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Urbanscape: writings on the wall

Shamsia Hassani  

One may not associate street art with Afghanistan; and definitely not with a woman in Kabul. But that changes when I meet 26-year-old Shamsia Hassani, who faces the threat of possible bombing, kidnapping, and being shot at as she goes about her mission to adorn the walls of the city with her haunting images of women in blue burkhas in an attempt to bring the plight of women in Afghanistan out into the public realm. It is this determination that won her a nomination for the Artraker Award in London earlier this year. The award supports artists working in conflict zones or whose works deal with issues of conflict.

Hassani’s first brush with graffiti was at a 2010 workshop by British graffiti artist Chu in Kabul. She was one of the few students who decided to pursue it after the course was over. “I realised that graffiti could be a great tool for developing consciousness, not just about art but also about important issues in Afghanistan. We don’t have many galleries here. Neither are people well-educated or well-off. Graffiti is public and accessible.”

Hassani’s first graffiti, created inside an industrial park, was an image of women in blue burkhas emerging from water. In a fairly short span of time, her women in blue could be found on abandoned buildings, corners or alleyways and hidden walls in Kabul’s streets. Like the one inside the blackened ruins of the Russian cultural centre in Kabul. The woman in blue is shown sitting at the foot of a staircase, next to a wall with gaping holes gouged by shells and accompanied by a line of poetry that reads “The water can come back to a dried-up river, but what about the fish that died?” The lines refer to Afghanistan’s war-torn past, to everything that has been lost to Afghans in decades of conflict. “So many died — every person here has lost someone,” says Hassani. “The situation may be better now, but the lost ones are never coming back.”

The trademark bright blue she uses for her paintings symbolises the hope and perseverance of people. “I think of blue as the colour of freedom and peace. I like to use it on the grey, bullet-ridden walls of Kabul that have been affected by violence. I like to think that I colour over the bad memories of war.”

Originally from Kandahar, Hassani’s family fled Afghanistan during the war. “We were refugees in Iran. I was born in Tehran,” she says. She tried to get into art classes in her school, but was told they were not open to Afghans. Hassani studied accountancy instead. After the family returned to Afghanistan eight years ago, Hassani was able to pursue art at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Kabul University. She works as an associate professor there and likes to devote her time to holding graffiti workshop and festivals. “Lots of people turn up. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many girls.”

Shamsia’s choice to do graffiti art would be considered ‘unusual’ in any part of the world as most artists are men. Women face resistance to their participation as an artist on the street. Street art has not been considered mainstream, and graffiti is still perceived as a form of vandalism, but its purpose has always been to question the status quo. Hassani says she draws her women to change the perception that a covered woman can’t do anything. Her women may be covered but they have strong silhouettes, with sharp shoulders. They are stronger, bigger, and have lots of movement. “My women want to start again. They don’t want to hide.”

The limitations faced by women also hinder Hassani’s chances to create street art. “It is impossible to work on street art here. People say this is not a good job for a woman; this is not allowed in Islam. At a safe place like an abandoned building or a restaurant, I can take a couple of hours. In the street, I finish in 15 minutes and run,” she laughs.

Hassani has developed ‘Graffiti Dreams’ to continue developing her vision. She takes photographs of spaces during the day and then digitally adds the graffiti. Or she prints out the photographs and adds a layer with a paintbrush. “It is nothing; but for me it is everything because I can carry on my graffiti.”

In the last few years, she has travelled around meeting other street artists and sometimes collaborating with them. Like Tika from Zürich and the well-known LA street artist El Mac, with whom she did two collaborations on display now in Vietnam and Brisbane. The central figure is her portrait by El Mac. Hassani has painted the surrounding design and poetry which reads: ‘Birds of no nation/ Are all captive / Like me/ With no voice for singing.’

“It was good to see other graffiti and meet these artists. It was also interesting for people in these countries to meet an Afghan graffiti artist! With my travels I can change how people perceive Afghanistan. All they see is what the media shows, which is mostly negative.”

In order to nurture contemporary art in Kabul, Hassani set up Berang Arts along with nine other artists in 2009. “Art can bring change, I am sure. If people see an artwork, it will perhaps cause a small shock to their mind, but that can grow, and grow.”

Lately, her images have changed. They now include women in colourful gowns, faces visible. One such is a painting of a woman in a flowing gown, her eyes shut and playing a string instrument, which is held up almost as a sign of defiance. Behind her is a mass of women in burkhas. Hassani has created them as indistinct outlines so you can only make out that tiny rectangular patch of latticed net that their burkhas allow them for visibility. “Everything is changing now,” says Hassani. “Maybe we will have a better future. I am hopeful.”


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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 3:32:03 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/urbanscape-writings-on-the-wall/article6532929.ece

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