This post was originally published on First Post.
The woman in a hijab, painted on a wall in Kabul, seems mischievous, impish — and the bright colour of her headscarf seems very much at odds with the drab and gloomy setting you’ll find her in. But this is precisely the quality of her art that has made Shamsia Hassani — considered Afghanistan’s first female graffiti artist — so striking. Hassani, who works to bring art to her country’s public spaces, wants to create conversations on subjects other than war in Afghanistan. Her bright, quirky graffiti is the first step in doing just that; at the same time, Hassani is also navigating the boundaries that define gender roles in her country.
Shamsia was born in Iran, but moved back to the country of her origin — Afghanistan — in the mid-2000s, to pursue an education in art.
In an interview with Firstpost, Hassani spoke about her influences and what she hopes her art will achieve.
Shamsia, you moved back to Afghanistan from Iran as you weren't allowed to study art there... Before you enrolled at Kabul University, did you ever worry about your future as an artist and whether or not you would have an opportunity to get the formal education you needed?
When I got to Afghanistan, I did not know that one day I will get to be a known artist. So I did not worry much about not getting enough success. I was very happy just because I did not have the limitations that were imposed on me in Iran.
You had always loved to paint, from the time you were a little child...what did being able to draw or paint mean to you and when did you realise that you wanted to pursue art for the rest of your life?
All kids love to draw and paint... when they get older, either their elders interfere in their choices or they decide if they want to continue (with) the art form. The number of people who grow and want to continue drawing and painting (arts) is very few, but I was one of those who wanted to continue.
When I was little, my drawings were much better than my fellow classmates and my drawings had feeling. These were very simple drawings, but my teachers always appreciated my work and asked others to observe and learn from my drawings. My parents also supported me a lot.
It was at a graffiti workshop with (the artist) CHU that you discovered your fascination with this art form. What was it about graffiti that so appealed to you?
It took me time to choose arts, I did not directly become an artist or started following art, it was a gradual process.
There are a couple of reasons for which I chose to do graffiti: One, it is a new art form. And two, in Afghanistan we do not have galleries and exhibition areas; the ones available are for a few people only. I thought if I chose to take exhibitions, there might be only a few artists who will come and see my artworks. On the other hand, if I put my works on the streets, there will be more people — who have no idea about arts — that will have a chance to see my work and observe.
I really felt good when people took pictures in front of my works on the streets. Maybe they didn’t know the meaning of my work, but they felt the difference between a plain wall and the walls that had my graffiti on them.
I do not expect everyone to understand the meaning of my work, but that they feel a little happy to see them is enough of an appreciation for my work.
What do you look for in a location (for one of your graffiti works)?
The first thing that is important for me is the security aspects, the wall has to be in a secure area with not a lot of traffic. To be honest, it is very hard for me to find a wall, as everyone wants you to paint what they like on their walls!
The challenges that you face as a female artist in Afghanistan are vastly different from the issues of graffiti artists in western countries. Could you speak about the issues you face? Has the public mindset towards your art changed over the years?
In western countries, graffiti artists are mostly worried about the government. They are worried about getting caught by the police. People passing by while they work, are not counted as obstacles for them.
In Afghanistan, however, the police doesn’t care about what you are doing on the wall (graffiti), it is everyone else who has an issue with your work on the streets. People who have not been civilised enough are the ones who try to create problems (sic). For example, the girl Farkhundah who didn’t do anything to harm anyone, was killed and burned on the streets of Kabul by uncivilised and uneducated people. [Editor's note: Farkhunda Malikzada was a 27-year-old Muslim woman, killed by a mob in Kabul, after being falsely accused of burning a Quran. The incident was filmed by spectators.] You can be a victim. Even if later you are found not guilty of the crime, it doesn’t matter since you are dead by then.
In Afghanistan, people who are still stuck in the past and haven’t updated their thinking are the biggest problem for me. The second obstacle that I face while working is the suicide attacks. But this is something that everyone faces, and is not specific to me.
It is very difficult to change people’s minds, they have had their old rotten ideas for decades and it is impossible to change them in a couple of years. I cannot change everyone with my art, but art can change people’s mind and then people can change society positively.
What are the influences on your approach, style and aesthetic as an artist?
My working style has evolved slowly and gradually. The elements seen in my works are added one by one and did not appear all together suddenly. For example, the musical instruments that portrays women’s voices, bubbles, bats, they slowly got added to my work.
After a while, a composition was created of all these elements that now can be seen in my works.
Who are the contemporary artists in Afghanistan whose work you admire?
We have a lot of contemporary artists in Afghanistan and I respect each and every one of them dearly.
Hamed Hassanzadah is one of those artists that I admire and (he) has a lot to say through his works. His general knowledge regarding modern arts is fascinating and his works are pretty unique.
What are the unique problems or concerns of artists in your country? Do you see common themes reflected across the works of your peers?
It all depends on the form of every artist’s artwork. For example, the artists who do calligraphy and miniature are appreciated a lot by society as people are used to the work and also it has an Islamic form. Artists who draw natural scenery are also appreciated in society and welcomed by the people. Those who draw portraits are not much appreciated as it is not a form allowed in Islam and people do not approve of their work much. All these artists work in their indoor studios, where there is no danger facing them.
Artists who work outside their safe zone (home, office, and indoor studio) are taking a lot of risk in doing so. Artists who work indoors usually sell their work and can take care of their expenses; those who work outdoors on (the) walls and streets are not supported by society. Street artists have a different goal in their minds, as their works are not purchased and they cannot even take care of their art expenses.
Could you tell us a little about how art and artists survived the Taliban years?
I was not in Afghanistan during the reign of Taliban. I have heard from lecturers and professors at Faculty of Fine Arts that during Taliban years there was scenery painting, calligraphy, and Islamic designs on mosques that were popular amongst people.
Other art forms were not even allowed during Taliban years. When I got back to Kabul from Iran, I went to the National Gallery of Afghanistan and saw a box filled with ripped paintings. I asked the staff at the National Gallery what this meant, and they responded: “These are the old historic paintings of Afghanistan that included faces (portraits) and these were torn by the Taliban.”
Please tell us a little about any project or series you are currently working on. How do you continue to balance your artistic work with your teaching work at the university?
My final series of works — Birds of No Nation — is about my people who have lost their identity, who migrate to different countries, leave their own homes, and search for peace. I want to show the world the situation of migrants, those who have fled their countries...
Currently, I am working on my Identity Series, which is about people who have left their homes and countries in search of a better life.