Afghan woman risks all to bring color to war-torn Kabul with her street art and feminist murals

Armed with cans of spray paint, 28-year-old Afghan graffiti artist Shamsia Hassani ventures into the streets of Kabul to create feminist murals on the walls of abandoned, bombed-out buildings.

She has to work fast — only 15 to 20 minutes before she flees. Some works are left incomplete. But for a woman like Hassani, that's what it takes when art is weapon of mass expression.

Hassani's art shows women in traditional clothing with musical instruments. In subtle ways, they defy gender roles: These women are not playing the instruments to entertain someone else but, rather, wielding them on their own terms.

"It's to show they have a voice," Hassani says.

Hassani, who teaches art at Kabul University, is nearing the end of a two-month residency at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. She was invited by curator Ali Subotnick, who traveled to Afghanistan in 2014 for a carpet weaving project and was impressed by Hassani's work.

"The fact that she's a woman going into the streets to paint, where it's dangerous just to walk alone outdoors in Kabul — she's so fierce and independent and strong," Subotnick says. "She's giving women in Afghanistan a voice."

Hassani says the residency has been a welcome break from the streets of Kabul, where suicide bombings seem routine, like traffic jams in L.A., and every mural mission brings palpable dangers from "closed minded people who don't like art."

"Because I'm a girl, even if I don't do art, if I just walk in the street, I will hear a lot of words," Hassani says from the Westwood apartment that the Hammer has provided. "And if I do art, then they will come to harass me."

From "Just like me" series, 2014

A photo posted by Shamsia Hassani (@shamsiahassani) on

Despite the dangers, Hassani says her mission is to beautify the city with color amid the darkness of war and to expose people in Kabul to contemporary art, specifically graffiti as a form of social and political expression. In a place where art galleries are scarce, she does what she can to bring the gallery to the streets.

Hassani's Instagram and Facebook accounts feature pictures of her Kabul murals, including one of a determined young woman swinging a red electric guitar. In the photo, men passing by stare at the art.

Image-based graffiti is not unheard of in Kabul, but much of it is created by Afghan and U.S. soldiers, says street art historian G. James Daichendt, author of "Stay Up! Los Angeles Street Art." It's extremely rare to find a woman involved, he says.

"It's already a male-dominated art form in the Western sphere," Daichendt says. "So in that culture, where it's a much more dangerous culture for a woman to participate, you'd have to be that much more convicted and brave."

I make my paintings very, very fast because that's what I'm used to in the street.

Hassani was born into an Afghan family living at the time in Tehran, Iran. As long as she can remember, she carried a sketchbook.

Her father, a carpenter and engineer, and her mother were supportive of her creativity. But society was not. She wanted to study art in Iran, but she wasn't allowed because she was Afghan, she says. When she was 16, Hassani's family returned to Afghanistan, where she studied painting at Kabul University, earned her master's and started teaching.

Trained as a classical painter, Hassani eventually segued to contemporary mural art. Hassani knew nothing about graffiti art, though, until she took a workshop in 2010 in Kabul organized by the arts advocacy group Combat Communications, an anonymous group of international artists based in Afghanistan. In a poor country fraught by war, Combat's intention was to empower young Afghans by teaching them street art as a tool for social expression. The group no longer exists, but it set Hassani on her path.

She risks being physically attacked on her graffiti runs, "like having stones thrown at her or worse," says Shannon Galpin, a women's rights activist and co-organizer of the Combat Workshop. Given those dangers, Hassani mostly paints canvases in a small balcony-turned-studio off her Kabul living room. She incorporates traditional graffiti elements like stenciled text in her Dari language and spray can designs. She executes more detailed line work with an acrylic brush.

The final details - Magic - 2014

A photo posted by Shamsia Hassani (@shamsiahassani) on

Only rarely does she venture outside to paint. "Mostly not very public spaces, like small roads or the roads of the university — some place I feel is more safe," Hassani says. "The university will sometimes give me permission and support me."

Once every six months or so, Hassani will paint in a more public place. She makes those works smaller because she has to work so fast.

"Then usually people take it off the walls or paint over it," she says.

That process has affected how she paints her studio works.

"I make my paintings very, very fast because that's what I'm used to in the street," she says.

Despite those dangers, Hassani remains passionate about graffiti art and teaching it to others. In 2013, Hassani co-organized, with funding from the Netherlands-based Prince Claus Fund, Afghanistan's first national graffiti art festival in Kabul. Over 10 days, artists from three provinces attended workshops that culminated in an exhibition.

That's the only thing that I want. To feel safe, to be happy, to make art and to feel free.

"Mostly, the young generation came," she says. "We did some [murals] outdoors as well, but not a lot because the situation was not very good and I was scared something would happen to the artists."

During her Hammer residency, Hassani finished a West Adams mural — a young woman dancing with an electric keyboard on the side of 4900 Gallery at 4900 W. Adams Blvd. The Hammer introduced Hassani to the artist Kenny Scharf, who helped her to secure permission to paint the wall. His characteristically cartoon-like mural, painted in 2014, appears beside hers.

Hassani also had some paintings on canvases exhibited at Seyhoun Gallery on Melrose Avenue. She sold a few of them for upward of $3,000 apiece.

These new gallery paintings, like the murals, are depictions of women in Afghan clothing, with a guitar or keyboard, surrounded by Dari text. They share a sense of childlike optimism but also a melancholic edge.

"I call my latest body of work 'Birds of No Nation,'" Hassani says. "People in my country are all the time traveling somewhere to stay safe and find a peaceful life. And we are missing a lot of our friends and family who have left the country. Usually birds are traveling all the time, they have no nation."

Hassani will return to Kabul on March 17. With her West Adams mural completed and the gallery show wrapped up, she plans to spend much of her time left in L.A. viewing, rather than creating, art.

When she travels, people assume she's focused on the beauty of the land, but mostly she's thinking about the fact that she feels safe.

"That's the only thing that I want," she says. "To feel safe, to be happy, to make art and to feel free."

Sitting in her living room, surrounded by recently finished paintings, she adjusts the dark scarf draped around her head and shoulders.

"In Afghanistan, it's difficult just to walk in the street at night. You will not see women in the street alone at night," she says. "But here, everybody can go outside alone. For me, freedom is to be OK with the thing that you are, who you are. Here, I can paint with a free mind. I can paint any time I want — and I can finish it, if I want."


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