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#Muckrakers: Afghanistan’s first ever female graffiti artist in 2014 Artraker Awards shortlist

Afghanistan’s first female graffiti artist and a former Burmese political prisoner who began creating art while in gaol are among artists shortlisted for the 2014 Artraker Awards, honouring artists whose work has been inspired by conflicts around the world.

The 12-strong shortlist – which includes artists from or inspired by political turmoil in Mali, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Mexico, Northern Ireland, Pakistan, Colombia and beyond – was chosen from among more than 250 submissions from 75 countries, in a year that has seen innumerable parts of the world descend into violent chaos and the consequent emergence of individuals whose work helps in building greater understanding of those conflicts.

Two of this year’s key talents hail from nations who have battled for decades with civil, military or ethnic strife.

Afghan artist Shamsia Hassani is a female graffiti artist in a country where the status of women and artistic endeavour of any form has been crushed by tribal conflicts, civil wars, foreign invasions and religious extremism.

Thus Hassani’s mere existence is cause for celebration. 

Intriguingly, Hassani is said to have taken to the spray can after attending a Kabul workshop conducted by campaigning British graffiti artist Chu in 2010.

In the years since, the 26-year-old painter, academic and campaigner has become the poster girl for  Afghanistan’s burgeoning art scene, not least as a founder member of Kabul’s ‘Rosht’ (Growth) contemporary artist’s collective. 

Her large-scale, dream like paintings – in which the burqa, unsurprisingly enough, features prominently – adorn the numerous bombed out, crumbling structures in Kabul with the paintings often combining with the destruction to narrate stories of her country’s plight.

Burmese artist San Zaw Htway’s paintings are the product of a different but equally destructive form of oppression, one perpetrated by Burma’s devastatingly authoritarian military junta.

In 1999, the then-24-year-old San Zaw was imprisoned for 36 years for helping to re-establish a Burmese Students Union. 

He says that he was led to art by the solitary confinement that he was subjected to in prison, creating collages using old food wrappers and plastic packaging to while away the hours.

Released following his country’s landmark general election in 2012, San Zaw has continued to learn and practice art whilst teaching recycled collage art to poor children.

He says of his work: “My work is a reflection of my experiences in prison and my desire for self-expression in the face of extreme deprivation.  I want to raise awareness about the lives of political prisoners in Burma, and to prove that torture, violence and oppression can break a person’s body but cannot take away the spirit within.”

Depicting the horrors of war and oppression through art is the common theme that runs through the work of all the artists in this year’s Artraker Awards Shortlist.

In a statement, the 2014 jury – which includes the outspoken British-Sri Lankan journalist Rohan Jayasekera and acclaimed Mexican performance artist Elvira Santamaria Torres – said it was looking to honour  work that ‘manages to change our understanding of conflict whilst offering hope transformation, and change’.

Awards will be handed out in three separate categories: the Artraker award for impactful Conflict Art; The Artraker Award for Social Impact and the Artraker Award for Innovation Narrative.

Following the awards ceremony, an exhibition of all the paintings will travel to Beirut, Kabul, Colombo and Paris before returning to London in March 2015.

India-born graphic designer and fine artist and Artraker founder Manali Jagtap-Nyheim, said: “We believe Artraker should be concerned with alternative media and ways of communicating that give the public an unconventional, yet accessible insight into the conflicts involved.

“As conflicts become more frequent, and death mere statistics, a small number of artists are bent upon sending out a message of non-violence by conjuring the realities of violence which leaves us contemplative.”

The shortlist will be exhibited for the public to view free of charge at a/political space, Southwark, London between 18-25 September.

Visit www.artraker.org for more.

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