Afghanistan’s Art Imprisoned by Taliban: Hands of Despair Paint Beauty

By: Behnia

As the Republic regime falls, the Taliban seize control over every sector, including the vibrant world of art. Once adorned with colorful peace and freedom paintings by artist Adrina and her friends, the walls of Kabul now bear the harsh slogans of imprisonment by the Taliban, suffocating the soul of the city. For years, Pul-e Surkh in Kabul was an artist’s paradise, with galleries showcasing seven-colored designs at every turn. However, out of fear, these galleries have been closed, and the majority of the artworks have been destroyed. The flourishing art scene, a symbol of hope after years of war-torn existence, has been forced to flee yet again, as artists pack their bags and depart.

Adrina(pseudonym), a 22-year-old who studied graphic design student in Kabul, had always strived to elevate and introduce art to people. She had recently joined several artistic groups and was working with them when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. On her first day of work, the Republic regime fell, and the Taliban seized control. With their disdain for art, they suffocated the life out of Afghanistan’s artistic community, leaving Adrina and others lost amidst the difficulties of life under their rule. The vibrant creative spirit of the country was silenced, leaving behind a void of expression and a feeling of hopelessness.

Adrina had a passion for art since her childhood, always striving to showcase its beauty in a country where it was once considered a sin. Her goal was to change people’s perception of art and make them understand that it’s the most beautiful creation of God, growing in the hands of humans. Despite opposition from her family, she pursued art and education with unwavering determination.

Despite facing objections, Adrina was determined to pursue her passion for art and joined various artistic groups to further her career. Until the final days of the Republic regime, she and her friends engaged in graffiti painting, beautifying their city and exposing its inhabitants to new forms of art. Adrina familiarized herself with different artistic styles and undertook various projects, including designing, miniature painting, and mandalas. During this time, she was able to instill a love of art in the hearts of the people who welcomed her on a daily basis.

Adrina believed that the future of contemporary art in Afghanistan was bright.

Adrina’s passion for art led her towards creating paintings that depicted hope, peace, happiness, and freedom for her generation, striving to transform the themes of despair, hopelessness, war, and violence into positive messages. Unlike other artists, she chose to draw the smiling and happy faces of people, knowing that her country had endured a lot of pain and suffering. She desired to produce paintings that represented hope, aspirations, and a bright future for her people, and she had worked tirelessly for years to make her ideas a reality.

However, everything she had envisioned for herself and her country was shattered overnight when a group opposed to her and her artistic friends came to power.

The very same group that crushed art two decades ago has returned to power, throwing it into an abyss once again, and extinguishing the hopes of countless artists like Adrina. This anti-art and anti-beauty agenda have shattered Adrina’s dreams and silenced the vibrant world of art. The group has imposed a grey pall over Adrina’s paintings, symbolizing hopelessness and a loss of color. Her once-vibrant canvases are now lifeless ghosts of their former selves.

As Adrina and her friends were discussing a new project at a university in Kabul, news of the group’s return reached them, causing shock and fear to sweep through the room. They quickly decided to hide their artwork, as if they were criminals on the run. After the gathering, Adrina noticed that all of her friends were in hiding as if the group’s return had caused a wave of terror to wash over them, leaving them to seek refuge in their own homes.

In the days following the fall of the Republic regime, most artists abandoned their unfinished works and dreams, fleeing Afghanistan where there was no longer a place for them. Adrina, however, had nowhere to go, so she stayed imprisoned in her own home, following the news of the destruction of her and her friends’ art via social networks. Tears of regret streamed down her face as she realized that the Taliban had destroyed all the hours and days of labor they had put into their work. Adrina couldn’t help but feel depressed as she observed the destruction of all the art, they had worked so hard to produce, and it seemed like she was losing a piece of her soul.

Adrina’s fears were confirmed when she learned that the same group of people who were hostile to art, as warned by her professors, had returned. The scenario of artists going into hiding and art disappearing from the country due to war fatigue, which she believed was essential for refreshing the souls of her compatriots, was unfolding before her eyes. Every day, she received farewell messages from her colleagues who were leaving the country, as they had lost hope in the future of art in Afghanistan. The loss of art, which was formerly seen as a vital component of Afghan culture, felt like a terrible wound that would never heal.

The withered root of hope inside her marks the beginning of a time when shattered dreams dominate her days. Adrina recounts the moment of despair: “When I heard that the Taliban painted over the walls we’d adorned with our art and slogans and replaced them with their own, my heart sank, and I wept uncontrollably. Later, I learned that they destroyed numerous works of art. At that moment, I felt powerless and unable to act as a helpless spectator.”

In just a few days since the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, they have set their sights on the art galleries in the Pul-e Surkh area, where Adrina and her friends used to work. Knowing the Taliban’s hostility towards art, Adrina and her friends had hidden many of their precious artworks out of fear. But their efforts proved futile as the Taliban began inspecting all art galleries in the area, leaving them with no choice but to destroy their creations. With heavy hearts and trembling hands, Adrina and her friends watched as their life’s work went up in flames, a devastating end to their passion and dreams.

Adrina couldn’t bring herself to burn all of the artwork she and her friends had worked so hard on. Together, they decide to bring them home, but the journey is filled with countless obstacles and fears. Adrina carefully packs each piece into a large bag, feeling like a criminal transporting contraband. Every time she encounters a Taliban checkpoint, her heart races with the thought of being caught and punished for creating beauty. She knows that her artwork, which once brought her so much joy, could now be used as evidence against her. But despite the danger, Adrina clings to her hope, determined to preserve her beloved artworks at all costs.

Adrina feels a sense of relief that she managed to save her artwork from being destroyed, unlike many others. However, her happiness is fleeting as she remains constantly gripped by fear. Whenever the Taliban approaches her house, she hastily hides her artwork, like a game of hide-and-seek. Her heart races as she anxiously waits for them to leave, so she can finally bring out her precious creations again.

Danger has arrived at Adrina’s doorstep as the Taliban begin inspecting all the houses in Kabul. Adrina realizes she cannot destroy her artwork this time and entrusts them to the owner of a shop in the area. She laughs bitterly and ridicules herself for hiding just a few paintings and sculptures of examples of painted walls from the city. “Have I committed a crime?” she wonders. Now, her art has become the greatest enemy of her life.

She spends her days cooped up in a house corner, feeling discouraged and devoid of artistic inspiration. The loss of her art has left her mourning her shattered dreams, and she kneels in sorrow, waiting for a new opportunity to arise. However, it seems that good news is nowhere in sight, and hope eludes her.

Following a slight shift in the situation, the Taliban leaders decided to implement restrictions on the effects of painting and sculpting instead of completely banning art. Adrina’s heart was filled with a glimmer of hope upon hearing this news, and she took up her pen and brush once more, determined to continue her art. However, her motivation was not the same as before, and her subjects had changed. The carefree, free, and smiling faces that once filled her artistic view of Afghanistan were no longer present, replaced by a country stripped of these qualities.

Adrina, who once urged others to create art that conveyed hope and happiness for the future, and discouraged depictions of sadness, confinement, and the dangers of war and destruction, has now found herself creating such works after losing her previous subjects. It is a stark contrast to her earlier beliefs and a reflection of the bleak reality she faces. Yet, she continues to create, driven by a desire to capture the true essence of life in Afghanistan.

As two years of Taliban rule pass and art becomes increasingly isolated, Adrina’s hands reluctantly depict images of women, men, and children with forced smiles on the bustling streets of Kabul. Despite her previous desire to create works of hope and happiness, Adrina now feels compelled to portray the sadness, despair, poverty, and confinement experienced by women. Her brush strokes, once light and joyful, now carry the weight of the city’s struggles as she seeks to bear witness to the harsh realities of life under Taliban rule.