Afghan artists destroy their work for fear of Taliban retaliation


written by Celine Alkhaldi, CNN

The residents of Kabul can read the writing on the wall. “Don’t trust enemy propaganda” says a freshly painted sign.

The message replaced a mural with US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar shaking hands, marking the signing of a 2020 agreement to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan – among dozens of lively public artworks One that has been wiped out since the Taliban took over. Shakti in August

The Taliban have painted a mural in Kabul and replaced it with text that reads “Don’t trust enemy propaganda”. Credit: artlords

While some of the murals were evident in their demands for equal rights for women and an end to corruption, other pieces were meant to evoke thought, inspire hope and spread joy to passersby. Today, they are hidden by thick layers of paint as well as Taliban slogans and flags.

The move has been received as a warning shot for the country’s art and culture scene. “The biggest fear for me, and most of the artists I work with… not being able to express themselves, is criticizing power,” Curator Omad Sharifi said on WhatsApp. He is the co-founder of Artlords, a grassroots arts initiative that has transformed protective blast walls into sites of creative expression for nearly a decade.

A mural in Kabul depicting the US-Taliban peace deal in Doha has been painted over and replaced with black and white text.

A mural in Kabul depicting the US-Taliban peace deal in Doha has been painted over and replaced with black and white text. Credit: artlords

“The fear is that this society will just become black and white … (and) that we will no longer have beautiful diversity and beautiful colors in this country.”

This is not the first time the Taliban has taken action against art in Afghanistan. When the Taliban was last in power, from 1996 to 2001, the regime defaced public images and destroyed cultural heritage sites across the country. In 1996, members machine-gunned an iconic fountain in the city of Herat in western Afghanistan; Whereas in 2001, they blew up two colossal statues of Buddha that had seen the Bamiyan Valley for 1500 years. Most forms of music were banned, and television was declared un-Islamic.

The hardline group says their regime will be different this time. But many artists are skeptical.

With the Taliban destroying nearly 100 murals created by himself and the Artlords team, Sharifi sees no room for artists to thrive under Taliban rule. He along with many of his associates have either fled to Kabul or are living in hiding.

He said some artists have made the difficult decision to destroy their own work for fear of reprisal. “The feeling of destroying a piece of art is not far from losing a child… because it’s your own creation. It’s something you have memories with… something you’ve dreamed of,” he explained. “Suddenly you are setting fire to it – in all your dreams, in all your aspirations, in all your hopes.

A mural in honor of the killing of George Floyd and the Afghan refugees allegedly drowned in Iran reads "we can't breathe".

A mural in honor of the killing of George Floyd and Afghan refugees allegedly drowned in Iran reads, “We can’t breathe”. Credit: artlords

“No one should go through this. And we in Afghanistan don’t deserve to go through it as artists.”

One artist and gallery owner, who asked to remain anonymous, said destroying his work is a “wound that will not heal.” He is also concerned for his livelihood, telling CNN that his income is threatened by the gallery’s closure.

“I thought that through my art I might be able to solve my family’s financial problems,” he said. “We spent our youth in service, hoping that our tomorrow might be better, but [it’s] It is a pity what kind of people decide our future in this country.”

An Afghan artist burns his artwork in a studio days after the Taliban took over the country.  Part of this image has been blurred by CNN for security reasons.

An Afghan artist burns his artwork in a studio days after the Taliban took over the country. Part of this image has been blurred by CNN for security reasons. Credit: artlords

One female artist, who also shared her story on condition of anonymity, felt the stakes were high because of her gender. She told CNN that the center where she took art classes has closed, she no longer has space to practice her art. She points out that it is easier for her male classmates to resume their art than women like her.

“Boys, they can go to a teacher’s house, and they can continue their work from there. They can gather informally… but for girls, it’s not possible to do that,” she said. He said it is unusual for women to meet in a place that is not a formal center of learning. “We’re so terrified of what might happen, we don’t even want to try it.”

The art student says she is afraid to show her portraits of open female faces under Taliban rule.

The art student says she is afraid to show her portraits of open female faces under Taliban rule. Credit: anonymous

She too feels repressed because of her subject matter. Specializing in female portraits, she fears that if the Taliban sees her work, she will face retribution. “Women’s faces are not open. According to the Taliban, this is wrong.”

She wants to continue her practice, but says the studio, once a safe place for her creative expression, is now a stationery shop. She hopes that her paintings can be seen by the world, but for now she must find a way to continue making art in Afghanistan.

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