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My paintings and I have emerged from war

Interviewer: Zahra Mousawi 

Interviewee: Shamsia Hassani  

Shamsia Hassani embodies everything the Taliban hate. She’s a woman, an artist whose graffiti murals were created on walls and buildings so they could be seen by the public. If that wasn’t enough, the main characters of her murals were women. While her physical works in Kabul have been painted over and she lives in exile, Shamsia Hassani continues to thrive while her creations continue to survive online.  

Zan Times: We are very grateful for your time, Ms. Hassani.  

Shamsia Hassani: It would be a pleasure to speak with you. 

ZT: I would like you to share a little about yourself and your life experiences at the beginning of this interview. How did you turn to painting, specifically murals with a focus on women?  

Hassani: I grew up in Iran. It has always been my dream to study painting but when the day arrived, I was told that I could not study the field since I was a foreign citizen. I remember having a firm smile on my face regardless of the anger I felt. I changed my major to accounting and graduated from college.  

The political changes after the Taliban era led us to return to Afghanistan in 2005. My life began then. For the first time I felt a sense of belonging in Afghanistan. No one could limit or deprive me of my dreams. I was accepted into the Kabul University faculty of fine arts in 2006. The following year, I joined the Center for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan.  

Taking part in the first graffiti workshop in Kabul in 2010 was the turning point of my artistic life. I was drawn to painting in large dimensions and outdoors. It seemed to me that the “conceptual painting” on the wall might stick better in the audience’s memory. I persevered in learning and practicing mural painting. However, there weren’t many educational, security, and support facilities available to me. After the sun sets, I often had to stop working after the sun sets even though graffiti traditionally requires night work in urban and open areas.    

ZT: You have mentioned the gender, immigration, and cultural challenges of artistic work. How much do you think these challenges have shaped your personality and artistic concerns?  

Hassani: What happened to me has shaped me. There is no separation between my fate and the collective fate. I am part of the many “I” who have been in similar situations and have faced similar realities in Afghanistan. Thus, all of my graffiti and paintings feature a central female figure as the main topic.  

There are times when people ask, “Why are all your works repetitive?” In my opinion, none of them are similar. Each deals with a different emotion, are related to a different subject, and are created for different reasons.  

Others ask, “Who inspires you?” I always reply that the reality of my life is my inspiration. Similarly, I am affected and influenced by my surroundings, just like every other citizen.  

ZT: In your opinion, how familiar is the Afghan audience with graffiti? Has a mutual relationship been established between you and your art’s audience?   

Hassani: So far, the audiences and their reactions to my works are divided into two main groups. The first group are those who are active in social networks and follow my work online. The second group is the [public] audience, those who pass by me during mural painting, mostly on the street.  

These two spaces and these two audiences are completely different. Audiences on social networks usually have a better and clearer understanding of art. They encourage. They write reviews about my works. They discuss. Their focus is on the artwork rather than the artist.  

The reaction of people on the street, however, is very naked in the real world. Being a woman painter is considered controversial by most people. Some even said that my work was sinful. There were also some people who were curious if my family knew that I painted on the walls on the street. Generally, I believe that most people do not pay attention to the artistic content in the public space but are observing an unusual scene: a woman occupying a public space.  

I confess that sometimes the nasty and rude behavior of passers-by has made me wonder why I should continue doing graffiti when the main audience has so little knowledge about art? But thinking realistically made me adjust my expectations of people accordingly. How should people learn about the visual arts or graffiti? In the absence of cultural policies, institutions, galleries and exhibitions, I assume that for many passers-by, seeing graffiti might be their only chance to see art. In all honesty, I want to imagine that graffiti is part of everyday life for people and passersby.  

High expectations are not necessary. As an ideal, art should trigger reflection, create pauses, and help audiences understand art.  

ZT: You said your experience with social networks has been reasonably satisfactory. Are digital platforms an effective tool for introducing female artists and facilitating their work, especially in Afghanistan?  

Hassani: For me, the only way to introduce my work and follow up on feedback has been through social networks. Often, harassment and teasing are often the only reactions in open spaces and public places.  

My work has improved and progressed due to the networking and acquaintances I have made in this space. Through my artistic activities in cyberspace, I am able to see the works through the eyes of individuals and through the eyes of artists and critics. The same is true for understanding current art issues and discovering foreign and domestic artists’ works.  

I confess that through my artistic activity and presence in cyberspace, I have become more open to criticism. I realized that no human being in general and no artist is flawless. Almost everything we think is complete and flawless from our point of view and due to our emotional or value attachment may be totally flawed from another angle. This space taught me that criticizing artwork does not necessarily mean criticizing the artist’s personality.  

ZT: Can you tell me how much of your characters are derived from the collective identity of Afghan women?  

Hassani: First and foremost, painting is a way to express oneself and communicate with the world. After a work of art is created, in my belief, the artist’s job is over, and now it is the audience’s turn to interpret the work. For example, the eyes of the female characters in my paintings are closed. It does not mean that she is blind. She has deliberately closed her eyes to ongoing tragedies. A closed eyelid is a form of artistic protest against human and collective tragedies. The fact that in Afghanistan, women are oppressed accounts for why a character lacks a mouth and nose.  

Previously, my paintings featured a woman wearing a chador. Later, I learned from reviews and comments that wearing a veil may be interpreted as approval of this covering. Taking off her veil gave birth to this character.  

ZT: Women have been discriminated against in the harshest ways under the rule of gender apartheid since the reemergence of the Taliban. In what ways does this character now demonstrate her influence?  

Hassani: Before the Taliban came to power, I always painted deformed and distorted musical instruments instead of the character’s mouth. Music was her voice, albeit unscratched and awkward. But after, the woman in my paintings was disarmed and deprived of her voice. Her musical instruments are all broken. Her heart, hope, and voice have been broken like me and tens of thousands of other women.  

Despite all these tragedies, I still find inspiration for my paintings in the resistance of women against the Taliban. My soul resides back in my homeland where I was exiled. This period has brought me a sense of conflict and duality between the position of the soul and the position of the body, which sometimes makes me impatient.  

ZT: Will your subjects and concerns change as an independent female artist in exile? Will you create a brand-new character representing another narrative or scenario in the near future?  

Hassani: To be honest, my source of happiness and meaning vanished the day I left Afghanistan. I am a muralist. It is only in a particular social context and cultural geography that this style of painting makes sense and is able to convey its message and meaning. I also wanted to paint for people with whom I share the same nature and destiny in history. But this did not happen 

As with all exiles, I have to manage all my work, personal, and family relationships and activities in virtual spaces. My works, all my artistic and spiritual assets are in virtual space. There are no traces of my paintings and murals in Afghanistan.  

ZT: What is your most memorable experience as a female painter, a muralist, and an independent artist in Afghanistan?  

Hassani: Before the last trip before the Taliban took control, I drew the last painting on a wall in a secluded place in a residential area. I stayed for a longer time and suddenly everything fell apart. If I describe my mood, it will be like attending a party. Now imagine a scene where after the party you are told that you cannot go back to your house because your house is destroyed! Do you know how difficult it is? No matter how luxurious the host’s house is and how humble one’s own house is, no place can ever replace home. This is what I experienced. This feeling is suffocating.  

Can you simply accept that you have lost your existence overnight? I know that the yearning for Kabul will destroy me! Every time I think about it, the pain drives me to the point of breaking down! Words fail me to express how I feel … the feeling of disappointment and helplessness is devastating! Last year, I couldn’t come back, and the wound is still festering and the pain is still fresh.  

The longing to finish the last mural is still alive in me. On the morning of our flight, I wanted to finish it, but I couldn’t. The memory of that lonely alley and the longing for that unfinished painting burns my heart.  

ZT: Dear Ms. Hassani, thank you once again for your sincere conversation with Zan Times!  

Hassani: I apologize if I got emotional during some parts of the conversation.