We got a special chance to sit down with one of the world’s top studio makeup artists, Matin Maulawizada! From his life growing up in Afghanistan, to becoming the celebrity makeup artist for A-listers like Angelina Jolie, Matin gave us a glimpse of what life for him is all about. What we love about Matin’s journey is his resilience throughout his multifaceted life experiences as a former refugee, molecular biologist, celebrity makeup artist, activist, and beyond the different labels: a deeply compassionate human being. Matin generously and transparently welcomed us into the rich and colorful memories of his life and perspective. We hope you’re as captivated as we are by this interview!
What is your personal experience with Afghanistan’s culture of toxic masculinity/misogyny and do you foresee it being broken?
It's a topic that I’ve thought about in depth- and the misogyny in Afghanistan, I don't think it's the same as the rest of the world, it's very different. It comes from a very deep loving place but loving to a point of killing the one you love. So it's a very different way and it happens when we're teenagers, at least in my generation. When we were teenagers, we went to a co-ed school and I wrestled with my friends until winter break and when we came back, the girls developed faster and all of a sudden, they wouldn't talk to us. So the girls became girls and the boys became boys, and then I went to an all-boys school. It was very confusing for me to experience and I didn't understand why girls had to be so careful talking to boys. But later you become aware that there's a girl's reputation, what the public thinks once their name is soiled, so it has a lot of that attached to it.
I think a dramatic change in terms of a cultural revolution or cultural overhaul is important because we cannot build Afghanistan with just the male population. Unless women take part and are educated, you cannot rely on less than 50% of your society to build a proper society. The misogyny doesn't exist only among men - the mothers are as guilty because they side with their sons and they destroy their daughters-in-law, so that part of the culture has to change as well. I do believe, as much as I hate to admit it, what Shah Amanullah did in the early 1910s of literally making it illegal to wear a burka, illegal not to go to school, I think we need a revolution like that. Call it westernization, call it whatever you want, but it can be done in a proper way within the cultural context. But it needs to be done, because what we're doing right now is not sustainable and we will never have the Afghanistan that we dream of having.
I’ve been accused of being feminine all my life, but I’ve learned to be proud of that because it's a gift and not a curse. Growing up, I had to work really hard in order to hide anything feminine about me. But again I grew up with six women and with my aunts, so I had no choice but having some feminine traits. So in a way that was such a lucky thing, but I did fight it all my life. Like, a brother-in-law brought it up once “you have to act more masculine this is not good for you.” It was such a jab at what masculinity was for a young boy.
But even for me, it took me 28 years to stop having fights with my sisters. I would be in a club with my friends and my sister would show up, and I would get home and have a giant fight, “what are you doing here?” and she's like “I’m doing exactly what you're doing,” but in my male Afghan brain I never understood what she meant and I was like, “what if guys take advantage of her” but this is the reality I grew up with: that I have to be over protective, to the point of alienating my sisters. I found out that my sister was pinched as a young girl by the local butcher and after that she became like a cross-dresser and she played with boys. So after we fought, she refused to talk to me for over a year and a half and it was devastating. I was 28 at that time and when we had a family picnic we went for a walk and we talked and cried and hugged. It literally took me 28 years to understand her pain and realize that our hearts are made of the same muscle and what I desired, she desired, and if I wanted to have fun, she wanted to have fun. Even growing up with women it took that long, so I feel so sad for boys that grow up with brothers and with big male surroundings. They would never understand this, and I feel sorry for their wives and for their sisters that they can never be close to because they're really missing out on being close to these amazing creatures. Afghan women are a very special breed and they're rare to find. They're the kindest human beings I’ve ever met and the most selfless ones so I’m lucky that I grew up that way.
Based on both your personal and professional experiences, what do you think is the line between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation?
Cultural exchange is a very healthy thing for people to do. It's like you living in Afghanistan: you cannot just walk around in Western clothing with short sleeve shirts and without a head scarf, so you're not really culturally appropriating- you're being respectful, you're being thoughtful of where you live and your surroundings. So there's a fine line of course, but I think cultural appropriation is usually done by a culture that has dominated another culture in the past, like an oppressor culture. They're taking it as a costume idea, making fun of it, or being insensitive to it without really understanding the context. A good example would be a makeup artist doing the traditional Día de Los Muertos face painting during Halloween. Yes, you have the skills and you're doing beautiful work, but that tradition goes with prayers and thoughts while going to the cemetery for the family; it's not something to use as a decoration. Or a native American headdress: that's a ceremonial thing that goes with thoughts; it goes with prayers. So wearing that or blackface for Halloween, it's awful. All kinds of these things are always cultural appropriation for me. But I don't see anything wrong with embracing a culture and embracing a look without making fun of it if you're doing it in a sensitive way. I think it's wonderful if you're taking inspiration from it and bringing awareness to it. Look at what yoga has done to do Hindu culture: nobody talks about the caste system but everybody loves yoga and it's brought in a lot of positive thinking about that culture to the West. So there's a fine line between what's appropriation and what's cultural exchange, but I think as long as it's done in a ceremonious way or in a way of bringing awareness in a positive light to the culture, it's the only way that we can co-exist and celebrate each other.
Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance, featured in Vanity Fair in 2002
What do you think is one of the biggest misunderstandings Americans have about Afghanistan and vice versa?
I think the one thing that Americans really misunderstand about Afghanistan is what we look like. Afghans are everything from the fairest of the blondes to almost black skin and we have Asians. We have every ethnicity in Afghanistan, and it's truly a melting pot. So that's the one thing that I resent: when they think about Afghans, they think of Pashtuns, and I hate the way the news adds propaganda. I became aware of this when the Americans were siding with the mujahideen in the 90s and they were calling them freedom fighters and the Northern Alliance. The media started packaging them as the Northern Alliance, but they literally raped Afghanistan, so it's not something that was gentle. Then I would go to work, and the guys would say, “These Northern Alliance guys are so hot, they're so beautiful,” and I’m like, “What are they talking about?” And then I started watching the news and I saw that every time they talked about the Northern Alliance, they showed green-eyed boys with lighter skin, sandy hair, wearing the pakol hats. And every time they talked about the Taliban, they would show a dark Afghan with a big nose, eyeliner, and turban, and that's when it became apparent. I thought, “Oh my God, this is complete brainwashing propaganda,” because they want people to accept Afghanistan because they want to go and invade, while two years ago these guys were all bad guys. Then I saw that they're doing this with Israel and Palestine, so it became acutely apparent of how propaganda happens in the news in America and how they view it.
The way Afghans see people that live in America or Afghans that live in America: they think that you're rich and that you automatically become rich once you live in the West. And the expectation of helping family members and all of that goes up, which is legitimate, because they really don't have any way of fending for themselves; at least we can work. But the assumption of diaspora Afghans being rich is because pictures always turn out better when you post from the West; it's not dusty, it’s newer furniture so it always looks so much more luxurious than it is. I don’t think Afghans realize how hard people in the West work just to live.
What is courage to you and who is someone who has inspired your courage?
Courage to me means honesty in saying the truth no matter what. I used to be blindly loyal to Afghanistan and Afghan culture and I would take offense if anybody criticized it. But the one person who inspired me to think about honesty was my friend Vasyl Barlak, who was in the Peace Corps in Afghanistan and is a great mentor and sounding board. He’s the one who told me to start my work in Afghanistan and he said, “Just go; even if you can hire one person that’s one family you can help.” Since he lived in Afghanistan, I trusted him in his views on culture, and he started making me tell the truth about Afghanistan: about my culture, my upbringing, and all that. And it was the first time that I actually would voice things, reluctantly at times, but it was amazingly freeing to actually voice it and say what was wrong with my culture, not just all the good things. So whether it was masculinity, women's rights, homophobia, animal cruelty - all of these things that exist in Afghanistan I never really voiced it, I never faced it, I never talked about it. But Vasyl gave me that courage, and to this day, he calls me out on things when I become less courageous about talking about my culture. So to me, telling the truth is the most courageous thing to do as an Afghan.