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The Fallen Buddhas’ Shadow: The Uncertain Future of Afghanistan’s Artists

September 17, 2021

stone arch - BuddhasSince the fall of Kabul on August 15th, there have been a seemingly infinite number of questions raised about the future of Afghanistan. One question, though, has been sticking out more than others: how will this regime be different from the notorious theocracy that fell in 2001? While some changes have been observed, like girls being allowed to attend school, some things have definitely remained the same. One such hallmark of Taliban rule is the group’s disdain for dissent and free expression. Art and artists were one of the most visible targets of the Taliban when the group ruled the country between 1996 and 2001. Some of their most well-known victims, while not living beings, were a great loss. They were the now-destroyed Buddhas of Bamiyan, a pair of enormous sixth-century statues carved into the sandstone cliffs of a valley in central Afghanistan. Despite international outcry, the statues were demolished on the orders of the Taliban’s Supreme Commander Mohammed Omar after he decided they were idols.

Talking about free expression, one of my favorite lines from any sort of media is from Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta, where the titular masked character says, “Artists use lies to tell the truth.” Commonly, artists take lies, something that does not exist outside of their own minds, using them in such a way to show us something about the world. In doing so, many artists participate in the rich creative tradition of criticizing authority. But one of the main characteristics of fundamentalists is they don’t seem to take criticism particularly well. Aware of this reality, hundreds of cultural figures and organizations have voiced their support for extracting and protecting Afghan artists, many by adding their names to an open letter to the American government urging such action. Since the Taliban entered the city, films have been taken from archives, and instruments from music schools have been destroyed. Most visibly, however, prominent works of street art have already been painted over and replaced with slogans and other propaganda. Among such defaced murals is one showing Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar and US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad shaking hands after signing the agreement securing US troop withdrawal in 2020. Omaid Sharifi and his organization ArtLords were responsible for that mural as well as almost 2,200 other works throughout Afghanistan, mainly on the blast walls that have been erected in the country’s cities.

On top of artists and other cultural figures, women are one of the main at-risk groups whose security and future in Afghanistan have been jeopardized by recent developments. Faced with such uncertainty, the women of Afghanistan’s artistic community are pillars of strength and perseverance who deserve particular recognition. Shamsia Hassani, dubbed “the Afghan Banksy” by some, became a sort of double target of the Taliban by working as a professor at Kabul University, as well as making a name for herself as a graffiti artist. Her work calls attention to repression carried out by the Taliban, specifically the plight of women in her country. However, she has also stated she enjoys showing the brighter, more colorful side of the Afghan people that many seldom see on Western news channels. And now she has not been heard from in nearly two weeks. Some have speculated that she escaped the country, but nothing has been confirmed yet.

Rada Akbar is another artist who focuses on Afghanistan’s women. However, rather than using the image of the average Afghan girl to symbolize the condition of all women in the country like Hassani does, Akbar does so by highlighting the specific examples of strong women who made and continue to shape Afghanistan. A few years ago she founded Abarzanan, an art project meant to be a space for recognizing great women. While the project’s first exhibition in 2018 focused only on a select group of Afghan women, later exhibitions broadened their focus to include prominent women from across the world. Akbar has created works in honor of human rights advocates, teachers, singers, and the victims of extrajudicial, misogynist mob violence. She also draws upon Afghanistan’s history by creating works inspired by Rabia Balkhi, a great medieval female poet, as well as Soraya, the twentieth-century modernizing queen-consort. For the past month, however, Akbar’s life has radically changed. When many of her visa applications were denied or ignored, she even considered suicide rather than live under the Taliban again. Fortunately, she was able to gain a two-month visa from the French embassy.

Though the Taliban were driven from power in 2001, the Islamic State (ISIL) instilled the same fears as the Taliban through their destruction of museum collections and desecration of ancient sites in Iraq and Syria. Although the Buddhas of Bamiyan were destroyed twenty years ago, the empty alcoves where the Buddhas once stood remain a poignant reminder of how fundamentalists do business. But after all these years, the Afghan creative community has co-opted the image of the hollowed stone cavities as a symbol of their own struggle against suppression and censorship, including Shamsia Hassani in her prints. Art matters because it provides something stimulating, either to distract or to provoke. But more than that, it connects disparate communities through something more universal. Therefore, it is not just a courtesy or a kindness to protect this community from theocratic oppression, but it becomes an obligation to do so both out of decency and in defense of free expression.

By: Nathan Scheer