As Afghanistan’s premier graffiti artist, Shamsia Hassani is changing the face of art in her country and contributing to the development of graffiti all around the world.
Although she is Afghani, Shamsia was born in Iran. She fell in love with art at an early age and despite the fact that art was not a generally accepted career path for women in her society, her parents were very supportive of her artistic pursuits. Unfortunately however, the only thing harder than trying to pursue art as a woman in Iran was trying to pursue art as an Afghani woman in Iran: she was prohibited from studying the subject. Shamsia’s family ultimately returned to Afghanistan, and there, she was finally able to pursue her passion, studying art at Kabul University. She went on to earn both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree.
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.
In 2010, Combat Communications, a group of anonymous artists, brought a graffiti workshop to support young artists in Afghanistan. Shamsia quickly fell in love with the medium. To her, it seemed a perfect way to introduce art to the masses. Afghanistan doesn’t have an abundance of art galleries, but as a result of the war, many buildings have been abandoned or damaged. It is here, on these walls, that Shamsia creates, using her gift to make something beautiful from something broken.
I want to colour over the bad memories of war on the walls.
Although graffiti is legal in Afghanistan, it is not necessarily safe. As a female artist, Shamsia is often harassed. Between fundamentalists who don’t support the idea of women in the arts and the prevalence of car bombs in the area, Shamsia is quite literally risking life and limb every time she paints outside. As such, she does most of her work on canvases inside her apartment.
Approximately twice a year, though, she takes the risk and paints murals in the streets. She works quickly, typically no more than 15-20 minutes at a time, and she often has to leave her work incomplete. Still, she takes the risk because she wants to bring art to her people — and bring it she does.
In addition to her personal work, which subverts gender norms not only through its existence but also through its subject matter, Shamsia teaches graffiti at a local university. She is also the co-founder of an arts organisation, and she played a key role in producing Afghanistan’s first national graffiti festival, bringing graffiti to young artists just as Combat Communications did for her six years ago. Additionally, she recently completed a residency at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, where she was able to paint in safety and showcase her unique perspective as a female Afghani graffiti expert.
Whether she’s painting on canvases in her apartment, with students in her university, in safety at the Hammer Museum, or on the streets of her homeland, Shamsia continues to fulfill her goal of bringing art, and her unique perspective, to the people. In doing so, she is making both Kabul and the world of graffiti an even more beautiful place.