Afghan street artists haunt warlords with graffiti drive

Allison Jackson –
For days Hamida Barmaki’s smiling face stared out over traffic in Kabul, painted in a towering mural near the home of the warlord blamed for her death, until it was mysteriously covered over in white. The short-lived image on a concrete blast wall marked the beginning of a provocative campaign by social activist group ArtLords, whose artists are calling out Afghanistan’s most powerful by depicting people killed by warlords in giant murals in public places.
They have been threatened on social media, branded infidels and told by gunmen to stop painting — but are unrepentant.
“This was a warning shot to everyone that we will not let you sleep at night, we will come after you, we will paint in front of your homes,” ArtLords co-founder and president Omaid Sharifi said.
Rather than seek justice for the countless victims, the group hopes to pressure warlords to acknowledge their past actions and apologise, said Sharifi, 31.
Barmaki’s portrait was near the home of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the most notorious warlords in Afghanistan’s history.
His group claimed involvement in the 2011 suicide attack on a Kabul supermarket that killed Barmaki — a prominent law professor and human rights activist — as well as her husband and their four children.
Hekmatyar, whose spokesman declined to comment on the mural, is one of several infamous warlords whom Kabul has sought to reintegrate into the mainstream political system in the post-Taliban era.
Other such figures include General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a powerful ethnic Uzbek linked to multiple human rights abuses in Afghanistan who is now the country’s first vice president, and Atta Mohammad Noor, the former governor of Balkh province.
The murals will put faces to the victims, Sharifi says, and send a message to warlords that “we have not forgotten… what they did in this country”.
Over the past four years ArtLords has turned Kabul’s grey maze of concrete barricades into a canvas to tackle issues such as rampant corruption and abuse of power.
They have painted more than 400 murals on blast walls and other prominent places in around half of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
The mural of Barmaki has changed the “narrative of street art in Afghanistan” and people are now recognising art as a “powerful tool” for social change, he said. It has also galvanised socially conscious artists around the country to use street art to send “harsh messages to these people”.
Now ArtLords is compiling a list of warlords and of people allegedly killed by them, who will be the faces of the next murals. —AFP