Who? Shamsia Hassani
From where? Kabul, Afghanistan
When? April 8, 2014
Earlier this month, while working on a new piece of writing about gender in/on the wall, I sent a Facebook message to an artist I had been curious about for a bit: Shamsia Hassani. In early 2013, I email interviewed blogger Soraya Morayef (SuzeeintheCity) on the eruption of street art in Cairo, Egypt post-2011 revolution. Prior to that, I had mostly been focusing on Hip Hop graffiti and graffiti writers, but after that interview (and shortly before moving to Abu Dhabi), I became more interested in the kinds of street art movements happening in the greater MENA region. How were women using street art to express themselves and their politics in places like Cairo (i.e. Women on Walls Campaign), Dubai (Steffi Bow) and Kabul (Hassani)? I learned of Hassani’s “digital graffiti” through research and decided to ask her a few questions about her practice. Below, she explains* that she is new but committed to graffiti/street art and that her work is better understood as “dreaming graffiti”—a new genre as far as I can tell—in which she photographs her city and paints her imagery on the print, adding color and life to buildings in a state of decay and postwar abandonment. Some might say it is not graffiti at all, and to that I will end this introduction with a little provocation: because NYC Hip Hop graffiti continues to be the standard bearer, the mostly Western-centric perceptions of what matters, or what counts, in terms of graffiti—and by extension street art—need to widen. To grasp the happenings of a transnational movement, the center/standard/convention for understanding must shift in relation to the historical, social, and political context within which the writing on the wall appears. We can only see the limitations, possibilities, and significance of graffiti/street art if we approach it (as much as possible) from within its own context.
- Do you have a tag name when you do your graffiti? If so, what is it and how did you create it?
I use Shamsia, with a small figure of a woman with burqa.
- What is your job?
I am faculty of fine arts at Kabul University, and one of the founders of Berang Arts Organization.
- What year did you start painting graffiti/street art and how did you discover it?
I started to do graffiti in 2010, in a graffiti workshop organized with COMMBAT COMMS, when a graffiti artist came from UK—by name of CHU—to introduce and teach graffiti to us (8 artists of Berang). After the graffiti workshop everybody left making graffiti, because of difficulties and other problems, and only I decided to continue graffiti. I was alone with lots of ideas, and full of energy to achieve my goals.
- Describe your graffiti/street art style.
I usually use some symbols – painting inside the body of fish, which there is always a black bubble inside it; women with burqas and without the burqa; some designs which are symbols of positive change – a guitar; some alphabets- using blue color and in my latest works more purple …I am not very well trained in graffiti techniques, but I love to practice more and learn more.
- Please explain the concept behind your graffiti.
Sometimes it is difficult and some times easy because of security problem. Sometimes I am not feeling comfortable to stay a long time in the street, and being faced with close minded people is another big problem.
Following much difficulties such as war, different harsh eras, and political issues, Afghanistan is now starting again a new life for which I put all my effort – through arts – to support.
I recognized that some times it is difficult to do graffiti in the street, but I am full of energy to do graffiti, So then I created a new style of graffiti, which is my own style, where I do photography from every where that I like: buildings, walls, city. And then after printing them, I am doing graffiti on the walls in the pictures with brush and acrylic paints […] I call it (Dreaming Graffiti) not digital… At the beginning of this style I did 2-3 graffiti by computer, but I couldn’t feel my art through the computer.
- Why do you paint graffiti/street art?
By making graffiti, I want to cover all bad memories of war from people’s minds with colors—to cover all bad element of war with my graffiti. I want to introduce art to people with making graffiti because as you know Afghan people have no chance to visit some art gallery or museum, or they don’t want to go to some art exhibition, so if I do art every body will enjoy it. Outside it is for longer time and slowly people will memorize it and it will be a part of their life when every day they use the same way of that wall. They also don’t need a ticket to see it, it is colorful and bringing some change to people’s minds. I could say my words with shapes to people, easily; image has more effect than word, and it’s a friendly way to fight, as I am fighting, now, for women rights as well with my art. I believe there are many who forget all the tragedy women face in Afghanistan, that is why I use my paintings as a means to remind the people. I want to highlight the matter in the society, with paintings reflecting women in Burqas everywhere. And I try to show them bigger than what they are in reality, and in modern forms, in shaped in happiness, movement, maybe stronger. I try to make people look at them differently. I don’t want to talk only about negative points of their life, about their problems and difficulties, at the same time I want to talk about positive points and their happiness as well. That is true that about 90% of their lives are problems, but …. Sometimes I really enjoy to talk about that 10% which is like a small light shining between darkness,10% is not too much, but there it is. A little light is enough to break the darkness, my images are a small light.
- Do you think of yourself as feminist?
Maybe … I am working for women because they are faced with more limitation. That is true that I am painting more for women but some times I am also painting for my country and all people.
- How do you feel when you paint graffiti/street art?
I am scared a lot, from bad situation / security problem / close mind people/ feeling unsafe because of my gender …but really happy that I can paint and I can do something: sharing ideas with people, introducing art, make an open gallery in the street, covering bad memories of war from walls and people’s minds.
- How and why do you use the internet to share your graffiti/street art?
By using the internet, I can get in touch with all over the world and I can share my artworks to show my art to more people not only people of Afghanistan. And also people can get some idea about Afghanistan—maybe with my art I can bring some changes in people’s minds, and remove bad views of Afghanistan from people’s minds. To make my country famous by Art, not by War. Maybe I can answer lots of questions of people about Afghanistan.
My graffiti is not like other graffiti artists around the world. I think my graffiti has deep meaning free of high technique of graffiti, like as I see other countries’ graffiti artists they are very talented and working amazing. Maybe I paint amazing some times, but I am not great like them. For making graffiti, only the idea is not important, the quality of graffiti works is very important too. My graffiti still does not have a very good quality of art like other countries’ artists that are working with the best quality. I am practicing to get to that level.
*At her request, I have done very minimal editing for clarity. All images courtesy of the artist.