On the very edge of Kabul, down a long, dusty road that cuts through the city, the ruins of Darul Aman Palace stand empty and pocked with shells. The building, once a beautiful nod to neoclassical architecture, is now mostly another reminder of all the ways that war has torn the city apart.
Across the street from the ruins, a brightly-colored mural adorns a drab gray wall at pedestrians’ eye level—at once a testament to the country’s rocky present and a message of hope for its future. “Afghanistan is famous for politics and war,” says Shamsia Hassani, the Afghani street artist who created the mural.“But there are people here who are hopeful for a better future, who are working to help their country.”
Hassani is an unlikely force to be reckoned with in a country that has often made it difficult for women to comfortably traverse the public sphere. But she has made it a point to force public attention on women: their shape, their thoughts, and their point of view. Her work, which adorns public walls and sidewalks throughout Kabul, is uniquely centered on the experience of Afghani women, sometimes drawn in burqas and sometimes not, but always represented powerfully and at the center of the frame.
“When I started, I painted a woman with the burqa. I created a new shape of a woman in burqa, with sharp shoulders, with movement,” Hassani says. “Now I paint women without the burqa, because I wanted to show the woman [may] not have the burqa, but inside she still feels the same. She has all the same problems in society, and she is still not free.”
Hassani’s artwork generally features the same female protagonist, sometimes alone and sometimes standing in the foreground of a group of women, often holding a musical instrument that’s meant to convey self-expression and ownership of her voice.
Much of her work is painted on the grounds of the Kabul University, where Hassani teaches graffiti classes, and where she is least likely to be harassed while she paints. However powerful and beautiful her artwork may be, the streets of Kabul are often unsafe for her to linger in because of frequent bombings and a conservative contingent of Afghani citizens who take issue with her painting and shout or curse at her while she works. Sometimes, she says, she has been forced to leave paintings unfinished because she felt too uncomfortable to stay and complete them.
Currently, Hassani is the artist in residence at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Her three-month residency has been worlds away from her experience painting in Kabul.“When I paint here, I experience a new artistic life,” Hassani says. “I never had such a big space to work. Here you’re free to do anything you want. In my country, I’m always feeling that something will happen to me and I cannot paint with a free mind.”
But she hopes that her work in America, where she has been creating art for galleries and exhibitions, will open people’s minds to a different side of her country and its people. “There are some people who have bad ideas about the women of Afghanistan,” she says. “They feel that most [Afghan women] are uneducated, have nothing to do for their society, or aren’t strong. When I come and I say, I’m here, I’m trying to do something for my country, and I’m educated, then people can see there is something positive [in Afghanistan], as well.”
Even given her artistic freedom in the U.S., Hassani says that as a street artist, there is a big difference between creating for galleries and creating in the streets of Kabul. The work that gets shown in galleries or exhibitions is seen by the same small group of people who always attend galleries and exhibitions, she says. The point of street art is to make the work and its message accessible to everyone. “In Afghanistan, when you paint something on canvas, most people can’t see it. We don’t have many galleries or exhibitions. The reason I paint in the street in Kabul is because I want to show art to people who have never seen it,” she says.
And she hopes it will make some tangible difference for the city she lives in and loves. “Art cannot change anything directly,” she says. “Art can only change people’s minds, and then people’s minds can change the society. That is what I hope for.”