Kabul: Art Breaks Down Cultural & Historical Barriers – Ali Masoud Madadi, Afghanistan

Art in Afghanistan has a long history ranging from the oldest oil paintings of the world, dating back to the 7th century, in the caves of Bamyan Valley to Islamic calligraphy and art; From traditional music to new Western-influenced songs. Yet, art in Afghanistan remains unknown to the rest of the world.  However, Afghan contemporary art is much different, both in form and in content.

Since 2001, Afghans have been rebuilding a war-torn country. As a result, protection government officials leading this change has been a main priority. In the Afghan capital of Kabul, most ministries and governmental offices have blast walls surrounding the buildings.

Regardless, the government, which should have brought hope, is no longer trustworthy, often dubbed as being opaque and corrupt. In fact, the government is ranked as one of the most corrupt in the world. As day by day  youth participation is on the rise, art is seen as a widely used means for people to express their opinions on the government. Many blast walls are now covered in graffiti. On one of them, someone has drawn a pair of eyes. On one side, it is written, “Corruption Is not hidden from God’s and people’s eyes,” and on the other, “I see you” is written in both Persian and Pashto.


The blast walls, once reminiscent of the war and fear, are now turning into beautiful works of art, not only standing against corruption, but giving people hope; Art sends the message of a country that needs healing, a message that young Afghan are helping spread. Omaid Sharifi, one of the project’s founders, wrote for France24, “We first started with the anti-corruption mural, which we painted on the blast walls of the presidential palace, the spy agency and the education ministry. The first two spots were chosen for their prime locations, but we chose the education ministry to send a direct message, as it’s been plagued by corruption cases. International funding was allocated to fake schools and ghost teachers, while the money ended up in officials’ pockets.” The graffiti did not end corruption and soon, they began exploring other topics. Sharifi also wrote: “our latest project is called “heroes of my city”. Our idea is to showcase everyday heroes. In Afghanistan’s constitution, we have an official hero, Ahmed Shah Massoud [a legendary fighter who was killed by the Taliban in 2001]. Each tribe and ethnic group also has their own heroes, and they’re all fighters. It seems all the men heralded as heroes in our country use guns, so we wanted to show a different narrative. We first painted municipal workers, who get up at 5 am to sweep the streets of our city. Some car washers in the street liked it so much that they left their jobs and spent all day painting these sweepers. We’re also going to highlight good nurses, good teachers, good independent journalists – people who are peaceful, hardworking, and not corrupt – they’re the ones who are keeping our country going.”

Historically, art has always been very elitist. Ancient emperors and kings who ruled over Afghanistan gathered artists from all over their realm to live in the capital, praising the king and his people, making art for them. In this sense, artists were less familiar with the lives and struggles of the common folk, which is evident in many forms of art. However, another movement, that did not focus on the king, was Sufism, albeit its contribution to literature and Islamic philosophy, Sufism is elitist itself. Throughout history, ordinary people failed to connect with the Sufi’s philosophical conceptions of art and religion. But now, it seems like art is turning to the people and the artists finds his inspiration among the ordinary people.

Ηistorically artists have usually been male, with female artists have been rare and facing many barriers when entering the world of the arts. However, nowadays many young girls are also contributing along with their male colleagues, expressing themselves and their opinions. Shamsia Hassani is one of these girls. She teaches in the University of Kabul, parallelly painting walls with feminist artwork. Her paintings challenge the culture of male dominance and the role of women in society. Even though the world of graffiti dominated by males even in the Western world, Shamsia crosses the borders of sexism. Her artwork is about her people, their hopes and obstacles. Referring to one of her paintings named “Birds of No Nation”, she said: “People in my country are all the time traveling somewhere to stay safe and find a peaceful life. And we are missing a lot of our friends and family who have left the country. Usually birds are traveling all the time, they have no nation.”

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