ArtLords of Afghanistan: how artists are using murals to fight for peace despite threats

Artists and human rights defenders have become more vulnerable in Kabul in recent months

Squeezed together in front of a projector in a small room, a group of artists and volunteers are undergoing safety and security training. The assembly of young Afghans are part of ArtLords, a grassroots movement that aims to create a visual dialogue, promote tolerance and hold officials to account through public art murals throughout Afghanistan.

“It started in 2014 as a result of being sick of the sight of blast walls throughout the city,” co-founder Omaid Sharifi, 34, tells The National. “I always thought of Kabul as a beautiful city, but these blast walls block roads and views – it is suffocating. I felt like I couldn’t breathe.”

So he and co-founder Kabir Mokamel, alongside four friends, secured permission from the government to begin painting the grey concrete structures with striking images, in an attempt to make them disappear while also delivering important political messages to spur social change.

Pictured: An ArtLords mural in Kabul depicting the famous handshake between US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar following the signing of the US-Taliban agreement in February last year. Photo by Charlie Faulkner April 2021
An ArtLords mural in Kabul depicting the famous handshake between US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar following the signing of the US-Taliban agreement in February last year. Charlie Faulkner for The National

ArtLords – the name deliberately chosen as a positive spin on the well-known terms "warlords" and "drug lords" – now has a team of more than 50 employees and 100 volunteers who have painted about 2,000 murals across 22 of the country's 34 provinces.

But, because the security situation has deteriorated in recent months amid attempts to broker a power-sharing deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban, the threat level faced by those who are part of such an organisation has risen significantly. Between January 2018 and January 2021, 65 human rights defenders and media professionals were killed in Afghanistan, according to the UN. And that number continues to increase.

The artists behind ArtLords do not shy away from incorporating taboo topics in their works.

In one mural, a huge pair of eyes stare out at onlookers, symbolising the message "I see you", aimed at corrupt officials. Elsewhere, the famous handshake between Zalmay Khalilzad, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, following the signing of the US-Taliban agreement in February 2020, is depicted.

There’s a tribute to George Floyd, and the most recent mural asks the question: "Why do the women of Afghanistan who suffered the most in the wars have the least representation in the Afghan peace process?"

We definitely get our fair share of security threats. Whenever I leave my house in Kabul I’m never sure if I’m coming back alive

Omaid Sharifi, co-founder of ArtLords

“When we first started painting, the whole road would be blocked off because people would be stopping to look at us. For them, it was a very strange sight. A lot of people would stop to ask us what we were doing,” says Sharifi.

“We would explain we are painting against corruption and that triggered a conversation. We have created a platform to talk to people, to help them ask questions and promote critical thinking.”

Since the start of negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban in September, however, artists are more vulnerable.

“We definitely get our fair share of security threats,” Sharifi admits. “Whenever I leave my house in Kabul I’m never sure if I’m coming back alive.

“The priority has always been the safety of the staff. I’m more fearful now because my sister-in-law, who was 23, was murdered in June last year. The whole family was devastated. My wife has been in ruins since then, she has nightmares most nights. Natasha was a person who grew up with me. After her death I’m really fearful.”

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack in which his relative was killed. “The government says it was the Taliban, the Taliban says government, someone else says Daesh. Right now, I’m so confused, I don’t know who is killing us, who is my enemy. It’s a crazy way to live.”

Pictured: ArtLords' most recent mural in Kabul asking the question “Why do the women of Afghanistan who suffered the most in the wars have the least representation in the Afghan Peace Process?” Photo by Charlie Faulkner April 2021
ArtLords' most recent mural in Kabul asking the question "Why do the women of Afghanistan who suffered the most in the wars have the least representation in the Afghan Peace Process?". Charlie Faulkner for The National

At the beginning of the year, Sharifi was told his name was on a hit list of journalists and civil society activists. He can’t say for sure whether or not the claim is legitimate, but he is certain he is a target.

“When I was growing up, there was no one from the previous generation to ask questions to. Those who were educated either left or were killed. I thought if I don’t do something today, who will do it? My son and daughter will grow up in the same situation as I did, with the same level of violence. I knew all the risks involved from day one, but if I don’t take responsibility, who will?”

After learning about the hit list, Sharifi organised safety and security training for his staff, to minimise the risk in any way possible. The training includes advice on not having a set routine in terms of times and route to the office; learning how to administer first aid; what to do in a hostage situation; and how to keep digital devices safe.

Being on the street for prolonged periods also puts the artists at risk of being caught up in an explosion or attack that is not aimed at them, especially if they are near security forces.

At least 259 Afghan security force members and 124 civilians were killed throughout the country in March, according to a report in The New York Times in April. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan also, in April, reported a 29 per cent spike in civilian casualties – totalling almost 1,800, including 573 deaths – in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period in 2020.

Artist Yama, 28, who gives only his first name to protect his identity, says he and his peers view their paintbrushes as non-violent weapons. “There is a lot of violence here. I myself have seen the aftermath of an explosion – bloody body parts strewn about the street. Now if I see blood, I can’t sleep for days. It is the reality of every Afghan who lives here.”

ArtLords has offered an inspiring and supportive space for Yama, though, filled with like-minded pepople who want to contribute to creating change, he says.

“For me, art is the only way we can come to an understanding. We have tried every other way and nothing has worked. And if we want change, we have to take action ourselves.

“The danger we face is very real and the only thing we can do is keep a low profile. Every day I change my route to the office, I don’t travel by car, I no longer post on social media."

Pictured: A woman artist paints at ArtLords headquarters in Kabul. Photo by Charlie Faulkner February 2021
An artist paints at ArtLords headquarters in Kabul, where they are currently receiving security training. Charlie Faulkner for The National

Another artist, Mansoora (name changed), has also witnessed the devastating fallout of a bomb explosion; after leaving her art class one afternoon, she came face to face with the horrific sight of body parts scattered across the road.

“I don’t even remember how I got home that day,” she says. “Most Afghans have witnessed war from their childhood. That’s had a hugely negative effect.”

She feels art is the only way she can contribute to a call for change, which is why she has worked with ArtLords for three years. “It’s about giving a voice to the voiceless people in Afghanistan. Ordinary people are not able to communicate directly with the government.

“There is risk all over the city, but if we allow our fear to dominate our lives we would never leave the house.”

Updated: May 5, 2021 12:15 PM

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