International

The Future of Artists in Afghanistan Hangs in the Balance

After the Taliban’s return to power, artists fear that their livelihoods have come to an end

By: Yasmine Abdeldayem

Weeks ago, this mural in Kabul was one of many advocating for human rights. Today, its message is invisible, after the Taliban covered it with white paint. nytimes.com

The last twenty years of artistic expression in Afghanistan have screeched to a halt and artists are scrambling to destroy and conceal their work. 

On August 15, as the U.S. withdrew remaining troops to mark the end of a two-decade war, Taliban fighters stormed the presidential palace in Kabul after President Ashraf Ghani fled. 

Since then, many artists have escaped the country and resettled elsewhere, driven by the rampant fear that there is no future for the art scene under Taliban rule. Their fears are not unfounded; many Afghans remember the blatant government opposition to art during the Taliban’s rule from 1996 to 2001. 

Paintings and cultural sites had been wrecked, which, in one scenario, involved the explosion of two centuries-old Buddha statues in the Bamiyan Valley.

 The Taliban reportedly destroyed at least 2,750 ancient artworks from the National Museum of Afghanistan throughout 2001. 

During that period, television and musical instruments were banned, libraries were looted, books filled with art were set aflame. 

The Taliban follow their own strict interpretation of Shariah law. The Quran, the religious text of Islam, never detailed a set of laws in its teachings, so all systemic interpretations of Shariah have varied extensively as a result. 

After the regime was overthrown in 2001, the art and entertainment industries underwent a widespread revival. Today, essentially all artistic and cultural mediums are in danger yet again.

A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahid, exclaimed, “We want to build the future, and forget what happened in the past—Music is forbidden, but we’re hoping that we can persuade people not to do such things, instead of pressuring them.”

The claim of a more tolerant regime has brought little comfort to Afghan artists.

Omaid Sharifi is the co-founder of ArtLords, a grassroots movement founded in 2014 that aimed to implement societal change through the power of arts and culture. He has witnessed the Taliban deface and destroy almost 100 of the murals that he and his team have created over the years. He has since left Kabul, as have many of his colleagues, and settled in Virginia with his family. 

One mural in Kabul was covered with white paint and replaced with the following message from the Taliban: “Don’t trust the propaganda of the enemy.” Another ArtLords mural, which called out corruption and portrayed a schoolgirl, was defaced.  

A center that offered art classes was shut down, much to the dismay of one female art student who shared her fears with CNN. 

Without a place to continue her art safely, she is unsure how to move forward. Her portraits generally portray the unconcealed faces of women, a concept that the Taliban regards as unacceptable. 

“The boys, they can go to a teacher’s home, and they can continue their work from there,” said the woman, opting for anonymity, to CNN. “But for girls, it’s not possible to do that.” 

Before Kabul fell to the Taliban in August, Afghan Film, a state-run film company, was in the middle of production for over 20 films. 

Now, production has halted and staff members come to work only to show their faces. According to Sahraa Karimi, the former head of Afghan Film, the majority of the company’s film footage is hidden on a hard drive. 

However, decades of film archives are situated in the presidential palace, which is under the Taliban’s control. The security of this portion of Afghanistan’s cultural history is precarious.

Another artist buried his 15 paintings and has no hope of currently retrieving them, as they’re in a government building guarded by Taliban officials. Over a dozen of his fellow artists are in hiding. 

The Taliban haven’t explicitly stated whether their current governing standards, specifically regarding their vision for arts and culture in this era, will follow those of their 1990s regime. The uncertainty has created an Afghanistan in which some art loosely remains, but crowds and practitioners are scarce. 

A few art galleries are still open for business, but they haven’t received many visitors in the past tumultuous weeks. Music flows through the streets at faint volumes. 

Some people who couldn’t pursue their artistic occupations in Afghanistan have found opportunities elsewhere.

Many Afghans feel as though it is only a matter of time until the arts scene in Afghanistan is entirely nonexistent. 

Categories: International, Politics

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