Forget warlords – meet Afghanistan's 'Art Lords'

All photos courtesy of 'Art Lords'.
All photos courtesy of 'Art Lords'.


They’re all over Kabul – big concrete blast walls, meant to protect government buildings and other important sites from exploding bombs. Lately, some of them have been adorned with giant, watchful eyes and the inscription: “We’re watching you.”

The images are the work of three friends who call themselves the 'Art Lords' and with the help of passersby, they have painted dozens of murals on blast walls across the Afghan capital.

“We made it very simple, so that passersby could join in and paint”

Omaid Sharifi is one of the project’s founders.

When you hear about Afghanistan, you hear so much about warlords. So we thought, we’ll be the positive lords!

Our government, international organisations, and all of Afghanistan’s powerful people have made themselves safe inside these blast walls. Ordinary citizens, meanwhile, walk around the streets and see these ugly walls everywhere, walls that don’t protect them. For us, Kabul looks like a prison. So we decided we could at least put some colours on these walls, and at the same time, try to get some messages across.

We first started with the anti-corruption mural, which we painted on the blast walls of the presidential palace, the spy agency, and the education ministry. The first two spots we chose for their prime locations, but we chose the education ministry to send a direct message, as it’s been plagued by corruption cases. International funding was allocated to fake schools and ghost teachers, while the money ended up in officials’ pockets.

Graffiti is very rare in Kabul. So at first, people were perplexed. Some would try to talk to us in English, thinking we must be foreigners. When we explained what we were doing, they were ecstatic. We handed them paintbrushes, and asked them to help us fill in the mural, which we had purposefully drawn like a fill-in-the-numbers painting. Many were shy, saying they had never held a brush before, but once they started, there was no stopping them! Kids, labourers, police officers, guys on their way to the mosque – all sorts of citizens joined in. Seeing their faces, it was something else! They were laughing, giddy, yet very concentrated on their task… I think it made them forget the constant violence, the never-ending attacks.

It’s no surprise the artists chose corruption as their first theme: it is a huge problem in Afghanistan, which Transparency International ranks as one of the world’s most corrupt countries (in it's 2014 index, the country was ranked 172nd out of 175 countries). This spans from petty corruption of city workers all the way up to the highest levels of government. Just this week, the US State Department announced that it had stopped funding training for Afghanistan’s ministry of refugees due to “chronic corruption”. The country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, recently called for a “holy war” against corruption, describing it as a “cancerous legion” threatening the survival of the state.

Omaid, who is also part of a grassroots organisation called the People’s Movement Against Corruption, says that while change must come from the top, citizens are not completely powerless.

We encourage all citizens to name and shame. Take videos, photos, and send them to our movement… Thanks to this proof, we then publicly denounce corrupt officials on social media and through the media. We’ve gotten some fired, or in some cases at least demoted, thanks to this tactic. It’s not all negative, though – we also try to “name and fame”, that is, highlight those who are actually doing their jobs well!

The Art Lords have also started another series of murals:

Our latest project is called "heroes of my city”. Our idea is to showcase everyday heroes. In Afghanistan’s constitution, we have an official hero, Ahmed Shah Massoud [a legendary fighter who was killed by the Taliban in 2001]. Each tribe and ethnic group also has their own heroes, and they’re all fighters. It seems all the men heralded as heroes in our country use guns, so we wanted to show a different narrative. We first painted municipal workers, who get up at 5 am to sweep the streets of our city. Some car washers in the street liked it so much that they left their jobs and spent all day painting these sweepers.

We’re also going to highlight good nurses, good teachers, good independent journalists - people who are peaceful, hardworking, and not corrupt – they’re the ones who are keeping our country going.

All in all, the artists hope to paint 50 murals across the city. They’re self-funded, and don’t accept donations from any organisations or from abroad. However, they do hope that international artists will offer to paint with them – or, alternatively, to donate their designs for the Afghan artists to paint.

This Banksy-inspired mural, also by the Art Lords, is part of a third series centered around the theme of hearts, which our Observer says is meant to represent the love of Afghans for their country.