‘We planted a seed': the Afghan artists who painted for freedom

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Negina Azimi felt shock and fear like never before when she heard that Taliban fighters had entered Kabul on 15 August. As an outspoken female artist in Afghanistan, she knew they would come for her.

“We heard reports that the Taliban might raid houses. I was scared because I live in a very central neighbourhood and every room in my house is adorned with the kind of art the Taliban won’t approve of,” she says, referring to paintings that feature messages about women’s empowerment and are critical of the Taliban’s atrocities.

Azimi rushed home from the studio where she worked, ArtLords, and took down all her work, carefully stashing the paintings away in places where she hoped they could not be found. “But so much of our work is outside on the walls of the city, and everyone knows us,” she says, referring to the ArtLords’ initiative of painting murals on the thick concrete anti-blast walls that cover most of the war-ravaged capital. “We heard that the Taliban enquired about us to the shopkeepers and asked for our addresses. They wanted to punish us.”

  • Negina Azimi, who is now in a refugee camp in Albania with others of the ArtLords collective. They are now planning an exhibition

Azimi was one of a number of artists who made it on to an evacuation flight in the days that followed, leaving behind years of hard work and efforts to revive the Afghan art scene. From exile in refugee camps in Europe, they have watched online as the Taliban erased their murals, one after another. The hardliners had painted over many ArtLords images and replaced them with the words, Ham Watan Azadet Mubarak – a message congratulating the citizens on their “freedom”.

“I can’t express how hurt I felt when I saw on social media that the Taliban had whitewashed the mural of the Afghan women’s orchestra; it was my first piece with ArtLords,” she says.

  • Top row, works by ArtLords. Above left, Fatima Wojohat, 18, who joined ArtLords four months ago. Above right, The ArtLords gallery in Kabul

“Much of our art was about the 20 years of struggle for Afghan women, about justice and freedom of speech. We had chosen to portray Afghan heroes to inspire the next generation, which the Taliban erased,” says another Afghan artist in exile, who wishes to be identified only as Muhajir (which means refugee in Dari).

“I was forced to leave everything I built and created behind. Wherever I go now, this will always be my identity: I will always be a muhajir,” he says.

Artists paint a mural on a wall of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs ministry to mark International Women’s Day in Kabul, March 2019. Photograph: Rahmat Gul/AP

  • ArtLords artists paint a mural on a wall of the women’s affairs ministry to mark International Women’s Day in Kabul two years ago

Shamsia Hassani is an Afghan graffiti artist and art professor at Kabul University, who also managed to escape the Taliban. She says: “My country and my art gave me an identity. The day Kabul fell, I could not believe it; my heart was on fire.”

Hassani, like many Afghans of her generation, grew up as a refugee in Iran because of decades of war, and had returned to Kabul after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. “Art was evolving there. The number of artists and art lovers was gradually increasing. Of course, there were still many who opposed art, but it was available for everyone and we had the freedom to be an artist,” she says. “We had planted a seed and were watching it grow.”

  • Works by the graffiti artist Shamsia Hassani: on the left is the first image she painted after the fall of Kabul

Hassani’s distinctive style of graffiti – featuring a young woman with closed eyes – appeared on many walls in the Afghan capital, a symbol of social change, empowerment and peace. Much of her work has also been erased.

Related: ‘I worry my daughters will never know peace’: women flee the Taliban – again

“The plants I nurtured with years of effort and hopes were all destroyed,” she says.

“I used to believe that art is stronger than war, but now I realise that war is stronger, and everything we built over 20 years could be destroyed within minutes by its darkness,” she says. “The reason I am still painting here is to help myself stay afloat and not sink in this darkness.”

  • The graffiti artist Shamsia Hassani, who is now living in exile

Lida Afghan is an Afghan-Dutch artist who has worked extensively in Afghanistan but is now unable to return. “When I think of Afghanistan I get very overwhelmed, and lately I find myself crying a lot. The only comfort I get is through painting, which is also my way of communicating to the women in the country that you are not alone,” she says.

  • Afghan woman, by the Dutch-Afghan artist Lida Afghan

Afghan’s recent pieces, which depict women’s rebellion in her former home, often went viral on social media. “When I draw women, I try to show how powerful they are, because often Afghan women are seen as victims and weak. I have seen women, from all parts of Afghanistan, and they are constantly fighting against the patriarchy,” she says.

“Art is a movement – it is such a universal language that can speak to the people’s souls. And with it, I try to say to Afghan women to not give up. My hope is that when they see a piece like that they feel empowered,” she says.

The artists who have fled Afghanistan remain undeterred and have been creating new work, even in the refugee camps. The ArtLords collective continues to create new pieces in exile and hopes soon to put on an exhibition of works by displaced artists.

The Taliban can whitewash all our work in Kabul, but we will always have our paint and our brush. We will fight back with that,” says Muhajir.

  • Shamsia Hassani’s imaginary graffito on the cliffs of Bamiyan, where the Taliban destroyed huge Buddhist statues from the fifth century in 2001. The picture is part of her Dreaming Graffiti series, in which she enlarges photographs of places she would like to put graffiti, then paints a mural on pictures of locations she can only dream of

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