Art Under Siege: Six Months of Terror and An Uncertain Future for Arts and Culture in Afghanistan
Amidst a deeply perilous time of insecurity in Afghanistan, when artistic expression itself is under threat, PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) is partnering with Art at a Time Like This, a nonprofit arts organization that provides a platform for free expression at times of crisis, to launch Before Silence: Afghan Artists In Exile, an online exhibition featuring nine multidisciplinary artists who have continued to create through the humanitarian crisis. The artists featured in the exhibition have made the difficult decision to leave Afghanistan and go into exile, many leaving their friends, families, dreams, and achievements behind. This article explores the history of persecution of artists in Afghanistan and the current state of artistic freedom of expression in the country following the takeover by the Taliban in August 2021.
On August 15, global news outlets reported that Kabul had fallen to the Taliban, only days after the US government began withdrawing troops from Afghanistan following a twenty-year occupation.
Within hours, our team at the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) began receiving a flood of urgent requests from Afghan artists to help them flee the country or relocate to safety. These messages were full of desperation and fear – from artists of all disciplines who had gone into hiding, seen their houses ransacked by Taliban operatives, and feared for their lives and the lives of their families. Their only crime was to create art, and now they were seeking any possible path to escape the country.
A singer wrote: I really have no idea how to get out of this hell.
A painter wrote: They saw the paintings and said that according to Islamic law, you are not allowed to paint. You have to tear up the paintings and promise that you will not make images from now on, otherwise you will be punished … Now I do not paint and I do not know what the future will hold.
A visual artist wrote: Unfortunately, from the time I got into art, I was threatened so much that I was physically tortured several times and they even wanted to kill me. They said what I do is non-Muslim. They have broken my artwork and threatened me.
The Taliban has a long history of persecuting artists and censoring artistic expression entirely. When the militants ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, they enforced a strict version of Islamic law to ban all music (other than religious singing) and moving images. Portraits of living people were considered sacrilegious, as were books that depicted women with their faces uncovered or criticized the Taliban in any way. Taliban fighters looted the famed National Museum in Kabul several times and destroyed thousands of sculptures around the country.
The two decades after the Taliban’s fall saw a flourishing of art throughout the country. Production companies began to churn out movies and TV shows, comedians and singers entertained millions around the country, and graffiti became increasingly prominent in urban spaces. For many women, in particular, these years provided a previously unimaginable opportunity to work as artists without fear of retribution, from the first Afghan female street artist to the country’s first all-women’s orchestra.
Even so, some artists continued to face retaliation for their creative work, especially as the Taliban slowly but surely began to reemerge and take over districts around the country. This new generation of artists emerged during a time of continual insecurity, marked by tensions and conflict between international coalition forces, the Afghan government, the emerging Islamic State, and the remnants of the Taliban. Against this backdrop of insurgency and counterinsurgency, terror attacks and bombings were commonplace, including some that targeted cultural actors, such as the suicide bombing of the French Cultural Centre in 2014. By 2018, reports found that the Taliban was openly active in 263 districts in Afghanistan (70% of the country) and fully controlled 14 districts (4% of the country). At ARC, we began receiving desperate messages from threatened artists as early as 2019, even before the US first announced a date for its withdrawal, and we heard from a group of filmmakers that they were aware of a Taliban watchlist listing many artists and cultural workers.
But when Taliban insurgents took control of city after city across the country in a matter of weeks, and stunned the world with their systematic takeover of Kabul in mid-August, the threats reached a new and terrifying level. The future of countless artists in the country immediately became deeply uncertain – and fraught with danger.
“The Taliban believe art is a path to corruption and vice in society,” said Samiullah Nabipour, the former dean of the fine arts school at Kabul University, who was in hiding for two months before evacuating with his family in October. “The Taliban ideology is against art.”
For many Afghan artists, simply the act of being an artist is enough to cause them to fear for their lives. For those who were critical of the Taliban during the twenty years that they were not in power, the risks were even more immediate. Likewise, for many female artists, an immediate crackdown on women’s rights in Afghanistan – including the dismissal of female workers, moves to push women out of public life, and severe restrictions on education – placed them in a particularly dangerous situation.
“The future of countless artists in the country immediately became deeply uncertain – and fraught with danger.”
“I have deleted all my music and songs from my phone and am trying to stop talking about music,” said Habibullah Shabab, a popular singer from southern Afghanistan who was a contestant on an Afghan singing show. He now runs a vegetable stand to feed his family. “When I am alone listening to my songs, my previous videos and memories, I cry a lot in my heart that where I was before, and where I am now.”
At first, some international observers hoped that the Taliban, which has embraced innovations that it previously shunned such as television interviews and social media, would be less restrictive, particularly as it seeks to gain diplomatic recognition from other countries. However, the Taliban was quick to ban music in public, among other measures, and in the face of immediate reports of violence against artists – such as the abduction and ultimate murder of comedian Nazar Mhammed on July 18 and the execution of Afghan folk singer Fawad Andarabi on August 30 – many artists felt that they could take no chances.
Following the takeover, many Afghan artists began to engage in self-censorship or self-destruction of their works, burning books, smashing statues, and destroying paintings that they did not think the Taliban would approve of – as well as scrubbing their social media of any mentions of art and staying home rather than performing in public.
Omaid Sharifi, an Afghan street artist and founder of Art Lords, a grassroots street art initiative, who fled Kabul following the takeover, emphasized the particular feeling of devastation that such acts of self-destruction incur for artists. “The feeling of destroying a piece of art is not very far from losing a child, because it is your own creation. It is something you have memories with, something you've dreamed about," he explained. "Suddenly you are putting fire to it – to all your dreams, your aspirations, your hopes."
The Afghan artists who have contacted ARC – totaling more than 250 since August – are, more than anything else, desperately seeking ways to leave the country. Some have fled to neighboring countries, such as Pakistan and Iran, but many more remain in limbo in Afghanistan, unable to work as artists, and often unable to leave their homes for fear of being found and killed. An untold number of people lack the international connections often needed to obtain relocation, not to mention fundamental barriers such as lack of internet access or lack of a passport – and the lack of a functioning government that can provide such services. The country faces a looming humanitarian crisis, including famine, the collapse of the health-care system, and plummeting wages.
Six months into the crisis, the path forward remains uncertain. Many of our partner organizations have been similarly inundated with far more requests than they can handle. ARC has worked to coordinate efforts between arts and human rights organizations and share direct resources with Afghan artists who contact us. For those trying to enter the US, there is a years-long backlog of applicants: the Special Immigrant Visa program, which is reserved for certain Afghans who worked for or were connected with the US government, already had a backlog of 18,000 applicants even before the crisis; more than 30,000 people have applied for humanitarian parole; and the traditional refugee entry process is also notoriously slow. There is a similar backlog in countries around the world, and anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiments remain rampant globally.
Although the failures and implications of the US pullout have long faded from the headlines, we must not forget that the entire future of arts and culture in Afghanistan is under peril. We must keep in mind the countless artists who remain in hiding in Afghanistan, as well as those who have been able to flee the country and remain in limbo, waiting for visas, residencies, and funding, their future as humans and as artists uncertain.
PEN America and Art at a Time Like This believe that the right to artistic freedom of expression is a human right. Afghan artists should be allowed to live, work and create freely, without fear for their lives or the lives of their families. We must stand with Afghan artists, today and every day.
BEFORE SILENCE: AFGHAN ARTISTS IN EXILE, an online exhibition featuring the work of nine multi-disciplinary Afghan artists who have continued to create in exile, launches February 8. We welcome you to engage with the exhibit and think about what it means to be both Afghan and an artist at a time like this. Read the full press statement from PEN America and Art at a Time Like This here.
By Juliette Verlaque, February 7, 2022. Juliette is a program assistant at the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) and a graduate of Barnard College.