Afghanistan is not the place you think of for emerging artists and activist culture. Yet few countries in the world are more ripe for an artistic scene. Just sit for a few hours over coffee at The Venue, a coffeeshop turned artist refuge, surrounded by the work of artists like Shamsia and Kabir, and you can literally feel the pulse of an artistic heartbeat. Just in side the entrance is the artist statement spray painted on the steel doors. Our table had members of the Afghan metal band, District Unknown, visiting Swiss artists, graffiti artist, Shamsia, and an inspiring ex-pat that is supporting the vision of creating more space for Afghan voice.
In the past three years a space has slowly emerged for artistic voice and an activist movement. Today all you have to do is look on the billboards and concrete walls around Kabul to see how contemporary art is emerging in public spaces. Banksy-esque artists like, Kabir have embraced graffiti art as a public statement on peace.
Female artist, Shamsia emerged from a joint graffiti art workshop that Mountain2Mountain supported in Kabul with Combat Communications and the English artist, Chu, two years ago. Already a faculty member at Kabul University’s Fine Arts Department, she has a strong vision on how art creates voice and how public art in particular creates beauty and conversation in a war-torn city. “Every wall in Kabul has a bad memory attached to it. I want to paint beautiful images over every wall to erase the bad memories.”
Shamsia’s street art uses a theme of ethereal bluebird-blue burqa’d women and integrates the images of fish whose bubbles represent all the words not yet able to be spoken by women.
As darkness fell, we sat around a table in the courtyard; rock musicians, artists, writers, humanitarians, artists, and activists, we bore witness to the first steps of a pubic street art campaign – soon to be shared with Kabul and the world.
TED fellow Amanullah Mojadidi is one of the first artists to really stretch artistic boundaries in Afghanistan, and use street and performance art in edgy and groundbreaking ways. One of his most famous was a performance art experiment. Posing as an Afghan policeman at a checkpoint, he apologized to each car he stopped for previous bribes they had been forced to pay by corrupt officials and paid them back.
Thanks to the amazing work of a tight group of expats and Afghans, musicians are also finding their creative space within Kabul. Due to the visionaries behind Sound Central Music Festival, Sound Studies, and Combat Communications – Afghan musicians like District Unknown, are rocking Afghanistan with death metal, alongside local rock bands like White Page and Kabul Dreams, and the newest addition to the scene of a local female rapper.
Traditional textiles have taken a modern, artistic twist as well with Kabul artist and visionary, Rahim Walizada. His family has a background in rug making, but as a contemporary artist, Rahim took his painting to rug design and produced large scale high art textiles. The rugs are known by the design name Chuk Palu Rugs and while they are sold worldwide, they are also showcased and sold, at his uber-chic Design Cafe, which he also designed and attracts expats, Afghans, and artists alike.
Our own street art installation, Streets of Afghanistan, was created as a collaboration between Afghan and Western photographers as a way to engage this emerging space for voice, with a purpose of using art as activism. Showcasing a lifesize photography art installation in multiple public places in Afghanistan was as much about showcasing art in Afghanistan for Afghans, as much as it was to prove to the rest of the world that projects like this one have a place and a purpose in a s0-called warzone. It’s ignorant to only think that art scenes only exist in cities like New York, Paris, and London – cities like Kabul need to create and expand the space for art and voice most of all.
Art and music are based in hope and the power of voice, both of which can act as catalysts to create real change and inspire a better future. Hope is always more powerful than fear.
In 2008 Mountain2Mountain launched the Streets of Afghanistan project, facilitating a collaboration of Afghan and Western photographers to document Afghan life through the rarely seen Afghan lens, immersing the viewer in the landscapes and faces of Afghanistan, transporting them directly into the culture and mindset of the country’s people. After touring the U.S. the exhibit of 29, 10×17 photographs now returns to the Afghan people. Follow along as we bring the exhibition back to Afghanistan.
photos by Anna Brones, Shannon Galpin, and Tony Di Zinno