“Art is stronger than war”: Afghanistan’s first female street artist speaks out

Afghan artist boldly takes to the streets with a spray can and hope for a peaceful future.

Shamsia Hassani, Afghanistan’s first female street artist, emerges as a spokesperson for women’s rights in Kabul. 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.

Shamsia Hassani, 'Sound Central Festival', Kabul, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist.

Throughout history, Afghanistan has withstood various assaults from outside nations due to its prominent location amid Central Asia’s trade routes. In contemporary times, the country has faced military advances from Russia (1978-1989) and currently, the United States (2001-present) in response to terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

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 UniversityA 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.

Shamsia Hassani, 'Russian Cultural Centre', Kabul, 2011. Photograph by Kabul at Work.

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.

Shamsia Hassani, 'Sound Central Festival', Kabul, 2013. Image courtesy of Shamsia Hassani.

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 practising 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.

Shamsia Hassani, 'Dreaming Graffiti Kabul', 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

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.

Shamsia Hassani, 'Dreaming Graffiti at Darulaman Palace', 2012. Image courtesy of the artist.

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.

Shamsia Hassani, 'Message Salon', Switzerland, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

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 Vinci was 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.

Shamsia Hassani, 'Dreaming Graffiti at Shamsia's Studio,' Kabul. Image courtesy of the artist.

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.

Shamsia Hassani and El Mac, 'Ho Chi Minh City', 2012. Image courtesy of the artist.

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.

Western media may see the burqa as a kind of “prison.” Can you address how you view the burqa?

There are a lot of people around the world who think that the burqa is the problem. They think that if women remove the burqa, then they have no problems. But this is not true. I feel that there are lots of problems in Afghanistan for women. For example, when women cannot have access to education; this is more of a problem then wearing a burqa. If you remove the burqa, they still have the same problems. It is not the main problem. We should not concentrate on this. We should think about the main problems, then the burqa is not so bad. You can develop your talent and still wear the burqa. You can work and stay in society and still wear the burqa.

Shamsia Hassani, 'Rote Fabrik', Switzerland, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

I can’t help but notice that you use the colour blue in many of your paintings. Why?

Blue is my favourite colour. I really like it. Maybe too much! I feel comfortable with that colour, and at the same time I hear people say that blue is the colour of freedom. For me, freedom is not the removal of the burqa. For me, freedom is to have peace.

Is contemporary art in Afghanistan important? Why?

Yes. People are getting tired of words [without action]. If you show them some image, it’s the same as words. The image has more effect. As you know, one word is just a word but an image, is lots of words. One image let’s us talk with others in a friendly way. We are discussing [sensitive topics] with art and we can change [old] ideas with art. We can make positive changes with art. We can open people’s minds with art.

Afghanistan is now like a new born [baby]. It is like a child, learning to walk on its own. Other countries are trying to help it stand on its own two feet.

Shamsia Hassani and El Mac, Ho Chi Minh City, 2012. Photograph by the Propeller Group.

Do you have any plans for exchanges with artists from outside to come to Afghanistan?

Not yet because we have no money now. We are working with some proposals to get some funds and then we have lots of plans to work on.

Is it important for Afghan artists to have international recognition and opportunities? How could they be better supported?

Yes. They really like to have international programmes and do art programmes with other countries. As an artist, I like to share my ideas with others outside of Afghanistan. Some artists have this opportunity but not all of them.

I like to travel. Some artists have different reasons [to travel outside Afghanistan]. My reason is that I like to meet other people from different countries then I can change other people’s minds about Afghanistan. Afghanistan is famous because of war. If people see that there are artists and art there, then slowly perhaps we can change the topic of Afghanistan. Then people can change their image of Afghanistan. I hope so.

There is war, but behind it there is also art. We want to make the level of art higher than the level of war.

Do you have any upcoming international exhibitions or projects?

As you may know, I just returned from a trip to Switzerland. In September 2013, I will have a chance to visit Denmark because of a youth programme called “World Images in Motion”. Also because of the graffiti workshop, I will be traveling to America in October 2013. There are lots of invitations and some of them are not confirmed as they are being held at the same time. I do have some difficulties taking time off from the university because of my travel opportunities. I just try to manage it some how.

Shamsia Hassani, 'Dreaming Graffiti with Banksy', 2012. Image courtesy of the artist.

Do you have any plans to collaborate with street artists from other countries?

I would love to connect with the artist Banksy. I have used his work for some of my “Dreaming Graffiti” work. There is a series that I call “Dreaming Graffiti in Collaboration with Banksy”. I like to use some of Banksy’s graffiti and then I paint my “Dreaming Graffiti” behind his artwork. I hope to connect and collaborate together with him some day.

Lisa Pollman