Kabul is littered with thick concrete walls meant to protect civilians from suicide bombers, car bombs, and other extremist attacks. These are blast walls, T-shaped slabs that serve as means of protection, but also as a brutal reminder of the political unrest and dangerous conditions Afghans have suffered for nearly three decades. The walls are selectively placed to protect government buildings and the homes of the wealthy elite—leaving those outside unprotected. While many view the blast walls as a necessary, albeit ugly, evil, ArtLords co-founders Omaid Sharifi and Kabir Mokamel see potential for something beautiful in the blank concrete: a canvas.
In an effort to mitigate the negative psychological impact of the blast walls, Sharifi and Mokamel established ArtLords, a social movement of Afghan artists and activists working to build a better Kabul through street art. Instead of blank concrete slabs, murals designed by ArtLords create a positive, uplifting visual experience for the people of Kabul, a reminder of the city’s humanity rather than its insecurity. The murals also explore corruption, propose solutions to social issues in Afghanistan, and reflect public concerns about Afghani policies and politics.
Additionally, ArtLords encourages passersby to contribute to its murals. Whether they are experienced artists or have never picked up a paintbrush, residents of Kabul are invited to directly participate in their city’s visual campaign. ArtLords’ simple “paint-by-numbers” designs make it easy for anyone to participate in the movement. According to Sharifi, Art Lords’ staff and volunteers often create a general image of what they want a mural to look like, send it through computer editing programs to reduce colors and details, and draw the scene on a blast wall to be further painted by Artlords volunteers and the general public over time.
ArtLords is renowned for its “I See You” Campaign, which consists of murals calling attention to corruption in the country through a pair of watchful eyes that signify that dishonesty in government is not invisible in the eyes of God or the people. In 2016, “I See You” won the inaugural Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani Anti-Corruption Innovation Award. The campaign has grown in size and significance, now consisting of over 70 paintings, each serving as a central symbol of the government accountability movement in Afghanistan.
Recently, ArtLords has received international attention for its advocacy, including from organizations such as Index on Censorship, which nominated the organization for their 2019 Freedom of Expression Award. Their most recent venture is “Wartists,” an art management institution that provides resources and facilities for artists in wartorn and post-conflict countries.
Despite international recognition, ArtLords is largely self-funded. To help support themselves, they have also established the Rebel Art Cafe and a gallery in Kabul, in addition to receiving paid-partnership contracts with organizations such as UNICEF. ArtLords has participated in international projects, including an installation in Berlin and a mural in London painted during the 2019 Defend Media Freedom Global Conference. Additionally, ArtLords hopes that international artists will collaborate with them directly or even provide designs for future murals.
ArtLords considers itself a grassroots movement open to domestic and international collaboration. Through art, the organization hopes to not only make the streets of Afghanistan more beautiful but also to inspire hope and showcase the power of artistic activism. But its mission does not stop in the capital city. ArtLords has expanded its work beyond Kabul with a series of murals advocating for polio vaccinations in other provinces. ArtLords hopes to expand its reach internationally one day, but no matter how far the group goes, its focus will always be on harnessing the power of art for socio-political change in Afghanistan.
By Bridget Duggan, December 2019. Bridget is currently pursuing a B.A. in Sociology with minors in English and Sustainability at George Washington University. She is an aspiring storyteller, and passionate about the pursuit of social change through the arts.