Shamsia Hassani, Afghan street muralist

The graffiti artist from Kabul has to paint quickly in Afghanistan to avoid angry passersby

Photo by Haroon Noori

Shamsia Hassani will paint a mural this week on the west wall of the SN&R office. 1124 Del Paso Boulevard.

The war-torn walls of Kabul, Afghanistan articulate a clear message in a harsh tone: The cityscape is shaped by violence. Bullet holes in signs and damaged masonry are familiar scars for Shamsia Hassani. As a street artist and art professor who lives in Kabul, Hassani wants to tattoo those landmarks with new messages—but she faces unique constraints.

A woman taking to the streets to detail walls with contemporary art isn’t met with open arms. Many men confront Hassani, often cursing at her, some going so far as trying to stop her. It’s not a low-stress hobby. When she’s not at home, she’s traveling the world for art festivals, fellowships and other opportunities.

This month finds her coming to Sacramento to participate in the Wide Open Walls mural festival—for which she’s painting a mural on SN&R headquarters. We talked with Hassani about her unique experience as a street artist and her artistic goals.

Would a piece of your art in Sacramento be similar to one you’d paint in Kabul?

It would be different, because in Kabul, the situation is different. Usually in Kabul, I’m scared of going out and [upsetting people], because … I’m scared of the security, the political issues. Being a woman and working outside is difficult.

Usually I hear a lot of bad words from people when I’m working, and sometimes I’m really scared of people. I’m scared they hate me or they’ll do something bad to me because I’m a woman. And usually, Afghan men are not OK with women working outside … usually I’m trying to leave very fast, so most of my artwork is not complete.

How does that affect you as an artist?

When a woman is walking—just normally walking—they hear a lot of bad words from people. There is a lot of street harassment. When a woman starts painting in the street, it’s not normal for people, and some of them are coming to stop my work.

I accept that people use bad words to me. I can say, “OK,” I can ignore it, but I’m really scared from the bombing and the explosions. That’s the biggest problem, I think.

Is the art culture redeveloping in Afghanistan?

There are some things very good, and there are other things very bad. Both of them are developing together. One of them, which is good, is that people are interested in art, and also a lot of people are trying to study art. … At the same time, the situation is getting very bad, like way to the opposite side of these things.

Is it like things are starting fresh?

I was born in Iran in an Afghan family, and when we got back to Afghanistan, I heard from people that [during the Taliban’s reign], people were not allowed to make art—they could make Islamic art or landscapes [but] not any portrait or figure drawing. After Taliban was gone, artists could start working again. It was like a renaissance for artists.

Why do you make art?

Not for money, not for anything that people give me, not for credit; I just wanted to paint something for people, just for their mind.

When I started doing graffiti in 2010, it was a very big change in my life. It’s very difficult for people to go to galleries and exhibitions. It was a good way to introduce art to people when I paint in the street. … At the time, I saw that there were a lot of memories of war on walls. I saw the bullet signs. So I wanted to paint over those walls [to] cover the bad memories of war from walls. So instead of seeing the bullet sign, they see something else.

Have you ever faced danger as a result of your art?

Yeah. I try to be ready to go [when I’m painting]. I was close to a few explosions … I’m always very careful. That’s why I don’t have a lot of art in Kabul. It’s a very risky and dangerous process for me, as a woman, to make art.

When you paint in other countries, what is your message?

When I’m traveling, I have two goals. One of them is to introduce the idea of Afghanistan to people, because people from other countries, they have a bad image of Afghanistan in their minds. … We have a lot of war, a lot of political issues. Everyone knows about that. So I wanted to introduce something new, a positive side of my country.

Usually I want to show an Afghan woman [in a way] that is different from what people have in their mind: a woman [who] is powerful, a woman [who] is trying to fight [her] problems with [her] voice, with [her] power, [who is] trying to stay strong.