The Art of Crossing Borders

3 mins read

By Merle Ecker

As soon as you represent someone else, you equally include yourself.

– Tasnim Baghdadi

Young female artists of color are reclaiming their narrative and giving a face to the issue of borders and their consequences. Tasnim Baghdadi and Moshtari Hilal are two women of the diaspora, living in Germany. The diaspora, in this context, is a broader term for minorities migrating to countries other than their traditional homeland. Tasnim, a German-Moroccan, completed her masters in Asian and Islamic History while Moshtari, born in Afghanistan,  studied Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science. They are self-taught visual artists and illustrators. As two independent artists both refusing to wait for society’s recognition, they took to the internet to share what they had to say. They emerged through the power of social media by creating a visual language in order to reclaim their own narrative and to provoke a public discourse. With pen and paper they visualized both hybrid identities and marginalized faces in times of globalization and migration. With their work, they are not only challenging stereotypes and beauty standards but are also taking a stand in politics.

While their biographies and techniques vary greatly, they both have a common fascination with the human form and face. Having their base in a form of self-recognition and acknowledgment, Tasnim’s portraits are composed of metaphorical repetitions searching between the abstract and the meta-figurative, which she creates by employing simplistic lines, patterns and the one-line-technique. They are communicating between past and  present, where the motives of the nostalgic memories of the past are contrasted against the modern digital form of the artworks. This can be seen in her recreated pictures of deceased family members which she processed by adding her own facial structures, as a form of connection. Thereby, she is creating the illusion of a circular composition of time and existence, which goes in line with her repetitive style. Tasnim diplomatically deals with the consequences of the diaspora; the individual and the collective, longing and belonging, fragmentation, isolation and separation where individuals are connected and disconnected from each other, or drawn repetitively above each other. Moshtari’s work is likewise composed mainly by black-and-white lines in fine shapes. Her semi-autobiographical portraits, mainly based on herself or familiar faces, are to different extents influenced by the art of Frida Kahlo, both in the sense of flower-style and message. They are deconstructing the whole idea of community and instead concentrate on the individual. Symbols are used to confuse prejudice and project complex identities; where men wear earrings and scarfs around their head while women sport mustaches as a form of emancipation. Surreal aesthetics and therapeutic detailed work emerge to impersonate the faces of people of marginalized identities.

The lack of representation of women in the diaspora, their own alienation to society and outside pressure to conform to its norms, created the necessity for the two artists to deal with their faces, both literally and metaphorically, through an evolvement of selfies to portraits. On these portraits, the artists are emphasizing and appreciating the features that appear to our post-colonial beauty standards as blemishes, facial hair, big noses, darker skin, etc. In this way they make people visible. On the other hand, it is also a form of protest, equally against demarcation as against the trend of assimilation. Instead they visually depict diverse individuality and characteristics. With the hashtag “Decolonize Your Mind” or “Embrace Your Nose”, Moshtari has succeeded both in valuing herself and in inspiring others, for example by exhibiting the beauty of noses and thereby contributing to the rejection of plastic surgery. Combining simplistic painting techniques with symbols, they have created hybrid identities which cannot be limited to one single category, meaning the characters are neither nor either; European or Middle Eastern, female or male, black or white. What started as a form of self-therapy, where both artists investigated their own facial structures, has become a political statement. From starting to publish their work on Instagram they now take part in several exhibitions and panel discussions across the globe; as in Afghanistan, Germany, USA, Denmark, Austria, Canada, Iran and lastly in Gothenburg’s Konstepidemin, to name a few. Moshtari’s and Tasnim’s self-portraits demonstrate not only how the wider world-view influences our own self-image, but equally, how breaking free of expectations, marginalization and stereotypes can turn the tables and thereby influence the awareness of society.

The issue of borders is in its essence the question of identity. It is not purely a geographical matter but a categorical definition of those who are within and those who lie beyond; in other words, a form of self-reflection as well as an attempt to understand what appears foreign to us; a wider world-view. In this visual narrative of a common language, these artists aren’t only portraying and humanizing marginalized identities, but are also challenging stereotypical ideas and merging those which may have appeared separate; the artist and her muse, the art and the observer, us and them – in all our differences.


Merle Ecker has throughout her life been mixing up her three languages German, Swedish and English, failed French classes in school and is now taking an “easy path” in studying Arabic at Uppsala University. Well, relatively speaking, she still has more hope for her future Arabic then in her plans of changing the world.


Image: Tasnim Baghdadi

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