‘Assimilating Is Very Dehumanizing’: How Afghanistan’s Artists Are Making Their Way in Exile

Shamayel Shalizi is one of nine artists featured in the exhibition "Before Silence: Afghan Artists In Exile."

Shamayel Shalizi, Who Is More Oppressed. Courtesy of the artist.

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In August 2021, the world watched in horror as U.S. troops withdrew and the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan. Over 600,000 refugees have fled the country since last January, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.

Among the many groups threatened by the Taliban’s rule are artists, with the fundamentalist government viewing freedom of artistic expression as a threat to the Islamic faith. Fearing for their lives, some artists have felt compelled to destroy or censor their own work, or to seek asylum outside Afghanistan’s borders.

For curators Barbara Pollack and Anne Verhallen, the crisis provided an opportunity for their arts organization, Art at a Time Like This, to help raise awareness about the plight of Afghan artists. The two had started the platform, which stages both online and in-person exhibitions, in March 2020 in response to the onset of Covid-19. To organize the virtual show “Before Silence: Afghan Artists In Exile,” the two partnered with Artists at Risk Connection to bring together the work of nine Afghan artists now dispersed around the world.

To learn more about the situation faced by these brave creatives, Artnet News senior writer Sarah Cascone spoke with Julie Trebault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection at PEN America; Alexandra Xanthaki, the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights; and Shamayel Shalizi, an Afghan artist currently living in Berlin.


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