Meet Afghanistan’s first female graffiti artist, who is risking it all for her murals
'Freedom is not that we remove our burqas and hijabs, freedom is having peace. Even if she removes her cover, if she still can’t study and work, what good is it?'
The ongoing peace talks between the Taliban and the US are never far from the headlines. The possibility of their return to power elicits plenty of questions, none of which seem to have an answer. But there are particular queries to be had for those working in creative industries, and especially for women. After all, even the arts couldn’t escape the wrath of the fundamentalist political movement, which once restricted the sector with harsh punishments.
But not all Afghans are against the Taliban’s return, at least not outright. Shamsia Hassani, 31, thought to be Afghanistan’s first female graffiti artist and co-founder of Berang Arts, a group that promotes contemporary arts in Afghanistan, says she does not want to waste her time thinking about it. “But the Taliban are not gone now, are they? We are not living in peace. No one wants the Taliban back in power, but things are just getting worse and worse. We live in constant fear, surrounded by death and destruction.
“This is the land of strange and unpredictable events. If the Taliban return, perhaps things will get worse, maybe they will stay the same and maybe they will improve. We don’t knows what will happen.”
For now, Hassani is content finding her own influence in the stricken country, painting walls with symbolic art that epitomises Afghanistan’s issues – while trying not to be attacked or harassed – and holding public exhibitions with fellow female contemporary artists. Having narrowly escaped a suicide attack unscathed in 2014 when attending a show at Institut Francois in Kabul, Hassani understands the dangers of public gatherings far too well.
Fighting battles against discrimination for the arts is nothing new to Hassani. She was born in Iran, which she called home until about 15 years ago, and was exposed to the cruelty of prejudice at a young age. The surge in Afghans fleeing war and travelling to Iran through the 1980s turned public opinion in the country against Afghanistan. Being born in Iran was not enough for Hassani to obtain its citizenship and she was considered Afghan, a fact she decided was best kept a secret when she started school. “I was mostly OK, but you really felt the racism,” she says.
That bigotry translated into laws that prevented Hassani from choosing art as her major in high school. Distraught, she signed up for accounting, one of the few subjects she was allowed to study. But in her final year, she was stripped of the right to graduate when her school informed her a new law blocked “foreign nationals” from obtaining diplomas.
“That day I stayed ’til the end of class, I didn’t tell my friends. I came home, changed my clothes and just burst into tears,” she recalls. “‘Foreign student’ was just a classy word to disguise Afghan.”
Today, the laws affecting Afghans obtaining an education have mostly been scaled back or removed. Unwilling to give up, and with support from her mother, Hassani convinced her school to allow her to attend classes without the expectation of a formal degree. A gifted student, Hassani’s participation in an accounting competition raised the school’s ranking, and in turn, allowed them to pull some strings and award her the diploma.
A new life
In 2004, with the Taliban pushed out of Kabul, Hassani’s family made the painful decision to leave behind their home and move to Afghanistan.
That was also a scary prospect for Hassani, who only knew what she had seen on the news about the country. But Kabul was better than she had expected, and the family set about building a life from scratch. Despite facing issues such as a lack of water or electricity, a strong sense of belonging prevailed in Hassani. “We could proudly say we were Afghans. I felt the sky, the earth, the air, the birds were all mine. Even if it was ruins, it was my ruins,” she says passionately.
Hassani says after travelling the world, she only feels this sense of belonging in Afghanistan, a subject that would become one of the focal points of her work. Free to study what she desired, she chose fine arts at Kabul University, and also studied contemporary arts on the side at a cultural centre. It was there that she broke away from Realism and began presenting her feelings through drawings of fish with bubbles stuck inside them. The bubbles were the words they could not speak.
But it was attending a graffiti workshop by artist Chu in 2010 that inspired her to take on the style of street art. She fell in love with the it instantly. “I was really excited. I thought we have so many wrecked walls and I could start painting on them,” she says.
A lack of specialised sprays and colours in Afghanistan forced her to develop her own technique, combining brush, spray and acrylic paint.
She focused on painting women, with modern niqabs and sharp shoulders, which drew criticism. “I didn’t want to fight against the niqab, this is something that is developed in the culture and accepted. I wanted to fight against the prevention of the development of the mind,” she says. “Freedom is not that we remove our niqabs and hijabs, freedom is having peace. Even if she removes her cover, if she still can’t study and work, what good is it? We have to understand what peace is.”
By the end of 2011 she had developed a female character that would become her trademark. The figure is always painted with her eyes closed to symbolise the horrors in her community that were too disturbing to see, as well as the destruction that made many uncertain of their future. Her lack of lips illustrates what Hassani feels women experience as second-class citizens, whose words are of no significance. She has given her musical instruments occasionally, signifying the lengths women would have to go through, using tools, just to be heard.
Through this character, Hassani started to tackle issues such as women’s rights, wars, refugees and belonging. But while she was invited around the world to share her work, at home she struggled to share it freely.
Change through art
Her symbolic art and her gender were working against her in a society that was conditioned to see women indoors, and that did not know much about contemporary art. Hassani often finds herself surrounded only by men as she works. She says traditionalists make crass assumptions about her and insult her. Then there are those who do not want her “vandalising” the walls. “Our people only understand beauty from art. I don’t blame the people for not knowing, they haven’t seen it or been taught it. They have been in wars. It will take time,” Hassani says.
Determined for her art to be seen in her country, she is propelled by the urge to make a difference. She is now trying to produce stencils that only require a couple of colours, in order to limit her time in the street to about 15 minutes and reduce the dangers. She works on canvas and shares the images on social media. “I want my art to live among people, for the people who don’t get to go to art galleries.
My art is not like a vaccine that will have immediate effect, the changes it can create are gradual and take time.”
Hassani is now working with other female artists from Berang Arts to hold a public exhibition in Kabul next month, her first since 2015. Berang Arts is also working on holding an exhibition in Abu Dhabi this year to introduce her fellow Afghan artists to a wider and more global audience. But does she think she will ever be able to open her character’s eyes?
She ponders this for a while before saying, while she hopes to, she can’t imagine the horrors ever going away. “Things are getting worse here, not better.”
She compares living in Afghanistan to falling in a swamp. Stuck and unable to breakout, she says there are no good options. “I can’t sit around and wait for things to change, for a wall to appear. I have to do what I can with what we have.”
Updated: April 15, 2019 08:55 AM