Can art conquer war?
From the streets of Kabul to Buckingham Palace, two artists are calling for empathy to end war.
Given spray paint, a broken wall and 15 minutes, what would you say to the Taliban?
Ukraine erased Afghanistan from our news. Many people are entering 2023 weary of news of war and worried over inflation. Our lack of attention doesn’t mean that atrocities stop. Ukrainian, Afghan, Yezidi, Rohingya and Nigerian individuals are still living the repercussions of yesterday’s headlines. How do we bear sustained attention to victims of war when we are saturated with violent news?
Two women artists have an answer. At first glance these artists seem to be opposites. Shamsia Hassani chose street art; Hannah Rose Thomas chose sacred art. Thomas’ canvases hang in places of power like Buckingham Palace, while Hassani’s canvas of choice is abandoned walls on the side streets of Kabul. Thomas’ portraits are of individual women who have shared their stories. The woman in Hassani’s murals is abstracted, geometric, dressed in a bright blue burqa – the face of multitudes. Both artists made these choices intentionally. Both paint in the context of war and violence. Both command hope. And both wish to let their canvases sway policies and end war.
Red: the day Kabul fell
Shamsia Hassani was born in Tehran in 1988 as an Afghan refugee. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, her family returned to Afghanistan. She wrote on Instagram about arriving in her homeland at age 16: “I did not have to hide my identity anymore. When I saw the map of Afghanistan, I thought to myself how good that this piece of earth is mine. How beautiful was the feeling of ownership.” Kabul was opening up. Women were studying, cafes were opening, art was on the rise. Hassani pursued a BA and MA in visual arts. But there were rumblings of war. Once, an explosion went off a few metres away from Hassani. “I felt the hot flame next to my tent, my clothes and face were covered with pieces of flesh and blood. From that day on, my heart shakes with the smallest sounds.”
Despite those moments, Hassani writes, Afghans held tight to their joy. Hassani went on to become an arts professor at Kabul University. In 2010, she participated in a graffiti workshop run by Combat Communications, an arts advocacy group. Graffiti reaches people who wouldn’t enter a gallery, she later explained in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “And at the same time, I can change the view of the city by covering bad memories of war.”
For about 10 years, Hassani created a new work of graffiti every two to three months. She chose ownerless walls when possible. “I have to work fast,” she said in 2016. The situation could turn ugly at any moment, giving Hassani 15 to 20 minutes to complete her painting. Often she couldn’t complete a mural, and returned to find it painted over. She was afraid of explosions and of ugly attitudes towards a woman painting in public. Still, she persisted, and Kabul began to recognize her trademark style.
The iconic, often solitary woman in her murals is geometric and bright. “I want to change the shape of women,” Hassani said in an interview with Art Radar Journal, years before the Taliban returned. “I am painting them larger than life. I want to say that people look at them differently now.”
Hassani’s woman wears a burqa, which is often red. “I wanted to show the secret beneath the burqa,” she explained, “which is that there is a real person inside. It is red because the color is used to draw attention to important things in Afghanistan.”
Afghan women barred from education face the grief of what could be, but also of what was. Women gained suffrage in Afghanistan in 1919, one year before the U.S. and one year after Canadian women. That lasted until the Taliban took control from 1996 to 2001, barring women from school, work, public spaces (unless chaperoned) and public speaking.
The woman is painted with closed eyes and no mouth, symbolizing these struggles. She almost always holds a musical instrument. “This musical instrument gives her power to speak in society,” Hassani said in 2018. “Her eyes are closed because usually, she has nothing good around her to see, and she cannot see her future. However, it does not mean she cannot see.” Some of Hassani’s murals are filled with lidless eyes swarming the sightless woman, or forming her burqa.
On August 15, 2021, Kabul fell to the Taliban. For a second time, Hassani was required to flee her homeland as a refugee. Her Instagram followed the news, real time, in all its horrors.
July 20, 2021 – The woman in a red burqa lifts her chin, holding a bouquet of dandelions behind her back as a tank rolls into town. Dandelions symbolize wishes in Hassani’s work.
August 14 – The woman has tears streaking down her cheeks, holding her pot with a solitary dandelion in the face of a Taliban soldier. Hassani wrote, “Maybe it is because our wishes have grown in a black pot.”
August 17 – The woman is in a white burqa, barefoot, kneeling and covering her face with her hands. Her dandelion pot has been kicked by the boot of a Taliban soldier who looms large above her, his shadow swallowing the lower half of the painting. The white dandelion seeds are scattered on packed earth. Behind them is a barely visible city in a haze of red. She titled it, ‘Death to darkness.’
Gold: portraits of survivors
Where Hassani paints in red, a cultural colour of importance in Afghanistan, Hannah Rose Thomas compels viewers of another visual language. She works in gold.
Thomas has her MA from the Prince’s School of Traditional Art in London where she specialized in early Renaissance egg tempera painting and gilding. In 2014, as an Arabic student in Jordan, Thomas turned refugee tents into canvases with Syrian refugees. In August of that year, ISIS abducted over 6,000 Yezidi women and children. Three years later, Thomas traveled to Northern Iraq. She taught Yezidi women who had escaped ISIS to paint their self-portraits. At the same time, they told their stories. The escaped women live in fear of what happened to their children at the hands of ISIS, whom were separated from them at abduction. Some of the women chose to paint themselves with tears of gold. Most of them chose to paint themselves in white robes, Yezidi traditional dress. Then they asked Thomas to paint their portraits. Thomas did, in Renaissance iconographic style. She kept the white robes and tears of gold.
In April 2018, Thomas organized an art project for Rohingya children on the Myanmar border. Thomas listened to the stories of Rohingya women and later painted their portraits in oil, chiaroscuro and sfumato techniques giving the sense of firelight, a recollection of the burning of their villages in Myanmar.
Later she traveled to Nigeria with Open Doors for an art workshop with survivors of violence by the Boko Haram and Fulani. Boko Haram has displaced millions in Nigeria since 2009 and abducted thousands of women; Fulani herdsmen use sexual violence to target farming communities. Charity, one of the participants, was held captive by Boko Haram for three years. When she finally reunited with her family in an IDP camp, her husband beat her and wouldn’t recognize the baby Charity returned with. Because of the stigma of sexual violence, Charity faces daily abuse from her community. Aisha, who was raped by two Fulani herdsmen in the presence of her three children, said: “I want the whole world to know that I have pain. Women are going through a lot and they do not have anybody to speak out for them.”
Thomas’ paintings of Yezidi, Rohingya and Nigerian women are exhibited next to their self-portraits in places like UK Houses of Parliament, European and Scottish Parliaments, Lambeth Palace, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and in an online exhibition, ‘The Future is Unwritten: Artists for Tomorrow,’ marking the UN’s 70th Anniversary.
By hanging her art before the eyes of decision makers, Thomas aims to bring politics and humanitarian work together through the empathy created through art, to influence policy change.
“I chose the sacred imagery, painting techniques and gold leaf traditionally used for paintings of the Virgin Mary – the Mater Dolorosa, Mother of Sorrows – in the Renaissance.
This is because Mary, like these Yezidi, Rohingya and Nigerian women, knew what it means to be poor, oppressed, a refugee; and for her heart to be pierced with grief at the loss of her beloved Son,” explained Thomas in an interview with Jonathan Evens. “The use of gold leaf is to show the sacred value of these women, in spite of all that they have suffered. It is symbolic of the restoration of dignity, especially important considering the stigma surrounding sexual violence.” She painted the headdresses of Nigerian women in lapis lazuli blue, a precious pigment used for Renaissance paintings of the virgin Mary.
Thomas, who journeyed through her own teenage trauma by painting, has always seen the beauty of the world around her through art. Now she recognizes it in these women: “Seeing beauty in each and every individual is at the heart of my portrait practice. I’m in awe of the resilience of the human spirit, of what people can endure and their kindness, their grace, their goodness in the midst of such atrocity – this is nothing short of a miracle of grace.”
The high cost of attention
Both Thomas and Hassani pay a price for their art. Thomas, for ethical reasons, will not accept recompense for her portraits. In the slow process of iconography, Thomas sits again and again with the stories and faces of women who have suffered deeply. She does not turn away. In an interview with Makers & Mystics, Thomas explained that iconography starts with a dark layer. It builds into highlights and coloured layers, symbolizing the journey of the soul. “These sacred methods are a form of prayer for me, like a visual psalm. I can pour out my heart for these women.”
Hassani’s Kabul murals are literally erased by the Taliban now – paint and newly planted trees cover up her bold, geometric, hope-filled art. From the other side of the world she grieves her motherland. She hasn’t stopped painting. She wrote of how she is cut off from her community that remained in Afghanistan. Those who left are scattered throughout the world. “My country and my art gave me an identity. The day Kabul fell, I could not believe it; my heart was on fire,” she told the Guardian. “I used to believe that art is stronger than war, but now I realise that war is stronger, and everything we built over 20 years could be destroyed within minutes by its darkness. The reason I am still painting here is to help myself stay afloat and not sink in this darkness.”
On the one-year anniversary of Kabul’s fall Hassani shared another painting: the woman in blue clutches a keyboard, but almost all the keys have fallen to the ground. In December she wrote that the world watched women be denied the right to education. “Does it mean that the whole world is so weak?”
Both Hassani and Thomas grapple with atrocities larger than their art can contain, or cure, and yet they don’t look away. “It takes more courage to keep your heart soft and gentle in the harshness of this world,” said Thomas.
Art which is formed from contemplation creates the space to contemplate incomprehensible crimes, said Thomas on the Makers & Mystics podcast. “It’s all too easy to turn away, to shut down, to choose not to see. The beauty of a painting of an individual, of a human story, is that it captures your attention, draws you in. I’ve been astonished by how many people have been moved to tears in these hallowed halls of power.”
Art can gentle us into kinship with those who suffer violence. When Kabul fell, I followed Hassani’s Instagram religiously. It was my only way to comprehend the magnitude of what was happening from the other side of the world. Since then, Hassani has expressed solidarity with the displaced people of Ukraine, the fate of Mahsa Amini, the targeting of Hazara women and the depression of migrants. Comments on her Instagram come in all languages, proving the empathy and connection created through her art.
As you follow the news, give your attention to prophets and artists like these. Like the women who walked the via dolorosa, who waited at the cross, who wrapped their dead Messiah in spices and waited at the opening of the tomb, these artists do not turn away. Their art declares that life is always stronger than death .