On International Women’s Day 2017, Espionart takes a look at the work of a female artist who is challenging stereotypes about women in one of the world’s most patriarchal societies.
In the Afghan capital of Kabul, the spray-painted image of a shadowy figure, wrapped in a blue burqa, is an unexpected shock of bright colour in the unrelenting grey urban landscape. This image is the work of Shamsia Hassani, who is credited not only as Afghanistan’s first female graffiti artist, but also the country’s first 3D street artist, regardless of gender. As well as challenging stereotypes about Afghan women by pursuing her practice as a street artist, Hassani has become a powerful spokesperson for women’s rights by putting female characters at the centre of her work.
Shamsia Hassani was born to Afghan parents in the Iranian capital of Tehran in 1988. Unable to acquire Iranian citizenship, Hassani was prevented from pursuing an artistic education, and so returned to her native country in 2005 to study first a BFA and then an MFA at Kabul University. She is now one of the youngest faculty members in the university’s Fine Art Department, and a major figure in Kabul’s emerging contemporary art scene.
Hassani first tried her hand at graffiti in 2010, when she attended a workshop in Kabul run by a British street artist. Since then, she has focused on depicting Afghan women, to campaign for their greater representation in the country. While her female characters often appear melancholy and in precarious situations, Hassani shows women as determined and resilient, reflecting her own hopeful outlook: “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. … We can make positive changes with art. We can open people’s minds with art.”
The series Secret, featuring a female figure wearing a blue burqa, confronts the Western preconception that the headscarf is the source of female oppression. Hassani dismisses this as a distraction from the real problems facing women, such as lack of access to education. Above all, the artist aims to show that the veil covering the woman’s body is much less debilitating than the veil of silence that prevents her from having a voice. For this reason, Hassani often depicts her female characters with musical instruments, as a proxy for their muted speech, providing an outlet for their expression.
In the series Birds of No Nation, Hassani’s female characters are perched high on rooftops, peering down on a distance city; while in Once Upon a Time, the women are alone in a fractured landscape, cast out from the urban centre. In these works, Hassani reflects on Afghanistan’s turbulent history, since a coup d’état in 1978 and the Soviet invasion in 1979 provoked rising extremism and almost 40 years of war. The artist’s own itinerant upbringing, raised with limited rights in a neighbouring country, mirrors that of many of her compatriots, whose experiences of mass migration and refugeeism are epitomised in the iconic image of the Afghan Girl. But as Hassani explained to Art Radar, “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.”
Despite her humanitarian objectives, Hassani’s work has received mixed reactions in the Afghan capital. In an interview with The Independent, Hassani revealed that she is often harassed while painting on the streets of Kabul. Due to concerns about her personal safety – from attacks by angry onlookers, as well as the risks posed by hidden landmines and sporadic bombings – Hassani has to work quickly and usually finishes her pieces within 15 minutes. In response to these dangers, which prevent her from creating new street art for months at a time, Hassani created Dream Graffiti, manually or digitally painting on photographs from the safety of her studio, to imagine her ideal artistic intervention into the Kabul cityscape.
Shamsia Hassani’s international profile has grown rapidly in recent years and her work has been included in exhibitions around the world. In 2016, Hassani was artist-in-residence at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, where she was able to meet local street artists and learn more about the American arts education system to inform her teaching in Afghanistan. Back in Kabul, she is training a new generation of graffiti artists and has co-founded the Berang Art Organization, to promote contemporary art and culture in Afghanistan through workshops, talks, and exhibitions. Shamsia Hassani is single-handedly proving that, even in the most unforgiving of places, art has the power to give hope and inspire change.
Images: Top – Shamsia Hassani photographed for Elle magazine in 2014. © MaxPPP. All images courtesy Shamsia Hassani.