“We Have to Reclaim Our City”: Lessons From the “Eye People”

Last year, a 22-year-old Afghan woman went to a local government office to get documentation to travel abroad. She was promptly turned away because she was not accompanied by her father or husband, and because she refused to pay the official a small bribe to overlook this detail. As recently as a few years ago, she may have paid the bribe. But things had changed. Defiantly, she confronted the official and proclaimed: “I will go to the eye people.”

The “eye people” she invoked are three activists—Lima Ahmad, Kabir Mokamel, and Omaid Sharifi—who in 2014 founded a grass-roots anticorruption movement in Afghanistan called ArtLords. ArtLords (whose name is a deliberate play on the “warlords” and “drug lords” that too often define Afghanistan’s image) seeks to raise awareness about corruption and other social issues (including women’s rights and domestic terrorism) by empowering youth to “have a say in how we run the government” and giving them the courage and a forum to speak out on these issues. ArtLords’ founders began their work by organizing small group discussions to better understand young people’s concerns. Unsurprisingly, corruption was the most frequently mentioned. The founders sought a way to publicize these concerns and provide an outlet for discussions to shape the national dialogue. To do this, ArtLords creates public art projects, in which artists trace beautiful, powerful designs on blast walls (concrete barriers constructed to protect buildings and people from terrorist-related explosions) across Afghanistan. To date ArtLords has painted more than 400 murals in almost half of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces; the most famous is a piercing set of feminine, hazel eyes glaring onto the front entrance of the National Directorate of Security in Kabul (which is why the group is known to some as “the eye people”).

Through these projects, the group has inspired a generation of younger Afghans. As Faisal Imran, a student in Afghanistan, noted as he painted a mural on a blast-wall, “this art has a message of hope.” It is this message that has driven young girls to draw murals with the words “I can’t go to school because of your corruption. I can see you.” Moreover, beyond providing an outlet and educational opportunity for the youth of Afghanistan, ArtLords has achieved concrete success by both naming and shaming corrupt officials and naming and family good civil servants, working with the national government to drive change, and inspiring grass-roots social movements, including a recent campaign to challenge warlords and corrupt government officials who drive around Afghanistan with black tinted windows and no license plates. Additionally, one of the founders of ArtLords, Lima Ahmad, was invited to serve as the Director of Monitoring and Evaluations in the Office of the President of Afghanistan, a position from which she advocated for anticorruption and other social reform. In fact, over the past year, the group and its founders have been invited by government officials to speak at conferences and engage in substantive policy decisions.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Ms. Ahmad about her experience, and about what lessons that experience might hold for other civil society groups focused on combating corruption. Our conversation highlighted several important messages for other civil society groups seeking to use similar artistic tools—whether art, music, dance, or others—to combat corruption and promote broader social reform.

Local Investment and Engagement: When ArtLords creates a mural, the local community collectively participates in the creation. No individual artist is credited with the painting. The group takes the principle of collective creation so seriously that members often wear masks to hide their faces as they paint. After using a projector to trace an image, the group also hands brushes to those walking by, providing both an opportunity to create the art collectively and to engage in dialogue with others. In fact, a group of almost 200 people collectively created the famous painting of eyes in front of the Ministry of Defense. This collective art disavows individuals of potential liability for their protest, empowers them to create something together, and invests them in the artwork’s anticorruption message.

  • Diverse Representation in Organizational Leadership: In 2016, the ArtLords movement planned to paint a mural of an Afghan female with her face covered in traditional religious headwear. However, Ms. Ahmad pushed back, noting that the movement had a unique role in challenging social customs and should be cognizant of how it presents women. This highlights the importance of diversity of background and experiences in a movement’s leadership. As a female Afghan, her perspective not only makes the movement more inclusive and thus more successful, she also serves as a role model and inspiration for women and girls across the country.
  • Relationship with Authorities: ArtLords often criticizes the government and denounces bureaucratic corruption. Surprisingly, though, Ms. Ahmad identified the organization’s productive relationship with government authorities as important to the success of the movement. The group has established a healthy working relationship with the government, which helps both in countering pushback and maintaining the safety of artists. For example, after the famous eye mural was painted over by government officials, the group immediately called friends and officials within the National Directorate of Security to ascertain what happened. These conversations and relationships led to the group re-painting the eyes. This relationship with officials is also important for the safety of the organizers and artists. If the group is painting in a dangerous location, they will often contact the local police and national government to provide officers to protect the artists.
  • Creative and Financial Independence: ArtLords is entirely sponsored by donations from members and the community rather than from companies or special interests. The artists are also independent, in that they do not respond to requests—even from senior government officials—to paint specific murals or to paint in specific locations. For example, after the public outcry in response to the government’s painting over the eye-mural, the National Directorate of Security asked the organization to paint the eyes again. The organization initially refused and only eventually re-painted the eyes on their own terms. As part of this independence, ArtLords also sponsors over 40 local artists funded through donations that ArtLords receives—thus creating an independence of agenda, artistic expression, and mission.

In just four years, ArtLords has raised awareness about corruption in Afghanistan, empowered young Afghans to take a stand against bribery and corruption around them, and inspired social initiatives such as podcasts and television shows about corruption and holding the government accountable. Much of this impact is attributable to the persistence and passion of the co-founders, who, despite receiving death threats from the Taliban, nevertheless persisted to “fight for the next generation.” However, ArtLords can provide inspiration and best practices for civil society groups across the world that hope to similarly use creative and unique platforms to combat corruption.

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