From the killing of George Floyd in the US and the drowning of Afghan refugees in Iran, to the signing of the US-Taliban agreement towards peace and brutal murder of a Japanese aid worker, a group of Afghan artists have taken paintbrushes to adorn Kabul’s grey blast walls with vivid imagery.
The barriers have been transformed into politically inspired murals, which the artists hope will create “visual dialogue” and raise awareness of corruption and injustices.
The war-torn Afghan capital is full of these large concrete barriers, often separating diplomatic and governmental headquarters from the rest of the otherwise beautiful city of rolling hills and old brick houses.
The worsening security situation and countless attacks have seen more blast walls built all over Kabul, blocking off roads and sheltering buildings and people from potential suicide bombs.
Kabul’s green zone, a highly fortified area home to embassies and news agencies, is surrounded by tall, heavy walls.
Since 2014, Artlords – a word play on warlords and drug lords, of which Afghanistan has many – a collective of artists and volunteers, has put some of the country’s politics into paintings, aiming to reflect the city’s atmosphere.
“We want to turn public opinion into murals, that’s why we paint what we hear on the streets,” explained Abrar Kakarr, Artlords’ programme manager. “We don’t want to offend, we want to criticise.”
The group recently sketched a portrait of George Floyd, the 46-year-old black man killed by police in Minneapolis, as well as a mural of Afghan refugees drowning in a river in Iran after fleeing their home country It is alleged that Iranian border guards forced them into the water at gunpoint.
“We painted those in a day,” Kakarr said. “We usually electronically project the image against the wall and then dive into the painting process with brushes, ladders and a bunch of volunteers.”
Another mural, of the head of a Japanese aid agency, Tetsu Nakamura, who specialised in irrigation projects and was killed by gunmen in the eastern city of Jalalabad in December, went up in Kabul shortly after his murder. “Let’s not plant anything but the seed of love and friendship in this pure land,” a line next to his painted profile reads.
The group has 10 members of staff, including some artists, and around 35 volunteers.
Times in Afghanistan were especially difficult when Artlords was founded. President Ashraf Ghani first took office in 2014 after quarrels with his rival Abdullah Abdullah. Then US president Barack Obama declared that it was “time to turn the page on a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the [war] in Afghanistan”, saying that he planned to withdraw troops by the end of 2016. Driven by fear and uncertainty during times of economic downturn, many Afghans left the country, some of them joining the wave of refugees heading towards Europe.
All this inspired Artlords co-founders Omaid Sharifi and Kabir Mokamel to paint their first mural: a pair of eyes and the words “I see you” – aimed at questioning the “corrupt government” and creating dialogue.
Since then, the group has painted almost 2,000 murals in 19 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Some work has been commissioned by UN agencies and embassies to raise awareness about the development agenda. But other independent pieces are aimed at stirring political debate.
The group – now mainly funded by international donors – has faced praise and criticism. Some have questioned whether beautifying explosion-proof walls denies their purpose and the continuing war in the city, but Artlords has said it will continue to promote messages of peace and social justice, as well as use its work to target alleged government corruption.
“Artlords has increased the authorised use of graffiti on the concrete walls segregating military and governmental actors from the public and with it has transformed the city’s walls into public canvases,” says Paniz Musawi Natanzi, who studies cultural politics in Afghanistan.
Some murals may have caused controversy, but so far only one has been removed. Two years ago, the group painted a portrait of Hamida Barmaki, a law professor and human rights activist killed with her husband and four children in a 2011 suicide attack claimed by Hizb-i-Islami militants. The mural, painted on a blast wall near the home of the militants’ leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – a former mujahiddin chief who has since entered the Afghan government – was quickly removed by Hekmatyar’s men.
“They took buckets of paint to it,” Kakarr said. “We hoped to make a point: Look, he has joined the government, but he’s a killer.” His crimes were pardoned by the Afghan government as part of a peace deal.
“We want to be a voice for the people through our art. We want to make sure that those who are in power hear this voice and feel ashamed. They should know that people have not forgotten the crimes that they have done during the past years,” said Sharifi in response to the vandalising of Barmaki’s memorial mural.
Kakarr added: “Politically, we’re facing an uncertain future in Afghanistan. Many people fear the Taliban gaining strength; many are directly affected by killings and attacks. We hope our murals can address the suffering and injustices faced and point towards peace.”