Walk down an alley in Kabul, Afghanistan and you might spot a painting of a sharp-featured woman in a blue burqa on the side of a building. That’s the work of Shamsia Hassani, Kabul’s master graffiti artist and a fine arts lecturer at Kabul University. Through fast-acting and inventive new techniques, Hassani's bringing a world of art to the streets of her city. In the face of brutal social and living conditions for women, Hassani spray paints messages of hope across the walls of Kabul.
In a survey conducted by Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2011, Afghanistan was listed the worst place in the world to be a woman. Social norms and religious strictures created an environment where women can’t speak out and are targeted when they take on public roles (like police officers and news anchors). Global Rights’ research shows that domestic violence is so prevalent that, as their study states, “practically every Afghan woman will experience it in her lifetime. Domestic violence has become a regular feature of almost all households, and shapes every aspect of women’s and girls’ lives: their health, their livelihoods, their access to social and cultural resources, and their educational opportunities.” In light of these seemingly-impossible hurdles, Shamsia risks much to spread her work around Kabul.
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Hassani began her artistic career working with contemporary art, but as she explains, “slowly, slowly I wanted to make some bigger works. In December of 2010, a graffiti workshop was organized by Combat Communications in Kabul.” Combat Communications, an anonymous group dedicated to promoting free expression among Afghan youth, brought U.K. graffiti artist CHU to teach lessons on his process. Hassani explains that it was soon after that encounter that she knew she wanted to bring her work to the streets.
Though new art centers, like the Center for Contemporary Art Afghanistan, are springing up in Kabul, Hassani says it’s still hard for people to get out and see art. “I can share my work with people,” Hassani explains while talking about her graffiti. “I can introduce art to people. Because most people are not able to go to museums and galleries.” And Hassani encounters trouble from time to time while making her work, “Some people think that art is not allowed in Islam,” she says. “And then they feel that they should stop me. And some of them are coming to use bad words to me.” Hassani keeps a vigilant eye on her surroundings when making her work, “Normally when I start working I will see what will happen to me. I will see the people around. I’m trying to finish it very soon or just to leave it.”
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The most prominent figure in Hassani’s work is a sharp-shouldered woman the artist paints in many different scenarios. Sometimes she’s teaching, or playing guitar, or simply just existing in the world. Hassani explains the importance of this female figure, “People will say that she is a woman and I am a woman. So if she can do something, I can do something as well.” Through cans of spray paint, Hassani uses her work to spark change in Kabul, “Art is a kind of friendly way to fight with every kind of problem.”