Guest Writer: Jennifer Glasse / Source Al Jazeera
His plan is to make Kabul the graffiti capital of the world, one mural at a time. It won’t be an easy task; there are kilometres of blast walls in the Afghan capital, symbols of the perilous security here.
Artist Kabir Mokamel and a group of supporters have started the project with their own money.
“Our first goal is to contribute something to beautify Kabul,” he explains. “Plus, Kabul has all of these blast walls, and they look extremely ugly.
“Psychologically, when I come into Kabul I feel under siege. So we’re painting some strategic pieces of art in order to educate the public.
“When you put a picture on a wall, the wall disappears and you are in a new space, that’s very important for me.”
The first piece Mokamel and the volunteers painted is a giant pair of women’s eyes, brown, piercing.
The message, against a bright yellow background, reads: “I’m watching you. Corruption is not hidden from God or the people’s eyes.”
Another piece features Afghans toting hearts in a wheelbarrow, and a heart with a band aid across it. “It’s about healing the wounds of the country,” Mokamel explains.
We arrive as Mokamel is starting a new series “Heroes of my City,” to celebrate everyday people as heroes. When we first get there, the mural doesn’t look like much – a few bits of colour on the white wall. “It’s a complicated piece, it has 32 colours, the anti-corruption one had only nine,” the artist says.To make the outline of the piece, the painting of three street sweepers has been projected on the wall and drawn in pencil. Mokamel, his volunteers and anyone who would like to participate may help paint it.
Children who usually beg among the busy Pashtunistan square traffic come over to see what’s happening. Soon, painter Maryam Kohi is talking to a young boy then hands him a paintbrush. She has worked on several of the murals, despite recent car bombs that have many Afghans concerned about security. Mokamel and his volunteers worked several hours in mornings and evenings, but security concerns halted painting for several days
“All people are living in fear so with this Art, we can change the look of the city, and give a message of peace to the people and a message of acceptance of each other,” Kohi says.
Mohammad Nabi, an old man who was walking by, paints text about ordinary heroes, alongside a policeman who has also accepted a paint brush from Mokamel.
This is what the artist wants, to bring people together.
“They are just passers-by, they’re curious about what we are doing. Sometimes they have a bit of apprehension and we just invite them to come and paint,” Mokamel says.
“They always say they have never painted in their life, we say, just try it, and then they do and some come back the next day.”
Accidental painter Nabi says his few minutes at the wall have made him feel patriotic, that he’s helped do something to make the city clean, to show that he loves Afghans and Afghanistan.
“People get messages through these paintings, and godwilling everyone, our children become educated and understand these things,” Nabi says.
“Even people who have no education can understand the message when they see this.”
That’s another of Mokamel’s goals with his paintings, to create what he calls visual literacy. Many Afghans cannot read or write. He wants to use art to simplify the many complications of Afghan life.
“For me the metaphor is we have a lot of problems in Afghanistan very complex problems, being it economical, being it social, or political,” he says.
“What we want to do is to show them through these simple paintings, block colors, is that you can actually break down these complex things into elements, and then you can pull them apart and put them together to make something new.”
His painting of street sweepers is complex, with many tiny areas for the 32 colours. It takes him and his volunteers longer than he thought it would to complete – about two weeks. They worked several hours in mornings and evenings, but security concerns halted painting for several days after car bombs and other attacks had the people of Kabul on edge. The street sweeper painting is the first in the series honouring ordinary Afghans.
“We want to shift the paradigm of heroism in Afghanistan,” Mokamel says. “It has always been heroes with guns or with swords, you know?
“So we want to celebrate the people that we see every day who are working on the street.”
Other murals will be of boys and girls going to school, and an old man on a bicycle, a hero for not adding to Kabul’s pollution and traffic.
Afghan contributions only
Mokamel does not want any international or government aid money. He would like to complete this project with money donated by regular Afghans. That way it’s their project, he says. International money hasn’t been well allocated. “For example, a lot of money was spent on anti-corruption campaigns, more than $700m,” he says. “But you see corruption is actually increasing, not decreasing. There should be initiative from the people and for the people to start combating these things.”
Mokamel hopes the project will get even bigger. He plans to invite international graffiti artists to Kabul to paint their works. If they don’t want to come because of security or other reasons, then he will ask them to donate their designs for his volunteers to paint. He knows it’s an ambitious project, but he hopes it will help change the way the world sees Afghanistan.
“It’s time for Afghanistan and for the world to contribute something else other than weapons and war,” Mokamel says. “We have been through war for the past 36 years, it’s really time to give art and artists a chance.”