Afghan art has flourished for 20 years. Can the new Taliban regime survive?

On the day Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled and handed over the country to the Taliban, Omaid Sharifi was in central Kabul and helped his colleagues paint frescoes on the wall of the governor’s office. By noon, panicked employees in nearby government buildings were flooding the streets, some jumping into cars, others turning bicycles or running home or to the airport.

Sharifi, 36, decided to leave his work unfinished and asked his colleagues to pack their painting tools and head to the office.

The Taliban captured the country’s capital a few hours later. Mr Sharifi remained at home for one week until he and his family were evacuated to the United Arab Emirates on 22 August.

Since The return of the Taliban to power, hundreds of artists – actors, comedians, singers, musicians and painters – have fled Afghanistan, according to estimates provided by The New York Times for several. Some have settled in the United States, France or Germany, while others are waiting in third countries and are not sure where they will be allowed to live long.

Most left because they feared for their lives; others simply did not see a future in the country and were convinced that they would not be able to continue with the art and feeding of their families.

Under the new government, there was a coordinated campaign to remove works of art from all aspects of life in order to make society more Islamic, said the Taliban. With this, the group erases two decades of craftsmanship that flourished after the collapse of its first government in 2001.

The Taliban closed music schools and covered up public murals. Radio and television networks stopped broadcasting songs, as well as music and comedy shows. The production of Afghan films has stopped almost completely.

“The future of art and culture seems bleak,” said Mr. Sharifi of Virginia, where he and his family have moved. “The Taliban can’t live with art.”

It lasted more than seven years ArtLordsThe organization, led by Mr. Sharifi, painted about 2,200 murals in Kabul and elsewhere in the country, mostly on walls promoting, among other things, messages of peace, human rights and gender equality.

But the Taliban branded these colorful frescoes as propaganda by the previous government. Less than three months after taking power, most of them were covered in white and replaced with religious poetry or pro-Taliban messages.

“It’s like losing a child. I feel like a part of my body has been cut off, ”Mr Sharifi said. “We painted under the scorching sun and in the cold winter. They threatened us with a gun, but we continued painting. “

The Taliban have not officially imposed any restrictions across the country on artistic activities. However, they have also not shown that their government will allow art as a form of free expression in the society they want to lead, and their actions so far predict an uncertain future for thousands of artists.

The Taliban “believe that art is a path to corruption and depravity in society,” said Samiullah Nabipour, a former dean of the School of Fine Arts at Kabul University. Mr Nabipour said he had been hiding in fear for two months before he and his family were evacuated last week.

“Taliban ideology is against art,” he added.

But the Taliban have denied this, saying their government will not oppose art until it violates Islamic law.

“We will define the status and position of music and art when the Islamic system is fully formed,” Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s chief spokesman, told The Times. “Everything that is forbidden in Islam will be dealt with on the basis of Islamic teachings, and we will oppose them.”

Afghan artists fear that the Taliban’s harsh interpretation of Islam means that almost all art forms except calligraphy, religious poetry and certain literature will be banned.

Mr Mujahid told The Times after the August Taliban takeover that they believe music is “forbidden” in Islam, but that they hope to persuade people not to listen to it instead of forcing them.

Even before the Taliban returned to power, the lives of Afghan artists were not easy. They have faced constant harassment, threats and intimidation by conservative, hardline clerics and their followers, and even rebel groups – not to mention the struggle for a steady income borne by artists around the world. Because the Taliban are in power, those who are still in the country believe their lives and careers are now in danger.

After the fall of Kabul, some artists hid all the works they created or owned. Others were so frightened that they destroyed their paintings, sculptures or musical instruments.

“I’ve erased all my music and songs from my phone and I’m trying to stop talking about music,” said Habibullah Shabab, a popular singer from southern Afghanistan who was a contestant on the “Afghan Star,” a singing show similar to “American Idol”. . ”

“When I am alone and listening to my songs, my previous videos and memories, I cry loudly in my heart where I was before and where I am now,” he added.

Mr. Shabab now runs a vegetable stall to feed his family of nine.

The Taliban banned music and movies when they ran the country in the 1990s, and severely punished those caught violating the ban. Other forms of artistic activity or entertainment were also prohibited. they blew up two iconic Buddha statues in the central province of Bamiyan, carved into the mountain in the sixth century, and smashed thousands of smaller sculptures.

But after their first regime was overthrown by a U.S.-led invasion, arts and entertainment experienced a dramatic renaissance, most of which was funded by international donors. Production companies began producing movies and television series, and a new generation of comedians and singers became famous and entertained millions. Graffiti art, which did not exist in Afghanistan before 2001, flourished in urban areas.

Afghan artists have criticized the bloody Taliban insurgency. Comedians sang militants on television networks, painters expressed disgust at the way the attacks were carried out, and musicians sang songs against the Taliban.

Now, seemingly overnight, the art scene has disappeared and many fear the new government will punish them for their critical views.

Upon entering Kabul in August, the Taliban promised greater tolerance and freedom. But on Saturday, Taliban fighters stormed a wedding celebration in eastern Nangarhar and killed three people for playing music, according to witnesses. The Taliban confirmed the attack, but condemned the armed attackers and said they had been detained.

Artists have not forgotten the Taliban’s long history of such attacks. “The roots of art dried up when the Taliban came to power in the 1990s,” said Roya Sadat, a multi-award winning Afghan filmmaker.

Ms. Sadat visited the United States on a business trip in May, but was unable to return to Afghanistan due to deteriorating security. Works on a screenplay for a film about the political activities of Afghan women in the 1960s; the original plan was filmed in Afghanistan and is now looking for other locations.

“It is sad to see the future of a country without art and artists,” Ms. Sadat said.

Whether such artists can continue their work in new countries is another open question.

Some say they are optimistic that they can compete in the markets of their new countries. Mr Sharifi said he had already registered ArtLords as a charity and limited liability company in Virginia. Ms. Sadat said she works on films, including a documentary, and directs a show for the Seattle Opera.

Many artists continue to work on unfinished projects for organizations they have hired in Afghanistan. Others were sponsored by universities or nonprofits to participate in short-term programs, just to get them out of the country to safety. But what awaits them after the end of these projects is unknown.

Mr Nabipour, a former dean of fine arts, said he was invited by the Harvard University’s program in art, film and visual studies to work as an assistant professor of research for 10 months.

“I have no idea what to do or what can happen after 10 months,” he said. “I’m really worried about that.”

Ruhullah Khapalwak and Sami Sahak contributed to the reporting.

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