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.