Artist as Activist: Malina Suliman, Afghan Street Art and Graffiti
Artist as Activist: Malina Suliman, Afghan Street Art and Graffiti
By Megan Minto /

Malina Suliman, born in 1990 in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan, one of the country’s most conservative and dangerous areas, chose to become an artist. This decision led her to attend college in Pakistan, and later to begin an art collective, Kandahar Fine Arts Association (KFAA), in an effort to help artists find a foothold in her traditional hometown. Suliman is now known internationally as a street artist who has painted skeletal, burqa-clad self portraits on walls and rocks all over Kandahar.

Growing up, Suliman observed the disparity between the freedoms young men enjoyed and the expectation for young women to don a burqa and to stay at home.

In an Interview with Women in the World Suliman said:

When I was 12 my brother told me I had to wear the burqa, but I really wanted to play, because I was a child. It’s an age you want to play outside and have a good time. And they told me I had to wear it or I couldn’t leave the home. I felt it was controlling me, because when I wore it I felt I wasn’t a child anymore. The burqa is a way of controlling the woman, but in the name of respect. Every culture or religion gives a different name for the burqa. It is honor, or culture, or religion. Really, it just controls the woman and keeps her inside.

Realizing that freedom is often found outside the home, Suliman became drawn to graffiti and street art. She began painting on the streets of Kandahar, sometimes late at night with only a flashlight for illumination, in an effort to draw attention to the “situation in Afghanistan and [as] a way of questioning [her] own identity and role in society. [Suliman] grew up in a[n] environment in which bombing, shooting, killing, daily oppression and injustices are all normalized. Ignorance and criminals are rewarded. Afghan women are beaten in the street[s] of Kandahar…,” she told Women’s Forum For The Economy and & Society.

Once Suliman became recognized for her artwork around Kandahar, the Taliban, in an effort to intimidate her and to persuade her to stop painting, threatened her several times and broke her father’s leg. Suliman was also threatened by the local townspeople. In an interview with the BBC, Suliman said, “I would paint graffiti on the rocks and walls and they would throw stones at me and condemn me. I would move to another area but they would follow me there and pelt me with stones.”

Before the threats began, Suliman’s family was unaware of her street art. After her father was injured, Suliman’s family temporarily left Kandahar for Mumbai, India. Once the family felt the threats against them had died down, they returned to Afghanistan. Suliman told the BBC’s Zubair Ahmed that her family then decided to prevent her from street painting by keeping her under “house arrest”, with no access to the internet or outsiders. Suliman lived in this way for approximately 15 months, and, of this time, she said,”During my confinement at home I was overwhelmed with a lot of feelings. I realized there might be other girls facing the same problems as me. To paint at home would not have served any purpose. I wanted to send a message to the girls in my situation to have no fear and to express themselves in public.”

Suliman fled Afghanistan in 2013. She now resides in the Netherlands. She still continues to make art in an effort to bring gender equality to the people of Afghanistan.

Suliman currently has her first UK solo exhibit at ArtRepresent in London: Beyond The Veil – A Decontextualisation (May 28, 2015-August 27, 2015). This show features sound and video installation with primary attention drawn to the burqa and its role, as seen by the artist, as an emblem of oppression. According to ArtRepresent their gallery space is dedicated to “empowering artists who are affected or displaced by conflict and social upheaval”.

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Artist as Activist: Malina Suliman, Afghan Street Art and Graffiti