Ask westerners living in Afghanistan what they think about the country’s future and you get a variety of answers, most cynical. But the best response I heard was two weeks ago over a coffee at Kabul’s Flower Street Cafe, “The people are sweet and the country’s a mess”.
Shamsia epitomizes the ‘people are sweet and the country’s a mess’ like few others. An artist and faculty professor of fine arts at Kabul University, she has a soft disposition and gentle face with large brown eyes and an easy smile that makes her seem even younger than her 23 years. After knowing Shamsia virtually for two years, I finally got to sit down with her at the artist refuge, The Venue in Kabul where one of her murals is a work in progress on an interior wall, to discuss her vision of art in Afghanistan and beyond.
Shamsia went through a graffiti art project sponsored by Mountain2Mountain and organized by Combat Communications in 2010 that sparked a passion for art in public spaces. A contemporary art painter, she took to graffiti easily despite the restrictions imposed by her gender. Shamsia’s work is very modern and often uses the theme of burqas and fish. She embraces the bluebird blue common in burqas around Kabul and the rest of the country and the color is striking on the sides of walls in a city made up of earth tones.
The fish itself is often this bluebird blue and is entertained through the image. The bubbles around the fish represent the words that the women can’t say.
The issue of her gender comes into play when discussing her approach to public art. A typical mural on a wall takes a minimum of 3-4 hours, but often more. It a problem for Afghan women to be doing something so controversial in a public space for such a long period of time. She has done pieces inside of private courtyards, and other locations, but the risk is quite high to do the sort of large scale pieces she loves. So she has evolved her love of this art form in a unique way to accommodate the risk. Shamsia takes a photo of a wall in Kabul that she’d like to graffiti, prints it, and then paints her graffiti directly on the photo.
When asked why she loves the form of graffiti art she replies simply. “Every wall in Kabul has a bad memory attached to it. Maybe if I can paint on all the walls, I can erase the bad memories.”
Artists like Shamsia are the reason that Afghanistan will change in the future. Artists challenging the past and using their voice to create the future of their country.