“I don’t know peace. I grew up in war. Peace for us in Afghanistan … we really don’t know what this word ‘peace’ means.” –Omaid Sharifi, cofounder of the Kabul-based ArtLords

An ArtLords’ painting on display at a USIP-hosted showing, January 28, 2020. The Kabul-based organization combines art and activism to enact social change in Afghanistan.
An ArtLords’ painting on display at a USIP-hosted showing, January 28, 2020. The Kabul-based organization combines art and activism to enact social change in Afghanistan.

For an entire generation of Afghans, peace remains an idea—something they overwhelmingly desire, yet few have actually experienced. With reports that a U.S.-Taliban deal is expected by the end of February, there is newfound hope that the violence may come to an end. Experts say the political roadmap laid out by the U.S. negotiating team, while fraught with challenges, offers a “massive opportunity” for ending America’s longest war and nearly four decades of continuous conflict in Afghanistan. 

But while potential intra-Afghan negotiations will aim to hammer out the parameters of a unified Afghan state, the task of healing Afghan society remains. Living in a conflict zone has warped many Afghans’ daily routines and fomented fear and distrust within communities. For the national peace process to succeed, Afghans will need to create a vision of peace that replaces the role that violence currently plays in their daily lives.

Artlords Painting

ArtLords: Reimagining Peace

It’s a daunting task, but one that ArtLords has made part of their core mission. The group, founded in 2014 by Omaid Sharifi and Kabir Mokamel, has deemed themselves “artivists”—part artists, part activists advocating for social change. They see artistic expression as a noninvasive way of changing behaviors and attitudes—and discovering what peace looks like.

The organization’s name reimagines the negative stereotype associated with “lords” in Afghanistan, as Kabir and Omaid noted that warlords and drug lords have historically found haven in the country. “We wanted to be the positive lords, the lords that bring empathy, love, and kindness,” said Omaid at a recent USIP event featuring a gallery of the group’s work and a live mural painting where attendees painted collectively. “We wanted to become the voice of the millions that don’t have a voice and a means to speak out.”

Their work encompasses a range of styles, but a major motif involves repurposing symbols associated with conflict. “Our heroes have always been someone with an AK-47, or with a sword, and all of them are men,” said Omaid. “We wanted to have heroes that are women, municipality workers, doctors. Changing the narrative, giving people the opportunity to imagine something different.”

ArtLords cofounders Omaid Sharifi and Kabir Mokamel share their vision for ArtLords and Afghanistan at USIP, January 28, 2020.
ArtLords cofounders Omaid Sharifi and Kabir Mokamel share their vision for ArtLords and Afghanistan at USIP, January 28, 2020.

ArtLords has grown quickly in size and notoriety, with features in Reuters and on BBC. Today, they have an internationally recognized platform, and their commitment has made them steadfast partners in the country’s peace process—something that USIP has come to know firsthand.

USIP and ArtLords have worked together on numerous projects over the years, including an anti-corruption campaign that featured murals in five Afghan provinces and a mural project that dealt with men, peace and security. USIP Senior Program Officer Belquis Ahmadi says the collaboration has been successful in large part due to the group’s “passion to raise awareness about citizens’ responsibility in curbing corruption and their innovative approach,” adding “[ArtLords] made it easy for us to select them as our implementing partner.”

Looking back on their early days, the group admits it’s hard to believe how far they’ve come. “We did not envision ArtLords to be this big,” said Omaid. “As people who had other jobs, responsibilities, families, we wanted just to contribute to some level of solving a problem in our city.”

But their success comes as no surprise to Roya Rahmani, Afghanistan’s first female ambassador to the United States: “Artists, with their abilities to imagine worlds beyond our own and to find beauty even in times of darkness, are natural leaders on our journey towards peace.” 

Artlords Painting

Finding Peace Under Siege

ArtLords currently operates a wide array of programs—including a new initiative called Let’s Talk Afghanistan, which helps promote empathy and tolerance by connecting communities that have been isolated from one another during the conflict.

But the hallmark of ArtLords’ work is the group’s murals. In the last five years, the group has painted over 1,700 murals in 21 provinces across Afghanistan. Omaid and Kabir say the idea stemmed from their desire to push back against the barb wire and blast walls that line the streets of Kabul.

“Mentally, I felt under siege,” said Kabir of the blast walls that have sprung up across the nation’s capital. Omaid noticed a similar effect on his own mental health, saying, “These walls are becoming my interior wall.”

As these physical symbols continued to encroach on public spaces in Kabul, ArtLords decided to paint murals over them. “I imagined if I could put a message or an image on it, the wall will disappear,” said Kabir.

The murals often depict memorials to victims of Afghanistan’s longstanding conflict, as well as messages promoting peace and anti-corruption. But what makes ArtLords’ murals unique is not just that they replace a negative symbol with a positive one—it’s that they serve as a platform for reconnecting communities. ArtLords relies heavily on volunteers, and Omaid says this allows Afghans to rediscover what it feels like to contribute to positive change: “They get a brush and start painting. They ask questions … They want to have a voice in whatever narrative that we are trying to say.”

Artlords Painting

Resistance—Both Present and Future

Omaid and Kabir openly acknowledge that fulfilling ArtLords’ mission is not without risks. Despite their positive message, and Afghans’ overwhelming desire for peace, there are still those who benefit from the violent status quo.

But ArtLords remains unfazed. “These gunmen, they don’t scare us,” said Omaid. “Kabir and I grew up in the same country they grew up in. The only difference is that they have a gun and we got a brush and pen.”

Looming on the horizon are many critical and challenging questions that will need to be addressed in a sustainable peace process, including power sharing, the reintegration of the Taliban, and how long-held animosities can give way to healing. ArtLords sees a role for themselves in the reconciliation process—but made clear that they would not accept a return to the 1990s, when the Taliban drove Afghanistan’s artistic community largely underground. “[The Taliban] have to accept me as a reality of Afghanistan,” said Omaid.

Kabir also addressed the issue, saying, “Whatever the Doha talks are about, a lot of young Afghans won’t accept a recipe that is cooked outside of Afghanistan for Afghan problems.”

Artlords Painting

Maintaining Positivity Through Conflict

Both Omaid and Kabir admit that the gravity of their mission does weigh on them from time to time. “Do I look sane to you?” joked Omaid. “You feel overwhelmed, you feel responsible to do something,” but at the same time “that encourages us, that inspires us.”

With Afghanistan possibly taking a new step on the path to peace, ArtLords draws inspiration from the change they’ve already seen. “There’s some beautiful stuff happening every day. Personally, it keeps me going,” said Kabir. “I believe in the young spirit of Afghans … everyone blames me that I’m crazy to have such high hopes for Afghanistan, but I really do, and I see it every day.” 

And while ArtLords sees hope in Afghanistan, Ambassador Rahmani believes Afghans see hope in ArtLords: “If young artists can imagine turning blast walls into healing works of art, I know we can have peace in Afghanistan.” 

Related Publications

Asfandyar Mir on Why ISIS-K Attacked Moscow

Asfandyar Mir on Why ISIS-K Attacked Moscow

Monday, April 1, 2024

By: Asfandyar Mir, Ph.D.

ISIS-K’s recent attack on the Russian capital was, in part, intended to assert the organization’s growing capacity to inflict terror beyond its home base of Afghanistan. “By reaching Moscow, ISIS-K is trying to signal it has the geographic reach to hit anywhere in the world,” says USIP’s Asfandyar Mir.

Type: Podcast

Moscow Concert Hall Attack Will Have Far-Reaching Impact

Moscow Concert Hall Attack Will Have Far-Reaching Impact

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

By: Mary Glantz, Ph.D.;  Gavin Helf, Ph.D.;  Asfandyar Mir, Ph.D.;  Andrew Watkins

On Friday, terrorists attacked the Crocus City Hall outside Moscow leaving 140 people dead and 80 others critically wounded. Soon after, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. The terrorist group, which is headquartered in Iraq and Syria, has several branches, including in South and Central Asia. Press reports suggest the U.S. government believes the Afghanistan-based affiliate of the Islamic State, ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), was behind the attack. The Biden administration has publicly noted that it had warned the Russian government of the terrorism threat in early March in line with the procedure of “Duty to Warn.”

Type: Question and Answer

Global Policy

The Challenges Facing Afghans with Disabilities

The Challenges Facing Afghans with Disabilities

Thursday, February 29, 2024

By: Belquis Ahmadi

In Afghanistan, obtaining accurate data on the number of persons with disabilities — including gender-disaggregated information — has always been a challenging endeavor. But based on the data we do have, it’s clear that more than four decades of violent conflict have left a considerable portion of the Afghan population grappling with various forms of disabilities, both war-related and otherwise. And the pervasive lack of protective mechanisms, social awareness and empathy surrounding disability continue to pose formidable challenges for individuals with disabilities, with women being disproportionately affected.

Type: Analysis

GenderHuman Rights

What to Expect from the Doha Conference on Afghanistan

What to Expect from the Doha Conference on Afghanistan

Thursday, February 15, 2024

By: Kate Bateman;  Andrew Watkins

On February 18-19, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will convene a meeting on Afghanistan in Doha to discuss the ongoing humanitarian and human rights crises and the recent report on a way forward by U.N. Special Coordinator for Afghanistan Feridun Sinirlioğlu. Special envoys from U.N. member states and international organizations will attend; representatives from Afghan civil society, women’s groups and Taliban officials have also been invited. The conference is a critical, high-level opportunity for donors and the region to chart next steps on how to improve the situation in Afghanistan and engage with the Taliban regime.

Type: Question and Answer

Global Policy

View All Publications