This article is part of an ongoing series "Dispatches from Afghanistan" profiling Afghan artists and their experiences since the rise of the Taliban. Find all of the profiles so far here and a list of resources to help Afghan creatives here.
The past 40 years of war and instability in Afghanistan has cost the country any semblance of unity. Even so, different groups in the country have worked hard over the past two decades to heal the social and cultural ruptures left by conflict. Kabul in particular was experiencing a nascent cultural blooming despite the many challenges its people faced.
But the working conditions for artists—members of Afghanistan’s budding civil society, which included our own public art organisation ArtLords and many others—have not been easy. Each day was shadowed by fear and not knowing whether, when we left our homes each morning, we would come back alive. We experienced the loss of artists, journalists and activists who were brutally killed in explosions, including three members of our own ArtLords.
Despite all of this, we loved our work. We knew that we had to do our part to heal our wounded country—it was our responsibility. We sought to ease the pain and suffering of our people through setting up an art gallery, art therapy sessions, music concerts and public murals.
Armed with hope, paint and a dream
So much is lost through times of conflict: life, economy, infrastructure, educational institutions and the many other elements of a thriving society. As Afghans we were also working to reknit the fabric of our communities, the ties that bind us. But after decades of war, perspectives had formed that were strangling the life out of the potential we saw and evidence of violence was still all around us.
Armed with hope, paint and a dream, ArtLords sought to transform Kabul. We realised we could take blast walls—the concrete barriers constructed to protect buildings from improvised explosives—which had such a negative psychological impact on the city’s people, and convert them into a positive visual experience. By depicting subjects on the walls that concerned ordinary citizens, ArtLords created a space where social issues could be expressed and discussed in the street. It gave a visual voice to the voiceless.
For those of us who left our homeland, the exit from Afghanistan was a dramatic and surreal experience. During those last few days prior to leaving Kabul, the city that we loved had become so strange. Most of our friends left for an uncertain future and destination, and with each departure Kabul became less familiar; each person took a piece of the city with them. Afghanistan had always been home, but for the first time there was a sense of homelessness there.
Outside of Afghanistan there was a collective gasp of horror among the diaspora, many of whom have family, friends and fond memories there, in reaction to the Taliban’s takeover. We have watched with disappointment, anger and deep sadness as the headlines roll out. Reports of cruelty by fanatics meted out to a vulnerable people far away are as horrific as they are disconnected and unrelatable. For those of us with roots in Afghanistan, with identities forged through its folklore, song, memory and language, the Taliban’s return is a betrayal of the Afghan people, a religion with which many identify deeply, the potential of their nation and the promises of a democratic government and its allies.
That the Taliban could make such sweeping gains in just days shows the precarity of the situation in Afghanistan all along. To treat the Taliban as if they were only a problem created by Afghans, because of Afghans, and for Afghans to clean up is not only selective amnesia, but will cost thousands of lives. These are lives that have, for 20 years, been striving to build a country; now they are striving to defend it, yet again.
Pessimism is a luxury. But for people living in Afghanistan, that is never an option. Maintaining the will to thrive amid yet another cycle of violence and instability requires one to dig very deeply. Where any semblance of humanity seems to have evaporated into piles of smoke and ash, art is the thread that echoes what could be. It is in the creative process that beginnings are born.
• Omaid Sharifi and Kabir Mokamel are co-founders of ArtLords (artlords.co), a Kabul-based organisation promoting public art for social transformation, started in 2014. Bilquis Ghani is the chair and co-founder of Sydney-based Hunar Symposia (hunarsymposia.com), exploring art through conflict