Graffiti is still a very new medium of expression in Afghanistan. And regarding the circumstances under which Afghan women have to live - would you expect that the country’s first serious graffiti artist is female? We talked to her. Read More
Afghanistan's first graffiti artist
In 2012, the Guardian presented Afghan artist Shamsia Hassani as “probably the country’s first serious graffiti artist”. Shamsia was born in Iran to an Afghan refugee family. Today, she is a lecturer for drawing at Kabul University and co-founder of the “Berang art” contemporary art collective.
Shamsia, you were already an associate professor of sculpture at Kabul University and an artist, but it was only after you joined British artist Chu’s graffiti workshop in 2010 that you fell in love with graffiti.
At that time, did you imagine you would one day focus on graffiti?
Definitely not. When I joined the graffiti workshop organized by COMMBAT COMMS in Kabul, I didn’t know or even expect that I would change my way of working from painting on canvas to doing graffiti on walls.
Art has long been forbidden in Afghanistan, never mind painting in a public space. Will there be more graffiti in the streets of Kabul now?
Indeed, with the passing of time we have seen a development in art, especially in graffiti: one graffiti artist can inspire a lot of other artists and motivate them to change their art form to graffiti. I guess that’s because this kind of artistic expression involves more freedom of speech. And it’s a new form of art overall.
In Afghanistan, graffiti can be very powerful.
What do you think is different about doing graffiti in Afghanistan compared to other places?
Graffiti is still a very new medium of expression in Afghanistan, but it already has very deep layers of meaning. We can use it for multiple messages, to open people’s minds and to show art to the people – especially to those who have never seen art before. It’s a friendly way of addressing and processing difficult issues. That’s why, in Afghanistan, graffiti can be very powerful, even though our graffiti artists are not very good yet in terms of technique. In other countries graffiti artists are making amazing works of art using great techniques, but here we’re still learning how to work out our pieces. I’m including myself, by the way. I’m still not very technically skilled in graffiti.
One of your favourite motifs has long been women in blue burqas. But women don’t have to wear burqas in Afghanistan anymore. Why are you still painting them?
Afghanistan is more than just Kabul. In other provinces in Afghanistan, a lot of women still have to wear the burqa. But when I paint the burqa, it doesn’t mean that I agree with its use and role. I just use it as a symbol. Because it doesn’t matter in the least if women wear it or not – they all face the same problems. Wearing a burqa is not the problem; it is only a style of clothing after all. The real problem for Afghan women is that they are powerless. They can’t make their own decisions, are not allowed to speak, are not equal to men, are forced into marriages, are denied education, have no standing in society and lots of other problems that we cannot eliminate just by taking away the burqa. Patriarchy is one of Afghanistan’s main problems and one of the reasons women cannot make decisions, defend their rights, or even speak. So let’s identify the real central problems and fight them.
"Wearing a burqa is not the problem. The real problem for Afghan women is that they are powerless."
One of the advantages of graffiti is that everybody can see it – and you say it delivers messages. What message are you trying to send when you paint women in burqas?
In my opinion an image has more of an effect than a word ever could, and this is my way of fighting for women’s rights. I believe there are many who forget all the tragedy women have to face in Afghanistan, so I use my paintings as a way of reminding people. I paint these women larger than they are in reality: in modern forms, shaped by happiness, in movement – and stronger. I try to make people look at them differently.
You know, I don’t want to talk only about the negative aspects of women's lives, about their problems and difficulties. I want to show the positive aspects and their happiness. It's true that about 90% of their lives are full of problems, but… sometimes I really enjoy talking about that 10% which is like a small light. It is shining in the darkness – and this little light is enough to dispel this darkness. I know 10% is not much, but it's there.
You are a passionate graffiti artist – but instead of actually painting on walls, you often stay indoors and do “dream graffiti”: you print out a photo of a street or a building and add your graffiti to the picture. Why?
I feel uncomfortable when I am spraying graffiti in the street, so I try to paint very fast and leave the area in 10-15 min. Unfortunately this is often not enough time to create a good quality piece and I really don’t like it to leave my work in bad shape. So to have more time to work on quality, I often paint my graffiti on photos instead of going out into the streets. I can say that this is my own style, my creation for the graffiti world. You know, it’s very difficult for women to do graffiti because we cannot go out at night. Security is another big problem – not being scared away by the possibility of bombings. But also simply dealing with closed-minded people can sometimes be very difficult.
What fascinates you about graffiti art?
Oh, there’s quite a lot. First of all, when I create graffiti, it is my way of attempting to cover over the bad memories and bad elements of war in people’s mind with bright colours. Second, it’s a way of introducing art to people. The Afghan people have no opportunity to visit art galleries or museums; art is not a part of their daily lives. That’s what I am trying to change: graffiti is a way for them to get used to it slowly. And I hope that I can bring a bit of colour to people’s minds. After so many struggles such as war, times of extreme harshness, and political issues, Afghanistan is again starting a new life now and I am dedicating all my efforts – through art – to supporting it.
Graffiti is my way of attempting to cover over the bad memories of war in people’s mind with bright colours.
What are your next projects?
I have started to do 3D street art in Afghanistan for the first time. That’s very exciting!