Afghan Artists and Cultural Heritage in Extreme Danger: The World is Failing Afghanistan on Two Critical Fronts

The Artistic Freedom Initiative (AFI) urgently called for the safety of Afghan artists who are categorically persecuted by the Taliban as demonstrated in a new report launched today: Artistic Exodus: Afghan Artists Fleeing Taliban Rule. The report, produced in partnership with UC Berkeley Law Pro Bono Program, brings to light the abuse of people working in music, visual arts, performing arts, film and television, literature, museums, cultural heritage sites and arts education since the regime regained control of Afghanistan two years ago. 


Artistic expression is now criminalized in the country, with punishments including extrajudicial killings, arrests, arbitrary detention and public humiliation; women and girls have been banned from pursuing arts education and careers; art and cultural sites have been destroyed and removed from public spaces; and arts and cultural institutions, including museums and archives, have been either nearly or completely shut down.

Artlords mural in Kabul created in honor of the martyred human rights activist, Hamida Barmaki, who died in an explosion claimed by the terrorist group Hezbe Islami Afghanistan | Courtesy of Omaid Sharifi

“Kabul did not fall once for us, it fell three times: the first when the Taliban took it, the second when they destroyed our paintings, and the third when they banned girls from going to school,” says Yama Farhad, visual artist and muralist with ArtLords. Farhad has had the laser of a sniper rifle aimed at his head while painting a mural, forcing him to abandon the project for his safety and that of his crew. Other members of the ArtLords group have been wrongfully imprisoned, physically attacked and received death threats.


Many artists in Afghanistan are in hiding, have destroyed, hidden or left behind their artworks and tools, live in dire economic situations due to being unable to practise their craft and earn a living, and are in constant fear of Taliban persecution. Despite the circumstances, international immigration and resettlement assistance has been extremely limited. 

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“The horrific conditions that Afghan artists face in their home country and the overt targeting of these groups by the Taliban should logically infer a well-founded fear of persecution for Afghan artists openly practising their craft,” says Sanjay Sethi, AFI Co-Executive Director. “That’s why we’re calling for the prima facie recognition of Afghan artists as refugees, meaning that they are automatically considered a refugee and therefore entitled to lawful, permanent residency in a safe host country, unless there is evidence to the contrary.”

2021 Kabul airlift | Courtesy of Fatimah Hossaini

Thus far, states have not prioritised Afghan artists for resettlement, with the exception of Germany, which has created a special pathway for artists and creative workers to seek humanitarian admission into the country. Germany approved humanitarian visa applications for more than 37,000 Afghans from August 2021 to October 2022, and it continues to offer a pathway for artists to enter the country though the Bundesaufnahmeprogramm. On the other hand, the United States – partly responsible for the destabilisation of Afghanistan after their precipitous withdrawal from the country in August 2021 – has not offered similar assistance and has even denied entry to Afghan artists with approved visa petitions.  


AFI has provided legal and resettlement assistance to more than 1,100 Afghan artists and their family members since the beginning of the Taliban takeover and has communicated with hundreds of others in distress as they struggle for personal and professional survival. The new report tells the stories of some of these visual artists, musicians, filmmakers, archeologists and curators to highlight the real life impacts of the political crisis in Afghanistan and subsequent forced migration. 

2021 Kabul airlift | Courtesy of Fatimah Hossaini

“Leaving the country is a painful feeling, but [figuring out] how to leave was a big challenge for me and I was alone,” says Shaista Langari, visual artist and women’s rights activist, who faced additional dangers both living in Afghanistan and while fleeing as a female artist.

Afghans sleep at a security processing center for refugees in Qatar | Courtesy of Jahan Ara Rafi

Given the hostile environment for creatives at home and the lack of institutional support for the artists abroad, the rich artistic tradition of Afghanistan that stretches back millennia and is fundamental to Afghan cultural identity is facing obliteration. Afghan artists who have relocated to other countries need help in resettlement, such as access to basic services including housing and healthcare, as well as support to rebuild their creative careers in their host communities. The provision of such services can help to ensure that host countries fulfil their international legal obligation to protect Afghans’ cultural rights and safeguard the intangible cultural heritage of the Afghan people. 


“Art is also a powerful tool in creating social and political change and one of the last hopes for resisting violence and oppression in Afghanistan, whether through artists in the country or those abroad and feeding back into it,” says Omaid Sharifi, Artlords Co-founder/President.

Omaid Sharifi paints a mural in Kabul in 2019 | Courtesy of Omaid Sharifi
Omaid Sharifi speaks about Art and Culture at risk at a conference in Boston as part of his fellowship at Harvard University | Courtesy of Omaid Sharifi

AFI calls on the international community to maintain pressure on the Taliban to implement critical recommendations by UN special procedures and bodies and to press governments to provide immigration relief and implement best practices aimed at supporting artists at risk. We call on all state and non-state actors to offer additional support to Afghan artists seeking asylum and for legal aid organizations to increase assistance for Afghans to determine their eligibility and apply for refugee status, humanitarian parole, and temporary or long term visas. 

Nasrin Belali speaks with a reporter about her archeological work at the National Museum of Afghanistan | Courtesy of Nasrin Belali


The report also highlights how arts and cultural institutions, universities, and arts-oriented non-profits can assist in Afghan artist relocation and resettlement through sponsored fellowships and work opportunities. Finally, we highlight the need for increased humanitarian aid and other forms of support for the thousands of artists still in Afghanistan that continue to face persecution from the Taliban. 

Sharif Jamal and his wife, Nahida, visit Albany, New York after resettling in the United States | Courtesy of Sharif Jamal

Artistic Freedom Initiative (AFI) is dedicated to safeguarding the right to artistic freedom and facilitates pro bono immigration representation and resettlement assistance for international artists at risk. Led by immigration and human rights attorneys, the organization anchors its work to the shared commitment of protecting and celebrating cultural diversity, human dignity and freedom of artistic expression. Beyond AFI’s work to provide holistic relocation and resettlement opportunities for artists under threat, it is also focused on the advancement of creative cultural exchange and the improvement of conditions for artists in their home countries. 

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