This Afghan Artist Believes The Creative Powers Of Art Can Help Save His Country From Destruction


Hamed Hassanzada, 36, is a Kabul-based artist. He is a member of the Kabul Art Project, an artist association for contemporary Afghan artists. ThinkProgress reached out Hassanzada through the Project and spoke to him over the phone about the challenges he faces to produce artwork in Afghanistan and the importance he thinks it has for his country. What follows is an interview with Hassanzada which has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

Did you always want to be an artist? What was your journey towards becoming a professional artist like?

I have been painting since childhood…but it wasn’t serious until I figured out that I could do it better and better and went to some private academies for learning more about art. It’s been 10 years since I’m working on art seriously, mostly in the media of painting and drawing, but I also make some sculptures. I didn’t know that art could be serious enough for me to do it as a profession, but now I see that it’s the only thing that I can do.

What changed for you to see art as something you could do professionally?

I feel more freedom in art than in other professions. I can express myself more in this field. I can’t explain it very clearly, but I think art is a miracle. It’s like flying in the sky and you do just what you want to do. It’s very important for me to feel free. In the other professions, you are not as free. You might feel like you are caged or in prison or you are doing things for others; you can’t do everything that you want.

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What challenges did you face in becoming an artist?

Especially here in Afghanistan, people don’t care about art. People have a lot of problems including economic problems, and art cannot make money here. I have a small family now. I live with my father and my sister and they’ve always protected me and supported me so I don’t have many problems in my life, although they would prefer that I work another job so that I can support myself in this very poor country. I’m under pressure right now, but I still hold on to make art for the people of Afghanistan. It’s really hard to bear this situation because I really don’t have any income in my life. I maybe sell four or five pieces of artwork in a year, but that’s not enough for living here.

I imagine that it’s unusual for a man to be supported by a woman in Afghanistan. How do you feel about your sister supporting you so that you can work as an artist?

My sister is so kind and has always supported me and helped me and encouraged me to continue my art. Especially here in Afghanistan, we don’t have many families like mine. If I was in a different family, maybe I would not have worked as an artist. Sometimes I don’t feel good because she is younger than me and always supported me which is not common in our society. I have to bear it because I don’t have anyone else to help and support me. Sometimes I push myself to find another job, but I couldn’t find any, and I couldn’t even think about it because my sister always told me, ‘I have a job and I will pay for what you need.’ I do feel pressure, though, because in this traditional society, it isn’t common for a sister, especially a younger sister, to support her brother.

What have you done to promote an interest in art? Do you think Afghans have been receptive to it?

I am trying to do something for art in Afghanistan. I do many kinds of workshops here for young artists, and do some preservation [work] here. Most people in Afghanistan don’t care about art, but we are still making art. Many people who buy my art are foreigners, some diplomats or people who work here at NGOs. They care about art and buy artwork from me. Afghans have many problems, including economic ones, and most of them cannot buy artwork. The young people do some to exhibitions. Sometimes they encourage me and some people write to me, but it’s not enough to just encourage.

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You use a lot of grays and somber tones in your work. Is this an effort to reflect the situation in Afghanistan as you see it?

I don’t choose the situations [that I depict in my art], it’s just the realities that I face in my society, and the atmosphere of my city and the country where I live. I recently started to use these gray and black and white colors and I don’t want to make colorful things. I think that I don’t have any choice for that. This is just coming to my mind and it’s what I put out to show the war and the many struggles we have.

Do you feel obligated to represent the political and social circumstances of your country or do you feel moved to try to depict the realities you see around you?

I don’t have to do it, but I do feel that I have some responsibility for doing something for my people, but these things are in my mind and I accept them. I do it because I want to show the world how much the people of my country are suffering. I think maybe I’m a representative of the situation that I live in, but I really feel it and I live it. I cannot think about the other side. If I felt the peace and the colorful world, I’m sure that I would paint that, but in this situation maybe I am the voice of the people of Afghanistan. I’m the voice of people who are struggling in the war.

What message do you hope your artwork conveys to people in Afghanistan and around the world?

I really believe that if people cared about art, the situation would be much better than what it is right now. When you see a painting and focus on that, you automatically get happy, and feel calm. If you care about the colors in something that you see on the wall, how can you use a gun to kill people? I think that if people care about art, they see realize that people can be so creative and they care about more than war and killing each other. If you look at a sculpture made by an artist, you can see the details and have some respect for humanity, I think. My artwork is full of sadness, but you can see the beauty in it, because I have a lot of lines and contrast and the composition – all basic things in art. I think art can be beautiful even if the subject is not beautiful. It’s like Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica.” It’s also full of gray and the subject is war and struggle but you can still see the beauty in that. And I’m doing the same thing with my work.

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This painting of eight figures behind bars really struck me. Can you describe what you meant to convey through it?

The four people are the four ethnic groups that we have here in Afghanistan: Tajik, Pashtun, Hazara, and Uzbek. They always have struggles with each other. Those people represent cultures. They wear masks, but behind the masks are the real people who care about humanity. [The secondary figures represent that humanity.] They have small wings which might grow up, but they are very weak. That’s my desire – to see those wings grow and to free humanity from the ethnic struggle that they have. There’s a band, it’s a traditional one, and the traditional things affect the situation. Maybe it’s the reason that they are in that struggle because they can’t move. They can’t be free.