"I CAN go through anything, but I will not surrender my voice.”

Picture the scene, writes Alison Phipps. Your paints are all you have as the city of Kabul falls into Taliban control. As a leader, you organise art materials for the work which has been the day-to-day activity of the ArtLords of Afghanistan since 2014. You gather people to paint murals as a public witness. You know the eyes of the world are upon you. You know peace, fragile as it was, is over and the future is dangerous and uncertain for those who wish to continue to express themselves freely.

In the most adverse of circumstances those who are leaders, who organise and who insist on never allowing their voices to be silenced, can share messages which reach far and wide and affect great change.

The National:

Omaid Sharifi is director of ArtLords, a ‘global grassroots movement of artivists’

I’ve been following Sharifi Omaid’s work for several years now and in April 2021 we did a podcast together about the ArtLords and the work of peace and conflict transformation that he has directed in Afghanistan since 2014.

ArtLords is a “global grassroots movement of artivists motivated by the desire to pave the way for social transformation and behavioural change through employing the soft power of art and culture as a non-intrusive approach”.

Using art for conflict transformation and bringing colour to the grey barriers and blast walls in the city, and with leadership focused on transformation change for peace, Omaid succeeded in enabling an environment in Kabul where, despite dangers, freedom of expression was possible for many artists and ordinary citizens together.

The fall of Kabul to the Taliban last month saw the ArtLords painting murals as the city fell. The work of the ArtLords is now continuing from exile, with a focus on ensuring freedom of expression in refugee camps and on the trauma-healing potential of freedom of expression.

The National:

Fast forward 10 days and I am running around Glasgow looking for a print shop that can print and laminate some of the images from the ArtLords. I haven’t had to print anything since March 2020. But this is important. The order gets managed via smartcode, the scanning reality of physically distanced orders, and when I look inside the envelope there are the wrong images and the wrong number.

WE sort it out and I can then also set up a projector, which of course takes half an hour to work out that it does indeed want to talk to my laptop and with the help of a couple of kindly audience tech wizards we are able to project the ArtLord images shared with me by Omaid on to the walls of the Memorial Chapel of the University of Glasgow.

Meanwhile, as I proliferate the images, the new Taliban regime has begun painting over the murals produced by the ArtLords in Afghanistan. Vibrant, colourful images of women are literally being rendered invisible. Beautiful big hearts taking out of the ribcage of the city of Kabul as we sit waiting for the silence and the sound of our own pulse to be heard in the singular silence of the vaulted chapel.

A few words from two Afghan poets are spoken as the vigil begins, a little soft music played on a live instrument.

Human beings are part of one another – they are created from one gem – when a part feels pain through challenges of time – the other parts will not remain calm.

Saadi Shirazi (from Farsi)

Be humble, lower down your head to the ground and only then you will begin to understand the secrets of the universe – Look to the stars to understand your world – Shed some tears to feel the real laughter – Leave the material world behind to feel the real world.

Ghani Khan, son of the first Pashton non-violent movement leader (from Pashtu)

A candle is lit.

Bring light. Bring light.

The silence settles.

Sometimes we have no words.

Sometimes we just need to cease our wrestling with words and the wretchedness of it all and offer up our helplessness, our collective bewilderment, our absolute defeat until the hope can be strong enough to indeed be a thing with feathers, and fly. Sometimes all we have is our love for those suffering and rebuilding their lives in other places, if they have been lucky enough to do this.

The image, projected on walls built as a memorial to those who died in the carnage of the First World War, holds our gaze.

And the image we gaze upon gazes back. “I see you and I will not forget,” say the eyes from the mural.

This image was painted by the ArtLords team and passers-by as a tribute to the 90 female students killed in a bomb blast in their school in Kabul. It says: “I see you and I will not forget.”

The National:

OMAID writes: “The working conditions for artists, members of civil society of Afghanistan and organisations like ArtLords was not easy in the last 20 years. We worked under constant fear. When we were going out of our houses in the morning, we were not sure we are coming back alive. We would change our routes, our vehicles and the places where we were sleeping. We still lost many artists, journalist and activists including three members of ArtLords who all were brutally killed in explosions.

“We also faced the threat of kidnapping, suicide attacks, harassment, and corruption at the highest level of the government of Afghanistan.

Going through the incompetence, arrogance and corruption of the international community and our partners was also part of our daily life.

“There were days we would receive hate messages and be labelled as Kabul elite. We consistently battled and lived with our friends’ and partners’ anger, hatred, rumours and jealousy. It was a toxic environment.

“But some space like ArtLords was a blessing for the city. It provided that shelter from hatred, anger and rumours. It provided the place to heal, relax and take a moment for yourself and enjoy. Despite all of this, we loved our work.”

The work of turning the brokenness and hopelessness of war into something beautiful, life-giving and whole is the work of peace-makers worldwide. It’s not some gentle task. It’s not peace as tranquillity. It’s an epic struggle needing every fibre of the being.

For Omaid this means he had to have the intelligent presence of mind and clear, brave understanding of conflict. It means he knew that on a day redolent with symbolism, the day Kabul fell to the Taliban, he must paint, with others, and he must do that life-bringing work of art.

His is an astonishing testimony to his courage and leadership of the ArtLords. It is a beautiful shout against horror. It is anger, fear, disappointment and something more, something of the human spirit that is forever undefeatable. This quality and its communication in the worst of times by artistic means is the work of the true artist, worthy of that name. The point is not to make money from art, the point is to heal and bring peace.

“We never ever dreamed of giving up. We had consciously decided to do this work. We knew that we had to do our part. It was our country and our responsibility.

“We felt the pain and suffering of our people and we aimed to help where we could with our art gallery, art therapy sessions, music concerts and our joint public murals. But with Taliban in control in Kabul, they have taken away my freedom of expression. They are taking away my voice.

“I can go through anything, but I will not surrender my voice.”

If you want to be part of supporting ArtLords’ ongoing work in refugee camps please do give generously to their crowd funder.


Omaid Sharifi is an award-winning artist and director of ArtLords, now living in exile.

Alison Phipps is Unesco chair for refugee integration through languages and the arts and principal investigator for CUSP: Cultures of Sustainable Peace, a project being cut by 70% by the UK Government as part of its aid cut.