. And of course it’s imbued with a lot of racial, geographic, sexual, and gender-based meaning.”
Princess Hijab is very aware of the many varied connotations of the veil, and perhaps the multiplicity of identities and opinions related to it is what keeps her from aligning to any one group or explicit political message. Throughout her career, which visibly began in 2006, she’s been accused of being a conservative right-winger policing advertising’s overt sexuality, as well as a proponent of religious extremism, although she does not claim identity as a Muslim (or much else for that matter). I ask if she claims solidarity with any group, or if she even finds those questions important. Her position as a street artist, where the clandestine is routine, seems relevant when she replies, “People have the right to ask questions about my identity. But I’m anonymous; the answers just aren’t a part of my art….I’ve got plenty of love for individuals, but I don’t attach myself to any group; they tend to bore me rather than comfort me. I’m not an advocate for any dogma. I like those who are on the margins of any group though, as they’re likely to be the ones thinking for themselves.”
That also explains Princess Hijab’s artistic influences, as she says she’s “primarily into ‘amateurisme’ and outsider art. I don’t usually like art to which I’m forcedly exposed in museums. The exception would be David Altmejd. I love how his work is shattered but strong, a real kick to the gut.” She says she works in guerilla street art interventions and netart to “allow people to come across things when they’re ‘just browsing,’ so they can be completely unprepared for it.” These mediums certainly lend themselves to more personal, individualized experiences, which is a part of her ultimate goal. She wants to “close that distance,” between advertising and individuals, particularly in regards to body image, further saying that “[a]dvertising is something which, when it’s well done, stabs directly into the personal, so it’s a little strange that we’re also so used to it.”
Although I do believe her work is often misinterpreted as solely working to hide bodies, and is perhaps challenging ubiquitous conventional body imagery instead, whatever her explicit agenda is doesn’t seem to be the point. She’s much more interested in ambiguity as a tool, which “allows the questions and content of my work to form to the viewer. And I think a society which asks questions is a healthy society.” Ultimately, Princess Hijab’s work is more about the society that breeds the culture of the hijab and its mythology than the hijab itself.