Street Art and Distinction in Kabul, Afghanistan

By Zuleyka Zevallos

In the photograph below, street artist Shamsia Hassan is featured in front of one her graffiti creations in an industrial park in Kabul, Afghanistan. Hassan was featured today in The Guardian, where she argues that many people in Afghanistan have not been exposed to (non-religious) art, but she sees that graffiti is a way to change that. She says: “If we can do graffiti all over the city, there will be nobody who doesn’t know about art”. To many people in “Western” countries, Shassan’s comments might seem to be consistent with the dominant view that Afghan people exist in a “backward” social vacuum. From the outside, Afghans are perceived to live in a society untouched by modernity and completely ravaged by war. This view fails to recognise the history of Afghanistan, as well as the cultural and educational diversity amongst urban and rural groups from different tribes in different regions. Moreover, I see that Hassan’s comments about street art go to the heart of much of Bourdieu’s work on taste and distinction.


Art and distinction in historical context

In The Guardian piece, Hassan argues:

If you have an exhibition, most uneducated people won’t even know about it. But if you have art like graffiti in the street, everyone can see that… If we can do graffiti all over the city, there will be nobody who doesn’t know about art…If just 20% of students were interested, if every year we graffiti twenty walls around Kabul, in two or three years we will have lots of art on walls around the city. Art can bring change, I am sure. If people see an artwork, it will perhaps only cause a small shock to their mind, but that can grow and grow.

Different art forms reflect historical class positions. Afghanistan was once a vibrant art and literary centre. In the early 20th Century, King Amanullah (Amir Amanullah Khan) began a large overhaul of the country’s education system. His wife Queen Soraya was a champion of women’s rights, establishing various women’s institutions dedicated to the social, economic and educational advancement of women. King Mohammed Zahir Shah further took up the cultural revolution of Afghan public life with great enthusiasm from the 1930s to the early 1970s. During this period, the people of Afghanistan had unprecedented access to the arts and education. Media infrastructure was bolstered and Afghan women were able to make a significant contribution to public society. This changed in the late 1970s as the country plunged into political chaos. When the Communist party took over in 1978, the education system was radically overhauled, and then again after the Taliban seized power in the mid-1990s, public education and the arts were largely eradicated.

“High art” versus “low art”

As Hassan notes in her comments, many people in modern-day Afghanistan are not able to go to an art gallery to learn an appreciation of art. Art galleries are symbolic bastions of “high art”; that is, they are typically thought to house “high quality” art worthy of social distinction. As an institution, galleries are gatekeepers of art deemed extraordinary and exclusive (as well as expensive). By contrast, graffiti is often classified as a form of “popular art”, or an art form that has low artistic distinction, because it is free and found everywhere in urban streets, and it is negatively associated with crime and poverty. Definitions of high and popular art are distinguished by elite groups who have the power to establish and maintain social discourses about which types of artistic expression constitute “good” and “valuable” art. As such, appreciation of “high” and “low” art forms is linked to social status. To put it another way, the type of art different social groups consume is symbolic of our belonging to a particular class structure as well as to specific sub-cultures.

In a country where a large proportion of people live in rural areas, Kabul stands as a highly urban, bustling city centre of commerce and it has the best education relative to other regions in Afghanistan. In this regard, Kabul citizens of higher status have better exposure and access to “high art” forms. The broader population in Kabul and in other areas around Afghanistan are not as socially mobile, particularly people living in rural regions and especially people from lower-status tribes.

Hassan positions graffiti as a tool that might help diffuse an appreciation for art to a broader audience that is not used to seeing new and emerging forms of art in mass culture. Given the ongoing, rapid social change in Afghanistan, Hassan’s conception of her artistic practice has the potential to disrupt the simplistic distinction between high and low art. Bourdieu notes that the education system is the primary way in which class distinctions are passed on to different groups. In the absence of a robust education system, perhaps street art might become a primary vehicle for the transmission of a new art discourse in Afghanistan.

Photo and quote via The Guardian. Photograph: © Omar Sobhani/Reuters.

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