Acclaimed Afghan graffiti artist celebrates International Women’s Day with USC students

The live art session invited students to paint in an open outdoor setting on Wednesday afternoon.

[A photo of Ten-year-old Isla Curtis getting Hassani's autograph on a book featuring the artist]

USC’s Alumni Park was painted with vibrant hues Wednesday afternoon as Afghan feminist street artist Shamsia Hassani joined students and community members in a live art session to kick off a three-part series celebrating International Women’s Day.

Participants sat on picnic blankets on the grass and painted alongside Hassani while she created meaningful large-scale art pieces.

The event, held by USC Visions and Voices, provided all of the art supplies and encouraged walkups, inviting the public to create art and chat with Hassani. She spoke with them about the process and purpose of her work and how she uses it to communicate powerful messages as a graffiti artist and muralist.

“I would love to give them hope. But I know that hope is not something temporary, just for a moment,” Hassani said. “When they look at my art, they feel something and they can get anything they want. Usually people ask me, ‘Who is this character?’ But it could be anyone.”

Before the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 2021, Hassani’s murals sprawled across the city of Kabul, depicting women breaking down barriers and defying traditional gender roles in a male-dominated society. Many of those murals depicted a woman in a burka, and over time, Hassani explained that she changed the shape of her character to have a sharp shoulder and a stronger appearance.

Gender inequality remains an ongoing issue for women in Afghanistan who are denied access to livelihoods, health care and education, and often subjected to gender-based violence, according to the United Nations.

Much of Hassani’s work depicts a woman who demonstrates strength and resilience despite the many issues and hardships standing in her way. She gives her female characters “a face with power, ambition, and willingness to achieve goals,” according to her website. It is a canvas for the power of art in the global fight for women’s rights.

Inviting artists like Hassani can infiltrate the bubble that many USC students are living in, said Farrah Diogene, a sophomore majoring in psychology.

“Art is definitely full of emotions,” Diogene said. “It’s full of pain; it’s full of love; it’s full of hope. And so being able to observe this in person and see this, I don’t think anyone can really look away. No one can really ignore what’s happening.”

Ten-year-old Isla Curtis and her father drove over an hour to paint with Hassani, after completing a school project about her last week. Hassani is featured in a book called “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls,” which Curtis brought along for her newfound hero to sign.

“I was inspired by her because I like painting and doing art. And she used it to help change the world for people. So I wanted to choose her,” Curtis said.

Curtis, who is in fifth grade, brought her school project to share with Hassani and got her autograph. Like Hassani, she said she wants to use art to help change the world.

Hassani’s newest series, “Birds of No Nation,” is what initially inspired the three-part series on USC’s campus in celebration of International Women’s day.

“Everybody knows that birds are always traveling and they have no specific nation,” Hassani said in a Youtube video by the Creators Project. “I feel that Afghan people are feeling that they have no nation. They have no country because they are not feeling good in their own country.”

The second part of the event kicked off after the live art session and featured a creative letter-writing workshop with Gazelle Samizay, an acclaimed Afghan American multimedia artist whose work highlights the “contradictions of culture, nationality and gender,” according to the event description.

USC librarian Sophie Liesinska helped coordinate the event and spoke about the inspiration she found through Hassani’s work. For Liesinska, the emotions that Hassani conveys through her artwork resonate deeply.

“When a friend of mine started sending me pictures of some of Shamsia’s work, I thought, ‘This is beautiful — so feminine, so full of joy, despite the circumstances and hopeful and defiant at the same time,’” Liesinska said.

On Wednesday night, Hassani joined Samizay along with acclaimed journalist and human rights activist Najiba Ayubi for a conversation about “Afghan Women on Art, Gender, Freedom and Exile.”