Painting for Women’s Rights on the Streets of Afghanistan

On International Women’s Day 2017, Espionart takes a look at the work of a female artist who is challenging stereotypes about women in one of the world’s most patriarchal societies.

In the Afghan capital of Kabul, the spray-painted image of a shadowy figure, wrapped in a blue burqa, is an unexpected shock of bright colour in the unrelenting grey urban landscape. This image is the work of Shamsia Hassani, who is credited not only as Afghanistan’s first female graffiti artist, but also the country’s first 3D street artist, regardless of gender. As well as challenging stereotypes about Afghan women by pursuing her practice as a street artist, Hassani has become a powerful spokesperson for women’s rights by putting female characters at the centre of her work.

hassani 3Shamsia Hassani was born to Afghan parents in the Iranian capital of Tehran in 1988. Unable to acquire Iranian citizenship, Hassani was prevented from pursuing an artistic education, and so returned to her native country in 2005 to study first a BFA and then an MFA at Kabul University. She is now one of the youngest faculty members in the university’s Fine Art Department, and a major figure in Kabul’s emerging contemporary art scene.

Hassani first tried her hand at graffiti in 2010, when she attended a workshop in Kabul run by a British street artist. Since then, she has focused on depicting Afghan women, to campaign for their greater representation in the country. While her female characters often appear melancholy and in precarious situations, Hassani shows women as determined and resilient, reflecting her own hopeful outlook: “I want to show that women have returned to Afghan society with a new, stronger shape. It’s not the woman who stays at home. It’s a new woman. A woman who is full of energy, who wants to start again. You can see that in my artwork, I want to change the shape of women. I am painting them larger than life. I want to say that people look at them differently now. … We can make positive changes with art. We can open people’s minds with art.”

The series Secret, featuring a female figure wearing a blue burqa, confronts the Western preconception that the headscarf is the source of female oppression. Hassani dismisses this as a distraction from the real problems facing women, such as lack of access to education. Above all, the artist aims to show that the veil covering the woman’s body is much less debilitating than the veil of silence that prevents her from having a voice. For this reason, Hassani often depicts her female characters with musical instruments, as a proxy for their muted speech, providing an outlet for their expression.

In the series Birds of No Nation, Hassani’s female characters are perched high on rooftops, peering down on a distance city; while in Once Upon a Time, the women are alone in a fractured landscape, cast out from the urban centre. In these works, Hassani reflects on Afghanistan’s turbulent history, since a coup d’état in 1978 and the Soviet invasion in 1979 provoked rising extremism and almost 40 years of war. The artist’s own itinerant upbringing, raised with limited rights in a neighbouring country, mirrors that of many of her compatriots, whose experiences of mass migration and refugeeism are epitomised in the iconic image of the Afghan Girl. But as Hassani explained to Art Radar, “I want to colour over the bad memories of war on the walls and if I colour over these bad memories, then I erase [war] from people’s minds. I want to make Afghanistan famous because of its art, not its war.”

Despite her humanitarian objectives, Hassani’s work has received mixed reactions in the Afghan capital. In an interview with The Independent, Hassani revealed that she is often harassed while painting on the streets of Kabul. Due to concerns about her personal safety – from attacks by angry onlookers, as well as the risks posed by hidden landmines and sporadic bombings – Hassani has to work quickly and usually finishes her pieces within 15 minutes. In response to these dangers, which prevent her from creating new street art for months at a time, Hassani created Dream Graffiti, manually or digitally painting on photographs from the safety of her studio, to imagine her ideal artistic intervention into the Kabul cityscape.

Shamsia Hassani’s international profile has grown rapidly in recent years and her work has been included in exhibitions around the world. In 2016, Hassani was artist-in-residence at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, where she was able to meet local street artists and learn more about the American arts education system to inform her teaching in Afghanistan. Back in Kabul, she is training a new generation of graffiti artists and has co-founded the Berang Art Organization, to promote contemporary art and culture in Afghanistan through workshops, talks, and exhibitions. Shamsia Hassani is single-handedly proving that, even in the most unforgiving of places, art has the power to give hope and inspire change.

You can follow Shamsia Hassani on Facebook and see more of her work and videos of her creative process on the Hammer Museum website.

Images: Top – Shamsia Hassani photographed for Elle magazine in 2014. © MaxPPP. All images courtesy Shamsia Hassani.

We the People: Shepard Fairey’s New Pictures of Hope

Back in 2013, Espionart showcased the work of American illustrator Shepard Fairey, exploring his debt to the aesthetics of the Cold War. Fairey’s 2008 ‘Hope’ poster, bearing the image of Barack Obama, has become perhaps the most iconic political illustration of the 21st century. Since then, the poster has been widely imitated and parodied by both Fairey and his admirers, to support causes such as the Occupy movement, and to shame a variety of politicians. The Women’s March on Washington and in cities around the world on 21 January 2017 revealed an imaginative range of appropriations, satirising the new president.

Fairey’s work has also been back in the news – and in the public consciousness – this week, as the artist released a new set of illustrations reaffirming the rights of American citizens from a range of ethnicities. At a time when many fear the divisive rhetoric of the incoming administration, the ‘We the People’ series (a nod to the opening line of the US constitution) offers a confident vision of the American people and supports Fairey’s belief that compassion and unity is the best antidote to the politics of hate. In red, white and blue – the same US flag colours of the ‘Hope’ design – Fairey’s three new posters feature bold images of American citizens, their cultural backgrounds indicated by their styling. A Hispanic woman wears a red flower in her hair and a T-shirt emblazoned with the Mexican golden eagle, taken from the country’s coat of arms. Beneath her image, the phrase ‘Defend Dignity’ points to Trump’s recent demonisation of America’s Latino population. Above the phrase ‘Protect Each Other’, an African American with long dreadlocks looks downwards, inverting Obama’s triumphant upward gaze and indicating the risks posed to young Black men, as highlighted in the Black Lives Matter movement. But of the three, the poster that has been most visible and had the greatest impact is that of a woman wearing an American flag in the style of a Muslim hijab. The rallying cry of ‘We the People … are Greater than Fear’ urges American citizens to resist the rise of Islamophobia.

Fairey’s posters are part of a group project, organised by the Amplifier Foundation, which works with street artists and illustrators to commission and distribute social campaign posters. The Colombian American muralist Jessica Sabogal and Mexican American illustrator Ernesto Yerena also contributed posters entitled ‘We the Indivisible’ and ‘We the Resilient’, with all five designs now available to download free of charge from the Amplifier Foundation website. The foundation also released five additional posters in celebration of the Women’s March on Washington.

The success of Fairey’s new designs is such that, this week, the Guardian newspaper devoted part of its front page to announcing an exclusive interview with Munira Ahmed, the Bangladeshi American woman who was the inspiration for Fairey’s hijab poster. Ahmed in fact modeled for the photo on which Fairey’s poster is based a decade ago. Since then, the picture, by New York photographer Ridwan Adhami and taken in front of Manhattan’s Ground Zero, has been widely shared online. In an ironic twist, a building owned by Donald Trump can also be seen in the background.

For Munira Ahmed, the poster is “about saying, ‘I am American just as you are’. I am American and I am Muslim, and I am very proud of both”. Shepard Fairey also recognises the particular cultural resonance of his hijab poster, calling it “very powerful, because it reminds people that freedom of religion is a founding principle of the United States and that there is a history of welcoming people to the United States who have faced religious persecution in their homelands”.

Raúl Martínez and the Ambiguous Art of Post-Revolutionary Cuba

The Cuban Revolution came to an end in January 1959, as the guerrilla revolt led by Fidel Castro swept from power the US-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. The subsequent transformation of the Caribbean island into a Communist state, aligned with the Soviet Union, would give rise to an uneasy relationship between Cuba and the United States that exists to this day, and which in the 1960s threatened to ignite World War III. The paintings of Raúl Martínez (1927–1995) are today celebrated as some of the most iconic images created in the decades following the Cuban Revolution. And yet, the artist had a complex relationship with a regime that at times rejected and persecuted him.

Before the revolution, Raúl Martínez had briefly lived in New York and studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As with many young artists in the United States during the late 1940s, Martínez was inspired by Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Once back home in Cuba, Martínez became one of eleven abstract artists known as ‘Los Once’, who showed their work together from 1953. Although the group disbanded after a couple of years, Los Once is still remembered as the first and most significant association of Cuban abstractionists. During these years, Martínez also began to hone his skills as a graphic designer, mirroring the career of Andy Warhol by likewise working in the advertising industry.

For Raúl Martínez, the Cuban Revolution brought hope and fear. From the mid-1960s, Martínez and his partner, the playwright and poet Abelardo Estorino, were victimised as part of a government-sanctioned campaign against homosexuals. During this period, Martínez was expelled from his position as professor of design at the University of Havana, going on to forge a career as a freelance designer. In his memoirs, Yo Publio: Confesiones de Raúl Martínez, the artist recalls that many of his friends were sent to “rehabilitation” camps, in reality harsh labour camps that held homosexuals as well as artists and intellectuals, political dissidents, and religious minorities.  This era of repression triggered an abrupt change in Martínez’s artistic style. While the influence of the Soviet Union simultaneously brought Socialist Realism to Cuba, Martínez instead took his cues once more from the art of the United States.

In 1964, Martínez began to experiment with collage, to produce works that reflected the visual culture of post-revolutionary Cuba. In parallel with his American contemporary, Robert Rauschenberg, Martínez combined photographs of famous faces, anonymous citizens and everyday objects, with the revolutionary slogans and graffiti style that had sprung up across the island in celebration of the revolution. Martínez subsequently returned to painting, combining elements of his collage work with contemporary street art and local folk traditions to produce a Cuban version of pop art.

While Martínez’s pop style had many of the hallmarks of American pop – strong colours, bold lines and repeated images – there were some marked differences which made the work distinctly Cuban. Rather than taking inspiration from the rampant consumerism in the United States, Martínez’s paintings reflected on the transformation of Cuban society and the prevalence of politics. Instead of media images of American film stars and celebrities, Martínez based his designs on unglamorised photographs of Cuban leaders displayed in state institutions. The national hero José Martí was a recurrent subject in Martínez’s pop works, while he also pictured national and global political figures including Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, Lenin, and Ho Chi Minh. In contrast to the vast sums paid for American pop art, the isolationist, anti-commercial policies in post-revolutionary Cuba prevented Martínez from selling much of his work. And while the pop art movement in the United States saw screen printing brought to the forefront of artistic production, Martínez remained committed to working in paint.

Martínez’s pop art gives the illusion of propaganda, with its apparently optimistic scenes celebrating the Communist leadership. And yet his work remains ambiguous. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Cuba’s anti-gay rules prevented Martínez from publicly displaying much of his work, and he was even ordered to cover his 1967 mural mourning the death of revolutionary hero Che Guevara. While Martínez’s paintings capture the widespread enthusiasm for change and the spirit of the Cuban people, the sombre palette and reflective mood of these works also suggest an artist struggling to reconcile his revolutionary convictions with his experience of being ostracised under the post-revolutionary regime.

Images: All Raúl Martínez. Untitled, 1962, mixed media on heavy paper, 15 x 20 inches; 26 de Julio [26 July], 1964, collage and oil on wood, 150 x 180 cm; Rosas y Estrellas [Roses and Stars], 1972, oil on canvas, 45.5 x 51 inches; Repeticiones Con Bandera [Repetitions with a Flag], 1966, oil on canvas, 127 x 147 cm.

Painting Through the Berlin Wall

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“We enjoyed painting a line through that one!”

The German journalist and author, Frank Willmann, recalled with glee the moment in 1986, when he and four friends daubed white paint across Keith Haring’s iconic Berlin Wall mural. This iconoclastic act was part of an art-activist stunt that stretched 3 miles along the infamous structure. Since the wall was suddenly erected on 13 August 1961, to separate the German Democratic Republic from the neighbouring Federal Republic of Germany, it had been a hated symbol of the Cold War divide between East and West. But by the mid-1980s, the western face of the wall had become a tourist destination, with visitors attracted by the growing number of artworks that adorned it following Thierry Noir’s first wall painting in April 1984.

Born in the East German city of Weimar in 1963, Willmann along with his friends – Frank Schuster, Wolfram Hasch, and brothers Jürgen and Thomas Onisseit – had grown up never knowing a world without the Berlin Wall. By their late teens, the group had begun to rebel against the government of Erich Honecker and the notorious Stasi. Between 1983 and 1985, the authorities agreed to let all five of the young troublemakers emigrate to the West, and they reconvened in Berlin.

Their experience of living on both sides of the wall made the five friends keenly aware of the devastating effect it had on the lives of so many German citizens. They were therefore infuriated to see the wall dismissed by many in the western world as “little more than a big canvas. They just didn’t care what was going on behind it.” The willingness of the West German authorities to pander to the wishes of a famous American artist was particularly irksome, and the five friends decided to retaliate when Haring’s paint was barely dry.

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On 3 November 1986, armed with paint rollers and buckets, and wearing masks to conceal their faces, Willmann, Schuster, Hasch, and the Onisseit brothers embarked on their daring feat. They continued to paint an uneven white line for several hours, until eagle-eyed East German border guards surprised them by appearing through a secret door and dragged Hasch back to the GDR, where he spent 3 months in prison before returning to West Berlin.

As The Guardian newspaper reports, the men today give a number of reasons why they chose to paint on the wall, ranging from a desire to feel empowered and proclaim their move to West Germany, to a protest against the complacency of those fortunate enough to be living on the western side. In a surprising development, only in 2010 when Willmann began researching for a book about the project, did it come to light that Jürgen Onisseit – the friend who had first suggested the white line action – had once been a Stasi informant. In a bitter irony, this revelation has created a more unassailable division between the friends and brothers than any concrete wall.

Featured Artist: 281 Anti Nuke

281 Anti Nuke came into being in 2011, in the aftermath of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. The first sign of his existence was not a man but a little girl in a pink polka dot raincoat.

The stickers that started to appear on the streets of Tokyo, bearing the slogan I hate rain, were the calling card of the artist that is fast becoming known as the “Japanese Banksy.” But who is 281 Anti Nuke? The artist’s real name is Kenta Masuyama. Hailing from near Fukushima and a father himself, Masuyama was so moved by the events of 3/11 that he began his campaign to provoke the Japanese people to question the actions of their government over the crisis.

Since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, the issue of nuclear technology in Japan has been a highly-charged political issue. 281 Anti Nuke chose the medium of stickers due to the speed of production and application, so as to more quickly spread his “anti nuclear power plant” message. More recently the artist has begun to confront wider issues in Japanese politics and society.

Many of 281’s designs reference political art produced in response to the Cold War, from the activist-art of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) to his reimagining of Dmitri Vrubel’s iconic Berlin Wall painting, My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love.

You can find out more about 281 Anti Nuke in his own words in an interview in The New Yorker and also watch a short Japanese-language documentary about the artist by VICE Japan:

Images courtesy 281_Anti Nuke and Roth Management.

The Secret Art of Pinochet’s Chile

Having been forced to call free presidential elections on 14 December 1989, Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet was finally removed from power, bringing to an end 16 years of military rule. Pinochet had taken the presidency in 1973 following a US-backed coup d’état, which deposed the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende and established a junta in its place.

The restoration of democracy in Chile also enabled the artistic collective Brigada Ramona Parra (BRP) to come out of hiding. The group had been founded by young communist artists in 1968 and for five years had covered Santiago’s streets with colourful murals campaigning for radical social change.

Following the 1973 coup BRP activists were arrested and their murals were painted over by the military government. Although not defeated, the artists were driven underground, continuing to paint secretly in defiance of Pinochet’s regime. The danger of being caught meant large murals were impossible, so the artists instead created a tag: a letter R within a circle with a star next to it. The R stood for resistance, the circle for unity, and the star as a symbol of the BRP.

Since their liberation, the BRP artists have once again brightened the streets of Chile with murals championing contemporary causes including indigenous rights and educational reform.

This wonderful story is told more extensively in Gideon Long’s report on the BBC News website: The Chilean Muralists Who Defied Pinochet.

Image: BRP mural honouring Jecar Nehgme, a left-wing activist shot dead by Pinochet’s forces in 1989 and one of the last victims of the junta.

Featured Artist: Thierry Noir

Thierry NoirOn 9 November 2014 the world looked back to the momentous day, 25 years earlier, when the Wall came down.

French street artist Thierry Noir is credited as the first person to paint on the Berlin Wall, in April 1984. Noir had moved to the west side of the city two years earlier and was living in a squat that overlooked the infamous crossing. Saddened by the sight, one day he spontaneously decided to begin his illegal artwork in an act of defiance. Instead of intending to make the wall beautiful or joyful, Noir painted to highlight its strangeness, to “transform it, make it ridiculous, and help destroy it.”

Noir had to paint quickly to avoid arrest by East German guards, developing a ‘Fast Form’ style by simplifying the figures into a continuous line formed of one or two bright colours. Over the next five years Noir painted on the wall daily, with his colourful cartoon animals and human faces eventually covering an entire kilometre of its surface.

Many artists followed Thierry Noir’s lead in painting on the Berlin Wall, from Keith Haring’s stick men to Dmitri Vrubel’s cheeky picture of Brezhnev and Honecker in a clinch. Yet despite these years of work, Noir was relieved to see the wall destroyed: “It was not an art project, it was a deadly border. One hundred and thirty six people were killed because of the wall – everyone was just happy that it went away.”

Thierry Noir continues to live in the German capital and to produce work in his signature style, which since the end of the Cold War has became an iconic symbol of freedom. Noir’s Berlin Wall paintings remain on the portions of the wall held in the East Side Gallery and in New York City, and in 2009 the artist was invited to contribute to the restoration of what is now a historic monument by repainting several sections of his work.

Images: Top – Thierry Noir painting on the Berlin Wall, 1989; Bottom – View from Thierry Noir’s bathroom, Berlin, 1989.