Credit: Dorota Dziki

The power of the paintbrush

By Kimberley Mannion

How Afghan art has become an integral expression of resilience and resistance.

Watching with the horror shared by the rest of the world as Kabul fell to the Taliban, amongst the most poignant scenes to me were of Afghans painting over images on the walls of their city that their new rulers would not approve of. It reminded me of something I had read a few days earlier in the book Farewell Kabul by Sunday Times chief foreign correspondent Christina Lamb, when she witnessed the restarting of “normal” life in Afghanistan in late 2001 after the Taliban had been driven out. Lamb describes a man she saw in the National Gallery, scrubbing off the nature scenes that he had painted over faces on old artwork in order to prevent the Taliban from destroying them, as it was forbidden to depict living figures. Now, after a 20-year war and hundreds of thousands of lives lost, once again, the right the man had to proudly display his artwork had been lost. 

Painting even in the privacy of one’s own home would be a dangerous activity under Taliban rule, but to do it out in the street of the capital city takes a level of bravery and pride most could never imagine. Omaid H. Sharifi is an Afghan activist who co-founded Art Lords, a grassroot movement of artists which aims to transform the war-torn walls of Kabul into a “pleasant visual experience”. On 15 August, the same day his city fell to the Taliban, he shared a clip of a group painting a new mural on Twitter. He wrote that it reminded him of the movie Titanic, when the musicians continued playing right to the sinking of the ship. I think it would be hard to find a stronger show of spirit in a moment of such trepidation. The Afghans continued to spread hope and joy through their artwork, despite not knowing what awaited their future. As they painted, their fate darkened by the minute. 

“Painting even in the privacy of one’s own home would be a dangerous activity under Taliban rule…”

Those currently taking to their country’s streets come from a long line of brave and talented artists who have for years taken risks. Malina Suliman was born in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, in the year 1990, just before the group was formed. Her graffiti art is a representation of her repression as a female under its rule. Graffiti is her chosen medium of art, because, as she told the BBC in 2013, “to paint at home would not have served any purpose. I wanted to send a message to the girls in my situation to have no fear and to express themselves in public.” Suliman illustrated a skeleton wearing a burka on the walls of Kandahar, a piece which was branded “unislamic” and lead to her being pelted with stones in the street and being locked in the house for a year through her parent’s shame. After a Taliban attack left her father’s legs broken, she fled her homeland and went on to study a degree in fine art in Mumbai. 

“‘… I wanted to send a message to the girls in my situation to have no fear and to express themselves in public.’”

As well as women’s position in Afghan society, Suliman explores the presence of the West in her country. One of her graffiti pieces showed an Afghan entangled between an American tie knotted to a turban worn by the Taliban. The art communicates to the western eye a message about their country’s intervention and “nation building”, in a perhaps much more effective way than a conversation ever could. “We don’t want western-style freedom but we want gender equality within an Islamic society,” Suliman told the BBC. The image challenges the western idea that Afghan women need to be “saved”, an idea which is often criticized as an excuse for interventionism that fails to properly listen to Afghan women’s expressions and understand the complex nature of Afghanistan. 

It is the quiet bravery of civilians – humans trying their best to carry on with normal life – during such desperate moments, that to me make the most poignant stories from warzones or hostile environments. More so than with a soldier fighting on the frontline, we can relate and empathise with a man trying to continue his hobby or a woman trying to send her daughter to school. We can perhaps be more understanding of what they are going through, and thus hopefully prevent more wars from happening in the future. People trying to live out their everyday lives, humanity in extremis. Art, and particularly women’s art, is an authentic expression from the ground of what it’s like to live under the Taliban, and it must be protected. 


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