On August 22, a week after Kabul fell to Taliban control and days after three men, desperate to escape the country, fell to their deaths after clinging to a US military aircraft, Sara Rahmani shared a painting that quickly went viral.
Executed in stark black and white, with a single diagonal stripe of bold colour bisecting the canvas, the painting captures a young Afghan girl, smiling as a tear drops from her right eye.
In the black-and-white sections of the painting, silhouetted figures fall to the ground as a plane soars overhead. One man, amid a faceless crowd, passes a swaddled baby to a soldier across coils of barbed wire.
In the coloured section of the image, which includes the girl’s close-lipped smile, the wing of the plane transforms into the wing of a dove and a woman in bright Afghan clothing dances beside another who is writing the word “peace” in Farsi.
“I always wanted to show the best pictures of my country through my artworks, but today nothing is left for us. We went back 20 years ago,” Rahmani wrote on Instagram. “My dear Afghanistan … I’m sorry for the world’s silence.”
Rahmani started the painting before Afghanistan fell to Taliban control. “I was just planning to paint the portrait of that little Afghan girl. I like the eyes and the way she was smiling,” she says.
“Then, when it all happened in one week, we had a protest here in San Diego so I wanted to create something really effective to show our emotions, what we were going through those couple of days.”
Rahmani, 23, has lived in San Diego since 2017, after her father, who worked for an American company, received a Special Immigrant Visa.
Witnessing the swift and brutal fall of her homeland to Taliban forces from afar, desperately worried about family members left behind in Kabul, one of whom has been forced to go into hiding, she completely changed the concept of her painting.
“After I started painting, I felt like, ‘This girl is not happy at this time. Why should I paint her that way?’” she says. But having always tried to show Afghanistan in a positive light, she wanted to convey her wish for a brighter future.
“I got an idea that even if we are in dark days of our lives and our country ... we still have a ray of hope, so I used that coloured part of the painting as a ray of hope.”
The work drew tens of thousands of views. “I didn’t expect to go viral with this painting. It was really emotional for me … I cried a lot over that painting,” she says.
Born and raised in Kabul, where she attended high school and college, Rahmani studied civil engineering before moving to California aged 19. She says that since the withdrawal of US troops last month, her friends in the Afghan capital, several of them women who worked as civil engineers, are afraid to leave their homes.
“I had so many friends over there working. After this happened they are all unemployed. They are stuck at home and everyone is so scared,” she says. “Most of the stores and offices are closed right now, so how can they make money? After one month with no work, no food, nothing, how can you survive? It’s really hard for all Afghan people, especially for women.”
Despite her move to the US four years ago, Rahmani has not had an easy time. Initially struggling with English, she found herself forced to repeat her studies.
“Even if you know English, when you come here it’s totally different,” she says. “They didn’t accept the documents from there, my transcripts, so I started over again here with college in civil engineering and it’s my second year. The first year I was not really happy but I had to go on and achieve my goals, my dreams.”
Rahmani started painting at the age of 15, attending two months of art classes in Kabul before academic demands forced her to quit. Having always regarded painting as a hobby, she continued to create new artworks in America, taking inspiration from photographs to portray Afghan culture in a positive light.
“We have so many talented photographers in Afghanistan,” she says. “There is Fatimah Hossaini, Roya Heydari and so many other photographers who are so talented and well-known. I get my ideas from them.
"They were my role models and I was inspired by their work when I started, especially Avizeh, who does clothes design, Afghan jewellery and very good photography of Afghan girls and women.”
Rahmani’s paintings aim to show a different side of Afghanistan. “My goal was to show the beautiful face of my country – our culture, our traditions – because we have a rich culture," she says.
"When you search on Google for Afghanistan it’s all about war, blood, all these things – the poor people. We have so many good pictures of our country – beautiful places, beautiful people, kind people. I want to show that face of my country, not the war."
But now she feels compelled to change her approach.
“At this time I believe we have to,” she says. “It’s our responsibility to show what’s going on right now in our country and I will try my best … to raise awareness about this situation to the world … Still I keep the beauty in my paintings and I never want to hide that face.”
Although she never intended to pursue painting as a career, Rahmani says she has been inspired to reconsider.
"I never wanted to do painting as a job, but I realised that I have to do something with my art. People encouraged me a lot."