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‘We will not be silent’ — the plight of Afghanistan’s women artists

Over the past week, the world has watched as Afghanistan’s government collapsed and the Taliban secured rule of the country. Now, questions are circling about what will happen next, especially for women and girls, who under the last period of Taliban rule were denied access to education and the ability to work.

In the 20 years since the Taliban was ousted by US-led forces, women and girls, especially in urban centres such as Kabul, have realised some broader freedoms. According to the USAID development agency, more than 3.5m girls were enrolled in school this year, but the country has remained a difficult place for women to thrive. The arts have been a means by which some courageous women have sought to make their voices heard.

Shamsia Hassani, an art lecturer at Kabul University, is known as Afghanistan’s first female graffiti artist. She began by painting on abandoned buildings and war-torn edifices on the streets of Kabul, making her art accessible to people going about their daily lives and for whom galleries and exhibitions were a rarity. But painting so publicly was dangerous because of both continuing violence and the harassment she faced as a female artist.

Hassani developed a technique she called “dreaming graffiti”, in which she takes photographs of her city and then graffitis over them. Her images are a mix of bold and colourful illustrations often set against a darker, sober background. Many feature the same main character, a young girl in traditional clothing, wearing a headscarf. Her angular face has no facial features besides closed eyes and long eyelashes. She has no mouth to speak with but the character expresses herself through the various objects she is depicted alongside, from musical instruments to dandelions, to paper planes and boats conjuring thoughts of freedom and escape.

Her art feels like a testament to the strength and resilience of Afghan women but also to Hassani’s ability to continue to envision hope

I am struck and moved by how much emotion and feeling Hassani conveys through the sparse drawings and outlines of buildings and cityscapes, and the mostly featureless faces. So much artistic communication relies on the way in which Hassani positions the bodies in her work, and how she relates them to the objects in the images.

In one illustration posted on Instagram this week, a young girl kneels with her face in her hands at the feet of a soldier whose body we only see from the waist down. But we also see the butt of his rifle by his side. And we see a small pot with a single dandelion. It is glowing, bathed in its own light, even in the ominous scene. But it is still losing its seeds, emblematic of the fragility of life and hope.

Works like this seem to represent many of Hassani’s images, where beauty and hope are juxtaposed in the same frame with exploding buildings, darkened skylines, shadowy male figures. Her art feels like a testament to the strength and resilience of Afghan women but also to Hassani’s ability to continue to envision hope, to proclaim light and life, and to encourage and remind those who see her work that the power of a woman’s voice is not easily silenced, even when her mouth is closed.

Afghan artist and curator Rada Akbar, 33, wants to draw attention to the long history of inspiring and accomplished Afghan women. As part of her work, she hopes to remind the world that “the history of Afghan women did not start after 2001”.

In March 2019, Akbar launched an annual exhibition called Abarzanan, which translates as “Superwomen”, an installation of female mannequins honouring women who’ve shown strength and resilience in the face of misogyny and patriarchal oppression. The mannequins were presented in works of wearable art that draw on the skill of a wide range of Afghan craftspeople and creatives, from painters to calligraphers to jewellers, celebrating Afghan cultural heritage and highlighting the people who exemplify women’s empowerment.

The exhibitions have also paid homage to women who lost their lives under a patriarchal system that limits women’s freedom and independence. One installation is of a headless life-sized figure dressed in a long full white burial gown. There is a large ring around her shoulders, so it appears the body is submerged, though it is still fully visible to viewers.

Rada Akbar’s ‘Rokhshana’, which commemorates a 19-year-old girl who was stoned to death © New York Times/Redux/Eyevine

Above the headless form, a shower of stones is suspended in the air, as though raining down from the sky. The stones are lit up and cast a powerful reflection in a circle of light at the base of the mannequin. The work is a tribute to a woman known as Rokhshana, a 19-year-old from the central Afghan province of Ghor, who was stoned to death under Taliban orders after fleeing a forced marriage.

In a stirring speech at the second exhibition, Akbar said: “This exhibition is a response to those powerful men. They want us to remain within the boundaries they negotiated for us. They want us to remain silent, obedient, fearful. We will not.

“If there’s anything we can learn from the history of women’s struggles in Afghanistan and in the region, it is that even the most oppressive regimes were not able to poison the seeds of rebellion and freedom that grow in our hearts. We’ll not go back. We will not submit to the boundaries others create for us. We will not be silent.”

Born in Tehran but based in Kabul, the Afghan artist, photographer and curator Fatimah Hossaini wants her work to show a different version of her country and of women. Her images are striking and vivid. Her women reveal their faces, a visibility that draws a viewer into the narrative, catching imaginative glimpses into their personalities and perhaps their lives. Women anywhere are so rarely acknowledged on their own terms without the age-old layers of cultural and societal narratives that try to preset and establish the female identity of any culture.

Hossaini practices what she calls staged photography, so the women are sometimes positioned to suggest particular narratives about their daily lives. They are seen playing traditional instruments, having tea, or engaged in activities atypical for women in public, such as riding a bicycle or reading an international newspaper.

Hossaini wants the world to see a diversity of Afghan women, and to acknowledge the wide range of their interiority. For her, art is the medium for that. She has said she wants to stay and work in Afghanistan but, as for all these artists, the future remains uncertain.

Enuma Okoro is a New York-based columnist for FT Life & Arts

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