‘Art Is Stronger Than War’: An Interview With Afghanistan’s First Female Street Artist
An Afghan graffiti artist is boldly taking to the streets with a spray can and hope for a peaceful future. Shamsia Hassani, Afghanistan’s first female street artist, has emerged as a spokesperson for women’s rights in Kabul. Lisa Pollman of Art Radar spoke with the artist to find out more about visual arts in the post-conflict capital and her drive to prove art is stronger than war.
Born in Iran to Afghan parents, Shamsia Hassani is a street and digital artist working in the country’s complex and conflicted capital, where she returned in 2005 to pursue her education in Fine Art at Kabul University. A pioneer in Kabul’s contemporary art scene, she works to establish annual graffiti workshops across the country and, on a grander scale, to change the way society views women who refuse to conceal their opinions behind a veil of silence. Her work includes ‘Dreaming Graffiti’, a series in which the artist paints or Photoshops colours and images onto digital photographs to explore issues of national and personal security.
Please tell us how you began street art in Afghanistan.
I started to do street art at a graffiti workshop in Kabul in December 2010 when a graffiti artist named Chu came from the United Kingdom to teach us. It [the workshop] was organised by Combat Communications in Kabul.
As a pioneer of street art in your country, who or what inspired you?
After the graffiti workshop, I feel that I can introduce art to people by making graffiti because [by its nature] it is always in an open place. If you have some art exhibition, we cannot invite everyone, so not everyone can come. If we have artwork in an outside place, everyone can enjoy it.
I want to colour over the bad memories of war on the walls and if I colour over these bad memories, then I erase [war] from people’s minds. I want to make Afghanistan famous because of its art, not its war.
In your opinion, how is street art different than more formal kinds of contemporary art? Is it more or less important? Why?
In Afghanistan, graffiti is something different. In Europe and other countries, graffiti is something illegal. In Afghanistan, I use it in a different way for a different message, for different ideas. Every kind of art is very good for developing art in Afghanistan. I think that graffiti is better because all people can see it and it is available for all time. This is my idea.
How does your family feel about your artwork?
My family likes my art. They always like to support me. They do not try to stop my work and have ideas about my artwork. They like it and I am happy with this.
Is your family in Afghanistan? Where were you born?
My family is in Afghanistan. I was born in Iran. Iran is different [from] some other countries. Even if you live there 100 years, you cannot become a citizen. In Iran, I wanted to study in the Art Department but because of my nationality, I could not. We returned to Afghanistan around eight years ago. Originally, our family is from Kandahar province.
What is challenging or difficult about street art in Kabul?
In Kabul, it is different than in Europe, where one must be careful of policemen. Here, I have no problem with police. I have a problem with closed-minded people and I have a big problem with bad security. I worry all the time about security problems when I am in the street and maybe that something will happen, and I am afraid that I should leave.
What do you find surprising about doing street art in Kabul?
At first when I wanted to start doing graffiti, I didn’t start in public right away. If I did it in an inside place, in some corners, that was more comfortable [for me]. Now, I am also doing graffiti [outside] in the street.
I had no idea what problems I would face. Because it [graffiti] is something new, of course people will have different ideas [and reactions]. I was ready to hear bad words from people who were not happy with the artwork. [When I paint outside,] people are coming to me, discussing [their feelings] with me. Some of them are fighting with me, and some people want to stop my artwork.
I was most surprised by those who said ‘why are you making the walls dirty?’ Some people are also concerned that I am doing something that is not allowed in Islam. Others think it is not very good for ladies to stand in the street and do this kind of art. At the same time, I see a few people like my work.
What kinds of reactions do you get as a woman practicing street art in Afghanistan? Are you threatened or do you feel frightened? Are you lauded?
There are different groups of people who see my work differently. Some of them are interested in knowing what it is. I like people to ask me about my work. There are some people who like the work but do not know it is graffiti or what it’s called. Others say ‘you are making some image. It is not allowed” and “why do you want to make the wall very dirty?’ Some people think that I am very free, and have no job and that’s why I am dirtying the walls. There are many different kinds of ideas.
Please tell us about ‘Dreaming Graffiti’ and what inspired you to use this technique?
I am not always able to make or find good opportunities to do graffiti [outside]. Maybe only every two or three months I have an opportunity to do graffiti. Sometimes there are security problems or I cannot go to some area because of the people.
I decided to use large digital images, and [then I] can do graffiti inside my studio. I can do graffiti upon these images in my studio using brushes and can paint upon these images. So it’s kind of like a ‘dreaming graffiti’ of mine. It is graffiti but only in my mind. It is not real.
Are you or any other street artists mentoring young street artists in Afghanistan?
Yes. I want to show them how they can use graffiti. It is not a formal class that I teach at the university, but we do have two-week long workshops where I teach graffiti to the students, where I can talk about graffiti, they can use their own ideas and they can [learn to] use a spray-can to do graffiti. They really like to do it because it’s a very new form of art. It’s different than drawing on paper, and it’s good because you can make graffiti very big.
I am the youngest teacher at the university, and most of my students at the workshop are the same age as me. The average age is between twenty and 26 years old.
Is there a strong interest in visual arts, or its history, in Afghanistan?
There is a tradition of miniature painting, started by an Afghani artist named Kamaluldin Behzad. He was the first person who made miniature paintings in Afghanistan. He was from Herat. He was painting at the same time as Leonardo da Vinciwas making paintings in Europe.
Are the Visual Arts taught to students in Afghanistan’s educational system?
Yes, but there are still some problems with the old educational system in university. There is just classical training at the university, such as drawing. Slowly, there are different kinds of ideas and other art programmes, such as contemporary art.
I am also a teacher and faculty member of the Fine Art Department at Kabul University. When the students found out that I was doing graffiti, I offered to teach the students graffiti. Last year, I prepared a graffiti workshop for them. Every year, I’d like to hold a graffiti workshop for the students because I cannot teach graffiti as a normal subject. I can show them and teach them a new form of art and introduce them to it. There are now lots of artists in Afghanistan. When I came to Afghanistan eight years ago, I could not find any good artists or artwork. Now, everything is developing, and it’s much better than before.
Please tell us about your involvement with Berang Art Organisation.
‘Berang’ means ‘colourless’. There is a story about the Berang Art Organisation. I was selected as one of the top ten artists in 2009 in Kabul. After that, these ten [artists] together wanted to make a new organisation towards developing contemporary art. We came together and created a collection of art. At first we called it ‘Rosht’ and now we’re called ‘Berang’. We have seminars and workshops. We still do not have enough funds and we are trying to develop it more.
We have goals to enable other artists to study. There are artists who want to work but have no place to work. We’d like to have a library [available] to all artists. We have lots of ideas, and we are working towards developing contemporary art in Afghanistan and we are going to develop it more.
Do you think that more people in Afghanistan are more aware of contemporary art because of the Internet?
I don’t know exactly. Maybe people are inspired by the Internet or are just inspired to make or study new types of artwork. I think that when people see that art has a message, they are not only thinking that it’s ‘art’, it [also] has something to say. Everybody likes to express their feelings through their images. Modern or contemporary art is not just an image, it has something to say.
It’s a very different situation in Afghanistan because everybody has something to say about politics and present day circumstances. Everybody is getting tired of the wars. They see an image and like to talk about it. There is a different type of topic here these days about peace and ceasefire. These are hopeful ideas that people want to develop.
Are artists using their art as a way to voice their political feelings?
Yes. Not only political but other problems, such as education. Everyone wants to bring a political change with their ideas and highlight difficulties to the people. They also want to develop their art and change the way people see their art while having an effect in society with it.
How do you use street art to highlight women’s rights in Afghanistan?
This is a topic that I really like to talk about. I see that in different times and through different difficulties with war and the Taliban, the people faced lots of problems. For women, they faced many limitations because of many difficulties. In the past, women were removed from society and they wanted women to stay only at home and wanted to forget about women. Now, I want to use my paintings to remind people about women.
I have changed my images to show the strength of women, the joy of women. In my artwork, there is lots of movement. I want to show that women have returned to Afghan society with a new, stronger shape. It’s not the woman who stays at home. It’s a new woman. A woman who is full of energy, who wants to start again. You can see that in my artwork, I want to change the shape of women. I am painting them larger than life. I want to say that people look at them differently now...