History & Culture

When walls disappear

People painting on a street in Kabul   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

“The wall disappeared after I put up our first mural, because I was looking at the image,” says Kabir Mokamel. It was 2014, when Artlords, the organisation he had co-founded, made its first move into the streets of Kabul. Through a slow process of connecting the community in the conflict-ridden capital, it began painting the blast walls, to make a political point. After the US intervention in 2001, thick grey concrete walls had come up to shield government buildings embassies and private residences for the wealthy, turning the city into a fortress.

Mokamel and his team’s first work showed the magnified eyes of co-founder, Rawail Singh’s daughter, with the words, “I can see you. Corruption cannot be hidden from God and from the eyes of the people", written in the Pashto and Dari scripts. Four years later, Singh would be killed along with 12 other Afghan Sikh activists. This time, another mural would go up, of the father and daughter.

Artlords, a take-off on the druglords and warlords of Afghanistan, believes in artivism, a portmanteau that puts out social and political messaging through painting. Banksy is a prominent practitioner, and Mokamel has been deeply influenced by the ‘masked’ British artist. The difference is that there’s nothing secretive about the group, and their work is not done covertly. Permission is sought from the owners of the walls — usually the government — with a brief about the mural. The artwork, created on a computer, is projected onto a wall, with numbers for colours.

Co-founder of Artlords, Rawail Singh with his daughter, a mural done after his killing

Co-founder of Artlords, Rawail Singh with his daughter, a mural done after his killing   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

To date, they’ve done about 2,000 paintings, the smallest 3x5 metres, the largest 6x18 metres. “We talk to people on the street, we see what people think,” he says of the process of inviting passersby to come and paint. “Once there was a young girl, about 13 or 14, very disturbed; she was critical of what we were doing, so I asked her to come and paint. She said no, but I handed her a brush. She stood and painted for two or three hours,” he says, his soft voice adding that the act helped calm her down. It’s something Mokamel would like to take up in the future — art for mental health, for a country disturbed by over 40 years of turmoil. “It’s a bubble in the corridor of suicide bombing,” he says.

He was lucky enough to have experienced the ‘old Kabul’, when it was “a very beautiful city, a cultured city, with very nice people”. But, at 17, he was conscripted into the army. After three and half years, he deserted, and fled to Pakistan, where many others went for refuge.

In 1989 he moved to Germany, and then Australia to study art and graphic design, working there as well. “While I was in Afghanistan the war was taking place outside of me, but when I moved outside, the war moved inside me, so it was a horrible thing,” says Mokamel, referring to the turmoil that people in war tone areas feel. In the time he spent abroad, he would return often to Kabul, the mountains calling him, his connection with them unbroken.

He came back in 2010, because it was home, and also because he felt there was “something that we can solve, something that we can make, a place to live together, but it takes some time not to be selfish.” He began to work in the media as a creative director, until the idea of Artlords came about, with Omaid Sharifi, Rawail Singh, and Lima Ahmad. It was only in 2018 that this work turned full time for him.

Co-founder of Artlords Omaid Sharifi, Kabir Mokamel, Lima Ahmad

Co-founder of Artlords Omaid Sharifi, Kabir Mokamel, Lima Ahmad   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Some campaigns that have done well internationally are themes that appeal to all: a portrait of George Floyd, murdered on the streets by Minneapolis police, for instance. Some mark pieces of history, like the signing of the US-Taliban peace deal last year. Many are reactions to life in Afghanistan: a portrait of Tetsu Nakamura, the head of a Japanese aid agency killed by gunmen; that of law professor and activist Hamida Barmaki, also killed by militants with her husband and four children. There is a series that celebrates the ‘Heroes of my City’ that depicted municipal workers, teachers, nurses. Each mural goes up with a message.

So far just one — that of Barmaki — has been removed, painted in front of the residence of the warlord believed to be responsible for her killing. “The American University got rid of it because it was on their wall,” says Mokamel.

Many of the artworks are borne of the anger at what Kabul has become, at losing close family and friends to suicide bombers or having them just disappear. When 27-year-old Farkhunda Malikzada was publicly lynched beside a mosque, wrongly accused at having burned the Quran, there was public outrage. The Artlords donated blood and poured the samples on the wall, rather than use red paint. “It was the blood of everyone who was spilled there,” says Mokamel.

A grenade with lovers, signifying the two faces love and turmoil of Afghanistan

A grenade with lovers, signifying the two faces love and turmoil of Afghanistan   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Of late though, he is looking at approaching the murals through a prism of positivity, beauty and poetry, taking the rough edges off activism. “Beauty inspires, not negativity,” says the 53-year-old, who hopes to create “a new visual language” that people across the world resonate with. Something that appeals “not to the political mind, but to our emotional core.”

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 4:14:03 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/afghan-artlords-create-murals-in-a-movement-called-artivism/article33869337.ece

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