If you are keeping your finger on the pulse of Afghanistan, you will have certainly heard of ArtLords, a grassroots movement of artists and volunteers helping pave the way for social transformation and behavioral change through art and culture.
From Kabul to Kandahar, ArtLords is making a literal and figurative mark on the landscape of Afghanistan, beautifying the streets while standing strong against insurgents and corruption. In many ways, ArtLords deals in messages, both for those within Afghanistan and outside it. To the warlords, drug lords, and insurgents, ArtLords proclaims loud and clear: we, the people with integrity and honesty of Afghanistan, are reclaiming our streets from violence, destruction and corruption, one mural at a time. To those outside Afghanistan, they broadcast the country’s creativity and activism, painting a more robust picture than what is shown in the media. And finally, ArtLords’ most resounding message is for the people of Afghanistan. It’s a message of hope and communicates to ordinary citizens that they possess the power to take control of their lives and the future of their country.
ArtLords was founded in 2014, by a group of artists, activists and volunteers all motivated by a desire to kickstart social transformation through art and culture. Omaid Sharifi is one of those co-founders, more of an activist than an artist, with a profound love for Afghanistan and, more specifically Kabul, the city he grew up in. At the age of 12, Sharifi started working on the streets of Kabul selling cigarettes and cookies. It’s his city, he proudly proclaims, and he never left during all the upheavals.
“I was doing a lot of charity work and activism. And then in 2014, there was a group of three or four of us who were tired of these concrete walls, tired that every day this space was taken from us. Kabul was no longer a city for its citizens, we determined. It was not meant to serve us. It was meant to serve the people who had guards, guns, armored cars, and who were putting these ugly blast walls around their offices and houses. You could rarely breathe in Kabul. It felt like you were suffocating, like the city was telling you that you were drowning,” explains Sharifi.
"You could rarely breathe in Kabul. It felt like you were suffocating, like the city was telling you that you were drowning"
“So what we did in 2014 was to go and bring down these walls. Simple as that. We wanted to reclaim that space for citizens. We wanted to beautify the city, to change its face,” he continues.
And so, they did. Together with a team of ten young men and women, they stood in the middle of a road in Kabul, painting their first mural. This was an extraordinary sight for Kabul’s residents.
“Every person passing by was looking at us. At the beginning they were telling us this was a foreigner’s project. But we engaged with people, we invited them to paint with us,” says Sharifi.
That one mural went viral. It was also one of their most famous murals against corruption, depicting a pair of eyes with the words, “I see you”. It conveyed the social messages that people in Afghanistan cared about: security, peace, anti-corruption, violence against women, and justice.
And with that first mural, ArtLords came together.
“From that moment, we realized that the city - with all of its walls - was an open canvas for us”.
By planting seeds of doubt, the murals are forcing Afghans to ask themselves potentially difficult questions and to actively engage in the world that surrounds them. They are a tool for social change, explains Sharifi, a medium through which ordinary citizens can raise their voices.
“From that moment, we realized that the city - with all of its walls - was an open canvas for us”
One particular mural stands out for Sharifi. Right after the Afghan forces retook Kunduz from the Taliban last year, ArtLords went to the province, engaged the local community, and painted a mural of a soldier on the T-Walls of the NDS Directorate in the center of the city. The mural was meant to send a message to the Taliban, saying “we are here, we are not afraid of you, and we will not let you win easily.”
Since 2014, ArtLords have taken this message on the road, criss-crossing Afghanistan. From Kandahar to Shindand to Kunduz, the ArtLords team has created over 400 murals in 16 provinces. Sharifi explains that great effort is taken to engage the local community leaders and residents. For each mural they plan, ArtLords first sends an organizing team to the province to engage the elders, the youth, the community activists and the artists that may be part of that community.
And the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Out of 400 murals, it is quite extraordinary that none of them have been defaced or destroyed in any part of the country.
“This is because we have given the ownership back to the people,” explains Sharifi, “…it’s their own work, their own voice. They all came together to do this mural. They paint, they brush, they feel empowered to start their own initiatives.”
Out of 400 murals, it is quite extraordinary that none of them have been defaced or destroyed in any part of the country.
By creating this space for expression, ArtLords has become a kind of hub for young artists and activists in Afghanistan. Over the past four years, they have trained over 100 artists in the technique of murals and graffiti and have hired 34 of them. Sharifi explains that their office and gallery in Kabul, in the heart of the city, is open to everyone. “Every single day, we have people coming into the office and using our space for meetings,” he states.
In speaking with Sharifi, you can sense that art and activism are as seamlessly combined in his thinking as they are in the mission of ArtLords itself. The message of hope ArtLords delivers to many Afghans is loud, clear and impactful only because accountability and agency are an integral part of that message. When the local community comes together to paint a mural, they work towards a shared, and transformative, goal - changing both the physical and political landscape of their city and their country.
“[Young people] have to start from their communities, from their streets, from their districts and do something, whether it’s cleaning their cities or organizing workshops, whatever it is,” Sharifi emphatically states. “Afghanistan is our responsibility and we have to stand up and show that we can take charge. We are people with integrity, we are honest and we are hard working."
Sharifi applies his views on integrity and hard work in how he and his partner, Kabir Mokamel, build and grow the organization. From the start, they decided to not accept any money from the government. Instead, they used their own money and resources in addition to receiving small donations here and there. Now, they are at a critical stage, with an office, a gallery and a team of employees who are dependent on their salaries. Evolving their financial model, they are open to getting commissions and have turned part of their website into an e-commerce shop, selling prints of their work. People still come to them asking to fund an entire campaign, but Sharifi, cautious and vigilant about the organization’s independence, refuses the money.
For him, success takes many different forms. While he hopes to unite Afghans and close the gap of mistrust that has been growing over the decades, he also wants to create a different narrative of Afghanistan outside the country.
“When I go out there, people are no longer just asking questions about drugs, corruption or violence. They are starting to ask about art and culture, and they now know that there is another side to Afghanistan.”
Sharifi is hopeful that his generation will succeed where previous generations failed.
“We are a very tough and resilient generation with so many challenges of course. But I think we will succeed. If not for us, then for our kids, for the next generation. I hope my kids will not say that my dad failed to do something for this country. I hope my generation is the one that can leave a lasting impact on the country.”
"I hope my kids will not say that my dad failed to do something for this country. I hope my generation is the one that can leave a lasting impact on the country”
A kid from Afghanistan, who began working at the age of 12 selling cigarettes and cookies on the streets of Kabul, co-founded an award-winning arts organization, transformed and beautified neighborhoods throughout Afghanistan and has exhibited in countries across the world, from Germany to Australia and the US. At just 31 years of age, Sharifi has already left an indelible mark in Afghanistan and globally, and we look forward to seeing what’s next for ArtLords.