Hilda Abla is an inspiring artist that challenges the media stereotypes of beauty by creating bold naked paintings of her own nudity. Living and working amidst Beirut and New York, Hilda, aka Hildos, not only develops her art, but has been able to inspire thousands of men and women through her TED talk on art, body, and self-acceptance.
AF: Hilda, I’ve read that you started in the arts at 5 years old at the University. How is this possible? Did I read it right?
HA: Yes you have read right. Well, my parents enrolled me in an art class for children, that was open at a local university. It is the same university where I continued my studies years later. I would go every Saturday morning and I loved those classes! We not only did drawing but explored different other materials such as watercolor, collage, color mixing, papier maché… and I kept on taking these classes till I was ten! My Dad also got me these huge colored felt pens box with around 100 colors which was my favorite thing in the world because I had so many colors to use!
AF: Since those early days you’ve explored the visual arts from many perspectives. You’ve been a graphic designer, an illustrator, and you have taught art. What’s the project that has influenced your painting the most?
HA: Well a lot of projects influenced my art work and it was a process rather than one project. But mainly it started with my comic strip that I turned now into a blog, Hildos in the city back in 2002. I created my own character Hildos and did comic strips of my experiences around NYC. When I first created Hildos I illustrated her as thin which is what I wanted to look like at the time but later this started shifting and now character looks more like me! Also when I first started I noticed then how easy it is for me to draw humans without models from memory which also influenced me because I realized that it might have an unconscious significance for me and I must use that and enhance my skills which I did during my residency at the School of Visual Arts.
AF: Did your art bring you to New York?
HA: I always wanted to come to New York for different reasons but definitely art is the main reason. I have been working on moving since I graduated from Art school. Even though a lot of people don’t agree with me I do believe that every artist should go through the New York experience. Not only the city’s diverse art scene can have an enriching influence on your art work, ideas and concepts but also it’s vibrance, energy, pace, multiplicity and melting pot backgrounds.
AF: You attended a Milton Glasser Inc. workshop at the School of Visual Arts. Did you end up meeting Milton Glaser? Any tips on making a simple drawing into an enduring icon?
HA: I did. ! I was selected among the 25 who participated in his summer course at the School of Visual arts in 2011. I believe it was one of my best experiences ever! And my classmates whom I am still friends with will confirm it! Rather than giving us tips on how to draw, Mr. Glaser taught us to self discover ourselves and expand out potentials. He was disappointed by my first project though and he said to the class: “this is exactly what I don’t want you to do.” I laugh about that now but at the time that comment forced me to change the way I engage in any project. And I made up for that first project with my last project and got a great compliment!
AF: No doubt that the art scene is vibrant in New York, but do you have a sense of artistic community? Do you feel part of a generation of artists that influence each other and grow together?
HA: I do and on many levels! I am part of many artist communities’: painters, sculptors, graphic designers and illustrators. And I met them through different venues from the School Of Visual Arts, AIGA, Higher yourself and several other art communities. They are all from different backgrounds or cultures which creates a stellar melting pot! This enriches your thoughts which will ultimately be projected in your work! Also very important is that we support each other because being in the world of art can be ruthless, sometimes it’s a tough path to follow with has its ups and downs.
AF: You have certainly influenced many people with your TED talk, would you like to tell us how the experience was?
HA: This has probably been my best experience ever! I attended the TEDxLAU the previous year and I thought to myself I have to do this; I need to share my experience and send a message to the people about both the importance of art and the importance of having a good body image! This is why I was the first one to submit my idea when the ad for speakers was posted for TEDxLAU 2013. Now, I am being told I inspired a lot of new speakers in Lebanon to tackle personal issues.
The process was overwhelming and extremely emotional, from writing to practicing to sharing with other speakers and I would like to thank all the TEDxLAU team who supported me. The writing part was the toughest because I was facing myself and I was sharing a very personal struggle and it made me feel vulnerable.
But the most amazing part was when I was on stage. Because the minute I walked on stage I got a reaction from the audience and it increased throughout the whole talk and later after the talk. I never thought that my art and I would be able to inspire so many people. I still get lovely messages. And the thing is that in 16 minutes I was not only able to inspire people but I went in as a person and came out as a different one. It’s as if I was carrying a back pack full of guilt, shame and frustration and I threw it out on the stage floor, stepped on it, moved on and never looked back.
AF: Your art aims at changing the way women see their bodies and themselves, it defies the “Photoshop woman” model. How do you stand for it through you work?
HA: That is exactly what I try to project through my art, beauty as it is, as it comes from within. Beauty does not have to be tailored to other peoples’ expectations or definitions. Beauty is what is unique about me, you, about every person. Through my art I try to tell every person, every woman in particular, you are beautiful, never doubt it.
I remain true to myself, my views and my art because for me any form of art is about sending a message or inspiring people and not only about the techniques.
AF: You talked about breaking taboos. What would be some of those taboos you’ve attacked and what taboos would you like to tackle next?
HA: My main focus is with body image and nudes and they are both interrelated. I received so many comments regarding my nudes especially when I exhibited my work in Art Fairs. A lot of people asked the organizers that I remove my art work. A curator was so offended by my work that he asked to use flowers and drapes to cover things up! This same curator has my paintings on consignment now! When people ask me why naked I answer because I want to convey the naked truth and acceptance of every part of your body no matter how it looks like. We live in an era where people are seeking perfection; especially esthetically you see it everywhere media, schools, young and old, men and women… All our energy and time are focused on the outside leaving the inside empty and shallow… but does perfection truly exist or is it relative to the eye of the beholder?
My work also addresses sexuality and our relationship with our bodies in our society. Unfortunately, instead of embracing these issues, they are viewed as taboos. And this in turn leads to double standards in society.
It’s the goal of my work to be daring and to show beauty in imperfection with a dash of humor. I believe every work should have significance but we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously and enjoy the expedition…
As for what I will tackle next, my goal now is to project to people the idea of ‘Seeing beauty in imperfection’ but also to be in peace with your body on different levels. Therefore I am going to work on the same line but will tackle different facets and dig deeper into erotica and burlesque.
AF: Would you see a point where the process of emancipation gets culminated and we have to rethink our limits?
HA: Well culminated I don’t think so because we are still in the beginning even though a lot has been done but we still have a long shot to go especially in some parts of the world where the women lib still doesn’t even exist . I believe it should be done through a more approachable way to have more impact
AF: What are your plans for the near future?
HA: Well I have a lot of projects in my mind. For the near future I just moved to NYC so I am planning to have different exhibitions here as well as in Beirut. I am a multi-disciplinary artist and I am working on a new theme right now that will include different artistic approaches.
I usually start with an idea that I first flesh out in sketches and eventually it normally evolves into a composition that is usually totally different from my starting point. Why? Because I like to be spontaneous and go with the flow to see where my intuition and materials will take me…
Interview by Alejandro Pardo