In August 2021, the United States commenced its withdrawal from Afghanistan after two decades of occupation. The heartbreaking photos and videos that surfaced online exemplified the chaos long forced onto poor and working-class families. Within a few weeks, the Taliban regained control over every major city in the country, leading critics to wonder what we were really doing there all along. Since then, mainstream media has moved on and the Bush Doctrine persists unscathed, but hundreds of thousands of everyday people remain in a long-term state of displacement.
For Afghan artists, these developments were hardly sudden. Since 2019, many have fled the country for fear of persecution, recalling the Taliban’s reputation for banning non-religious art, looting the national museum, and executing performers. This dilemma is at the heart of the online exhibition Before Silence, curated by Art at a Time Like This and PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection. Nine contemporary artists ruminate on their plight as refugees with targets on their backs.
Some of the most crushing images from the withdrawal showed crowds gathered at the Kabul airport. Naseer Turkmani’s photo story Khuda Hafiz, May God Be With You (2021) presents one such scene. A US soldier stands on an elevated ledge above a divided sea of people; accompanying text alludes to the presence of writers, painters, actors, and photographers. Turkmani notes that explosions tore through these crowds and killed 90 people just two days later. Afghan life thus becomes more fragile under American oversight, with a thin canal between the crowds symbolizing a shallow sense of protection.
Border imperialism has left the immigration process steeped in bureaucracy worldwide, slowing visa applications and forcing refugees into detention centers. Due to Western propaganda against Afghanistan, migrants often don different identities to avoid orientalist stereotyping. In her photo series Tell Me Who I Am (2018), Shamayel Shalizi snapped several self-portraits in costumes, which gesture to strangers’ absurd interpretations of her identity. Shalizi appears as a suicide bomber, a soldier in camo, a mafia wife in velour, and an underwear model, among others. Despite her adept disguises, her arm tattoo of a woman carrying a black flag remains a dead giveaway to her radical politics.
In recent years, collective art-making practices have emerged as a protective measure against identification and persecution. Grassroots group ArtLords promotes socially engaged street art in the style of Banksy, leading protest demonstrations, hosting group performances, and painting murals on barricades around cultural sites targeted for terrorist attacks. In the last year, three members were killed by an improvised explosive device, and surviving members have lived under constant threat from the Taliban even during occupation — all while struggling with the US-backed Afghan government. Their graphic designs point to omnipresent geopolitical tensions, from a flag indicating that the Taliban was “Made in Pakistan” to a photograph of the Twin Towers with Arabic scrawled across them.
Rada Akbar’s video of an “exhibition” for murdered artists, journalists, and activists speaks to the meaning of political freedom under a heteropatriarchal order. “The world no longer seems to be shaken as our human bodies collapse one after one,” she announces to a room of empty chairs, as if into the void. “Our stories are denied by the same people who came here to fight terrorism and claimed they would save Afghan women.” True enough, the cable news storm promoting feminism in Afghanistan briefly captured the hearts of Americans, yet it disappeared from these channels just as quickly. Considering all we know about US and NATO efforts to dismantle Afghan self-determination, any official admission of error would be meaningful to Afghans and Americans alike. For now, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney remain heralded as patriarchs of liberal democracy.
Before Silence: Afghan Artists in Exile is on view online. The exhibition was curated by Art at a Time Like This and Artists at Risk Connection.