ArtLords is a grassroots movement of artists and volunteers employing the soft power of arts and culture to promote a message of peace and social transformation in Afghanistan. As the first organisation to start mural painting in Kabul, they are transforming the somber appearance of blast walls into a positive visual experience. By expressing a clear commentary on socially relevant themes such as anti-corruption and women’s rights messages, as well as commemorating activists killed in the conflict, ArtLords provides a platform for open dialogue among ordinary people on the streets of Kabul. Their name alone, “ArtLords,” is an ironic challenge to the warlords and drug lords who wield so much power in Afghanistan. ArtLords is registered as a commercial entity which runs a popular café in Kabul serving 500 customers daily, an arts and culture magazine distributed throughout the country, and an online art gallery where they sell paintings by Afghan artists. They also registered a non-profit that collects donations to support and resettle Afghanistan’s artists and activists who are forced to leave their homes.
Theory of Change
Art as a form of activism has the power to provoke enhanced awareness of social issues, promote open dialogue, and connect young leaders together in a movement for change.
The worsening security situation and countless attacks in Kabul have led to the construction of large concrete barriers all over the capital, known as blast walls. Their purpose is to block off and shelter diplomatic and governmental buildings from suicide bomb attacks. ArtLords has transformed these city walls into public canvases for social issues. They started with an award-winning series of murals which kicked-off a joint anti-corruption campaign “I See You” in 2014. Some of their further work has been commissioned by UN agencies and embassies to raise awareness about the development agenda, while other independent pieces are aimed at stirring political debate around topics such as corruption and the peace process. ArtLords’ initiatives include collecting letters from Afghani citizens and stories from the field in order to encourage people to hold authorities accountable and to make sure civil society organizations are aligned with local-level realities. Their newest initiative, “Let’s Talk Peace,” promotes empathy and tolerance by connecting youth leaders that have been isolated from one another during the conflict, and making them active participants in the peace process. In July 2021, ArtLords conducted an online workshop for artists, civil society activists and human rights defenders in the South Asia region to share their experiences in reclaiming civic space and promoting social change.
Since its founding, ArtLords has painted more than 2,000 blast-wall murals in 19 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The movement has grown to 53 employees and artists, with offices in seven Afghan provinces. The government of Afghanistan also recently presented a large ArtLords-commissioned painting to the United Nations Secretary-General. Their painting now hangs in the conference building of the UN headquarters in New York, representing the hope for a peaceful Afghanistan for its people. They have grown quickly in size and notoriety, with features in numerous international news outlets. With an internationally recognized platform, they have become steadfast partners in the country’s peace process.