Heroes of My City: The Afghan Art Collective Using Street Art to Highlight Social Problems

street sweepers

Afghanistan has been plagued by war for almost 40 years. Kabir Mokamel, a Graphic designer who spent part of his life in Australia, has returned to Kabul with the intention of cultivating a return to the pre-conflict values he remembers before fleeing war.

Together with 3 friends he founded “Art Lords”, a collective which uses street art as a way to highlight Afghan social problems. Isolation and urban segregation can be seen in the capital, where concrete walls protect government buildings, international organisations, businesses and embassies from exploding bombs. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens just walk around the streets of the city, observing how a few are safe inside those blast walls.

1rst muralArt Lords found an opportunity to transform not only their city but the mentality of its residents. How do Kabul residents think about themselves, their surroundings and their future? Art Lords place their messages on urban divisor elements of the city, such as concrete walls, promoting a dialogue between their artwork and society. Omaid Sharifi, one of the founders of Art Lords, explains in this interview that they started painting the walls of the Education Ministry to send a direct message about anti-corruption. As graffiti is very rare in Kabul, people were interested in what they were doing:

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.

Their latest project is called “Heroes of my city”, honouring ordinary people such as nurses and teachers – hardworking people who are not corrupt and keep the city going. An impressive stencilled image shows street sweepers next to large black letters saying “heroes of my city: the street sweepers”. This mural is located on a concrete wall surrounding Afghanistan’s secret service headquarters in Kabul. Kabir says:

Throughout the history of Afghanistan, it’s all about the people who fought, who have swords, who have guns. We want to include something else, like the people who take part in the betterment of the city and of our lives. It moves people away from the mentality of war and conflict.

Although all their projects are self-funded, Art Lords are willing to cover more than 50 walls around the city despite not wanting any donations from organisations or governments. They have plans to invite international graffiti artists although they are aware some won’t risk their life because of security concerns. To overcomer this, they offer international artists the opportunity to donate a design for Kabul volunteers to paint.

They know the project is ambitious but they strongly believe Art Lords’ messages move people away from the mentality of war. This is what matters to them now.

Tere García Alcaraz is an architect and development practitioner from Barcelona, with research and working experience in Ecuador, Venezuela, Spain and the UK. She lives in London.