Shamsia Hassani, a painter who teaches at Kabul University, is also a graffiti artist who ventures into the streets of Afghanistan to create murals. Using the walls of abandoned buildings damaged from bombs as her canvases, Hassani paints murals that often depict women in traditional clothing joyfully posing with musical instruments. Part of her mission, she says, is to beautify the city with color amid the darkness of war.
Hassani, 28, met Hammer Museum curator Ali Subotnick during a visit to Los Angeles in 2014, and shortly after, Subotnick traveled to Afghanistan for the museum’s Afghan Carpet Project. Impressed by Hassani’s work and courage, Subotnick invited the artist to a two-month residency at the Hammer, which Hassani is currently completing.
“She’s incredibly inspiring,” Subotnick said. “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. She’s giving women in Afghanistan a voice.”
During the past five weeks, Hassani has been painting in new-found freedom, in a quiet Westwood apartment where she feels safe. The experience has been liberating, she said. She finished a large mural in the West Adams neighborhood in January, and her new paintings on canvases are on view at Seyhoun Gallery on Melrose Avenue.
The gallery works, like her murals, are colorful, seemingly lighthearted depictions of women in Afghan clothing, with a guitar or keyboard, surrounded by text in her native Dari language. They all share a childlike, if melancholic, edge.
“I call my latest body of work ‘Birds of No Nation,’ ” Hassani said over afternoon tea in Westwood. “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. And I thought maybe also we have no nation because everybody has moved to different countries. It doesn’t matter what country that is; the thing that’s important is just feeling safe, staying alive. Art — I can tell that story.”
Here is our conversation with the artist:
As a young woman in Kabul, how did you ever get into graffiti and street art in the first place?
I started doing street art in a workshop in Kabul in December 2010. Combat Communications [an arts advocacy group] organized the workshop to introduce graffiti art to Afghan artists.
Before that, I had no idea. After the workshop, I got the idea that street art would be very good for our society because in Afghanistan, it’s much better to introduce art to people by putting it in the street, because we don’t have a lot of good galleries and people are not going to exhibitions. And at the same time, I can change the view of the city by putting colors up and maybe covering bad memories of war.
Everyone else in the class [didn’t pursue that kind of art] after the workshop because they thought it was not a good thing to do. I was the only person who kept doing graffiti art at that time. Then, after maybe two years, some of them came back after they saw my work. They were inspired to do graffiti again.
I felt it was my main work to do art for people, teaching and painting and all the time working for art — at home, in indoor spaces and in the streets.
How dangerous is it for a woman to paint outdoors, in public, in Kabul?
Now, the situation is not good. It’s very dangerous. There are bombings all the time; everywhere something might happen. Another thing is closed-minded people who don’t like art and think it’s not a good thing — specifically if girls do art — and they are very sensitive.
In Afghanistan, when I do street art, all the time I’m scared because of the bad situation, because of facing closed-minded people who might harass me. If I was a boy, maybe I’d be more OK with painting in the street. Because no one would tell me anything if I was a boy. But 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. And if I do art, then they will come to harass me.
Where, then — and under what conditions — do you paint your murals and graffiti art?
I have a small studio. It’s a balcony off my living room. I paint canvases and paper there. When I find everything OK, I will go outside and paint. Mostly not very public spaces, like small roads or the roads of the university — some place I feel is more safe. The university will sometimes give me permission and support me.
Maybe once every six months, I paint a very public space. Usually I paint on destroyed walls with no owner. I have to work fast. And those murals are not very large because it’s difficult to paint that fast. Sometimes the situation is not very good. I can only stay about 15 or 20 minutes, and in 20 minutes, I’m not sure I can paint something of very good quality. So usually, I leave my works in the street, and they are not complete. Then, usually people take it off the walls or paint over it. If I paint indoors, I can take my time and paint more.
How have you incorporated graffiti elements into your studio works?
Well, I make my paintings very, very fast because that’s what I’m used to in the street. My work is more mural art with elements of graffiti. I use spray. And I use an acrylic brush and some stenciling. There’s lots of text in my own alphabet, Dari language. I write things like: “The birds of no nation have no voice for singing,” different phrases. They are all captive. They have no voice for singing; they are with no nation.
Were you always an artist growing up — and was that encouraged?
I was born in Iran with my Afghan nationality. As I remember, all the time I tried to do art. I always had my sketchbook. My family supports my art. But when I was a kid, in Iran, I wanted to study art in school, but because of my nationality, they didn’t let me. There were limitations for everything for Afghan people.
We went back to Afghanistan when I was 16. I studied painting at university, and after that, I started teaching and I did my M.A. Now I’m on the faculty of fine arts at Kabul University.
Through Berang Arts, the contemporary arts organization you co-founded in 2009 with other Afghan artists, you helped to create the first national graffiti festival in Afghanistan. Can you tell us about that?
When I started doing graffiti, people had no idea about it. And I wanted to introduce it to people somehow, and to just develop doing graffiti because I felt some kind of responsibility to share it with everybody.
I conceived and organized this, and [the Netherlands-based] Prince Claus Fund helped with the budget. Mostly, the young generation came. It went on for 10 days.
We did workshops, and at the end, we had an exhibition of the work. 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. But we did one big wall outside and some on the roof [of Berangs building] and then a lot of works on canvases inside as well.
Whats it like for you to paint here in Los Angeles?
I feel good; I feel safe. When I travel somewhere, people think Im so happy that Im in a country that looks beautiful and it is, but mostly Im thinking about the fact that Im safe. I dont care about the beauty of the city. Im just feeling safe, and thats the only thing that I want. To feel safe, to be happy, and that you can do your art and be free with everything.
In Afghanistan, its difficult just to walk in the street at night. You will not see women in the street alone at night. 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.
Im just so thankful to the Hammer Museum and Ali Subotnick. The residency is a very good opportunity for me to experience a new artistic life.