Culture / Art Republik

Afghan Artist Shamsia Hassani Wants Afghanistan To Be Known for Its Arts

“I want Afghanistan to be famous for its art, not its war.”

Sep 02, 2021 | By Joseph Low
Shamsia Hassani
Image: Shamsia Hassani

September has arrived. This means that the withdrawal of the troops from the US and its allied countries are now completed. The central government in Kabul has fallen into the hands of the Taliban, a Sunni Islamist organisation that once ruled over Afghanistan during the late 1990s and time then was particularly difficult for women. 

The Islamic laws were adhered to a tee and there was little leeway for women to openly express their views. The most direct way in which one can make their feelings known is through art but the Taliban deemed it as un-Islamic. Artists were seen to be influenced by western powers and could be subjected to punishments. 

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2016, female Afghan artist Shamsia Hassani said, “Right now, the situation is not good. Very dangerous. Bombings can happen anytime, anywhere. People who live in seclusion don’t like art and think it’s not a good thing — especially for girls. Girls make art — and they are very sensitive.”

Hassani was lucky in the sense that when she returned back to Afghanistan back in the early 2000s, the US was in control and women were conferred more freedom to do what they wanted. The country had more women graduating from universities and its art scene was also thriving. Aspiring artists like Hassani could explore different art styles and it was in December 2010 that she was exposed to street art. She never looked back since. Going abroad to represent her country was particularly a proud moment for Hassani as her artwork showed what life was like for women in Afghanistan.

The artist believes her art can change the perspective of the city, by adding colour and masking bad memories of the war. It is this determination that propelled her to create Berang Arts, a contemporary art organisation that Hassani co-founded in 2009 with other Afghan artists with the support of the Prince Claus Foundation. The organisation helped promote the first National Graffiti Festival in Afghanistan in 2013. She popularised street art in Kabul, inspiring women around the world and giving new hope to female Afghan artists.

Hassani’s unwavering commitment to the arts and female empowerment has led her to be one of the “100 Leading Global Thinkers 2014” by Foreign Policy magazine. Using art as a medium, she harnesses its power to aid her in fighting for women’s rights, reminding people of the tragedies that women have faced and continue to face in Afghanistan. 

In a patriarchal society like Afghanistan, Hassani presents her women characters as unhappy, struggling and hopeful for a better life. But she also imbued them with strength, consistency and readiness to face the road ahead. Despite their unfortunate circumstances, the women figures in Hassani’s art are standing proud who want to raise their voices and bring positive change to people’s lives.

In light of what has happened to the country, it remains to be seen how women in the country will be treated. According to AP, the Taliban has “vowed to respect women’s rights” but its history of oppression makes one doubt the likelihood of that materialising. The exodus of people prior to the retreat of the US troops is perhaps a signal that its citizens do not buy the words of their new ruler. Women, in particular, are fearful and are scrambling to destroy anything that could be turned against them, like their educational certificates and even artworks. 

For now, the world waits with bated breath as the situation in Afghanistan unfolds. Hassani, like many other Afghan women, is looking forward to the day where she can fulfil her dream of making Afghanistan a place known for its art and not wars.

Follow Hassini’s Instagram: @shamsiahassani for her latest updates.

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