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Afghan artists destroy work in anticipation of Taliban retaliation

Written by Celine Alkhaldi, CNN

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

The post replaced a mural of US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar shaking hands, marking the signing of the 2020 agreement for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan – one of dozens of vibrant public works of art that have been erased since the Taliban was taken. power in August.

The Taliban paint a mural in Kabul and replace it with a text that says “do not trust enemy propaganda”. Credit: ArtLords

While some of the murals were overt in their demands for equal rights for women and an end to corruption, others were meant to provoke thought, inspire hope and bring joy to passers-by. Today they are obscured by thick coats of paint, as well as Taliban slogans and flags.

This decision was received as a wake-up call for the country’s artistic and cultural scene. “The biggest fear for me, and most of the artists I work with (…) is not being able to express ourselves, to criticize power,” curator Omaid Sharifi said on WhatsApp. He is the co-founder of ArtLords, a popular art initiative that turned protective blast walls into sites of creative expression for nearly a decade.

Afghan artists destroy work in anticipation of Taliban retaliation

A mural in Kabul that depicted the US-Taliban Doha peace agreement has been repainted and replaced with black and white text. Credit: ArtLords

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

This is not the first time that the Taliban have taken a stand against the arts in Afghanistan. When the Taliban was last in power, from 1996 to 2001, the regime disfigured public paintings and destroyed cultural heritage sites across the country. In 1996, operatives strafed an iconic fountain in the town of Herat, in western Afghanistan; while in 2001, they detonated two colossal Buddha statues that towered over the Bamiyan Valley for 1,500 years. Most forms of music have been banned and television has been declared un-Islamic.

The outright group insist their rule will be different this time around. But many artists are skeptical.

Watching the Taliban destroy nearly 100 of the murals he and the ArtLords team produced, Sharifi sees no place for artists to thrive under Taliban rule. He and many of his colleagues have fled Kabul or are living in hiding.

Some artists, he added, have made the difficult decision to destroy their own work for fear of reprisal. “The feeling of destroying a work of art is not far from losing a child … because it is your own creation. It is something that you have memories with … something that you have dreamed, ”he explained. “Suddenly you set it on fire – all your dreams, your aspirations, all your hopes.

Afghan artists destroy work in anticipation of Taliban retaliation

A mural honors the murder of George Floyd and Afghan refugees who allegedly drowned in Iran reads “We can’t breathe”. Credit: ArtLords

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

An artist and gallery owner, who asked to remain anonymous, said having to destroy his own work is a “wound that will not be healed”. He is also worried about his livelihood, telling CNN that the gallery’s closure has threatened his income.

“I thought that with my art, maybe I could solve my family’s financial problems,” he said. “We spent our youth serving, hoping that we will have a better future, but [it’s] what a pity what kind of people decide our future in this country. “

Afghan artists destroy work in anticipation of Taliban retaliation

An Afghan artist burns her works in a studio a few days after the Taliban took control of the country. Part of this image has been blurred by CNN for security reasons. Credit: ArtLords

A female artist, who also shared her story on condition of anonymity, felt the stakes were higher because of her gender. She told CNN that since the center where she took art classes closed, she had no more space to practice her art. She explains that it is easier for her male comrades to resume their art than for women like her.

“Boys, they can go to a teacher, and they can continue their work from there. They can meet informally … But for girls, it is not possible to do that”, a- she declared. For women, she added, meeting in a place that is not a formal learning center is rare. “We are so afraid of what might happen that we don’t even want to try it.”

Afghan artists destroy work in anticipation of Taliban retaliation

An art student says she is afraid to show her drawings of female faces discovered during the Taliban regime. Credit: Anonymous

She also feels repressed because of her subject. Specializing in female portraits, she fears that if her work is seen by the Taliban, she will face reprisals. “The faces of women are not meant to be uncovered. According to the Taliban, this is false.”

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


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