When a nation’s artists are in shackles, its people live in chains. When art is liberated, its people are set free. Since the world abandoned Afghanistan to the terror of the Taliban two years ago, local artists have been categorically persecuted. Tragically, with little international support once again, they have been left alone as the Taliban’s brutal oppression has relentlessly sought to eradicate every last vestige of creative expression.
The Taliban see art as dangerous, a challenge, a threat. And it is. It should be. And often must be. Art is the power of protest and resistance. It is the memory of what we as Afghans once were and the imagination of what we can become again. Art is the mirror that truly reflects the Taliban’s robes, cut from a narrow minded, misogynistic and violent theocracy, as nothing but the emperor’s new clothes — contrived, empty and naked. Art keeps the possibility of Afghanistan’s future alive. It keeps hope alive.
Without alternative and opposing narratives, the implications are immense: a terrorist group is brainwashing millions of young Afghans right now with no counter to their violent ideology. While women have been outright banned from schools, men are simply being trained as religious students that the Taliban can use as suicide attackers or as an army that blindly carries out its will. This poses a dangerous threat, not just to the region, but to the whole world. We saw it on 9/11 and we will see it again.
Seven years ago, I co-founded ArtLords in Kabul as an artists’ collective to create murals about social issues with the collaboration of local communities. People were so demoralized and disenchanted after the years of war and violence that they’d even given up seeking solutions. We showed them that they have a voice and encouraged them to ask questions and be critical.
The result was like lighting a candle in the dark. Finding a new and powerful voice they quickly gained courage and embraced art as catharsis, and an avenue for protest. It clearly showed that as soon as an oppressed people have the opportunity to engage with their culture and create change to break the cycle of violence and cultural poverty, they take it.
Together, despite our fears, we exposed government corruption and painted murals outside the houses of the very warlords responsible for the deaths of innocent people. We promoted peace, gender equality and human rights. Blast-proof walls had been built all over Kabul to protect those deemed worthy from explosions. Painting 2,200 murals, we transformed their ugly aesthetics and elitist entitlement into a common canvas of both beauty and resistance. That was a time of renaissance.
Sadly, that time has all but vanished. Artistic expression in Afghanistan is now criminalized and the Taliban punishes our artists and is erasing our art and dismantling our cultural heritage. Women and girls have been banned from pursuing education or careers in the arts. Cultural sites have been destroyed. Museums, galleries and institutions supporting the arts are being closed down. Artists themselves risk public humiliation, arrest, arbitrary detention and extrajudicial killings.
The Taliban have killed guests at a wedding where music was playing, doled out lashings, tortured and arrested musicians. Comedian Nazar Mohammad was filmed being dragged by Taliban officials and was later found dead, tied to a tree. Two prominent Afghan writers and members of PEN Afghanistan were murdered by Taliban officials. Renowned poet and historian, Abdul Atefi, was tortured and murdered in his home by Taliban officials.
Many artists have fled the country. Those who haven’t are now in hiding, forced to destroy or hide their artworks and tools for fear of being discovered. They try to survive, frequently under the harshest of conditions, unable to practice their craft and earn a living, and constantly in fear of the Taliban.
The Taliban are terrified of what art can accomplish. Art sparks critical thinking, unifies people and empowers them to stand up for what’s right. When people are no longer able to express or engage with art, they become more distant from their culture, disconnected from each other and from their own sense of humanity. When that happens, they will succumb more easily and more absolutely to oppressive doctrines and radicalization. The Taliban know this. That is why they are trying to scorch our culture from the earth. And that is exactly why they must be stopped. That is why art in Afghanistan must survive.
Unlike our brothers and sisters in hiding, Afghan artists outside of the country are fortunate enough to still have a voice and be able to continue the struggle on behalf of those who no longer can. This is what drives and inspires us. Keeping the candle of creative hope burning as a light in the darkness for all of the artists and people suffering under the yoke of Taliban oppression.
But that light is growing dim. Afghan artists in other places are struggling to continue practicing their craft due to a lack of support and resources. Institutions in the U.S. have been deafeningly silent, failing to step-up despite their government’s complicity in the destabilization of Afghanistan after its precipitous withdrawal from the country in 2021.
Given the hostile environment for creatives at home and the lack of institutional support for the artists abroad, the rich artistic tradition of Afghanistan that stretches back millennia and is fundamental to Afghan cultural identity is facing obliteration. If arts organizations and galleries would support them, and offer sponsored work opportunities and fellowships to artists at risk under the Taliban, we could preserve and strengthen our arts as a whole and feed back into the country. This would fuel hope and light the way for a better future for us all. Please, for the sake of Afghanistan and the world, don’t let this flame of hope die out.
Omaid Sharifi is the co-founder and president of ArtLords and Senior Manager for Protections Programmes for the Artists at Risk Connection at PEN America. Sharifi contributed to the new report, Artistic Exodus: Afghan Artists Fleeing Taliban Ruleproduced by AFI in partnership with UC Berkeley Law Pro Bono Program.
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