Two representatives of a new generation

Two representatives of a new generation
© Goethe-Institut e.V.

Omaid Sharifi co-founded the Afghan group of artists Art Lords, who became known for its anti-corruption graffiti on security walls.

Omaid Sharifi is sitting in front of a huge plate of pasta Bolognese in the canteen of the technical university in Berlin. A short time ago he was taking part in a meeting – behind doors guarded by two policemen – attended by more than 50 representatives of business, academia, culture and the media at a symposium initiated by the Federal Foreign Office on “Experiencing Afghanistan in a New Way.“

Omaid Sharifi, Co-Founder of Art Lords

Is it good, Mr Sharifi?

Oh yes, very good. We have a canteen in Kabul too, but it is not as large and pleasant as this one – and the selection here is absolutely wonderful. At ours there are two dishes at most. I love the hustle and bustle, too. So many young people all in one place!

You founded the group Art Lords in Kabul together with Mokamel. What is its purpose?

We use art to initiate social reforms and campaigns to establish and reconquer cultural space. Many people associate war lords and drug lords with Afghanistan – we want to reclaim this term and give it positive connotations.

What exactly do the Art Lords do?

In Afghanistan, we have a great many very ugly protective security walls. We support artists in painting them – if we cannot pull them down. All kinds of messages can be disseminated wonderfully on such a wall. Our anti-corruption graffiti are meanwhile very well known. If people see huge eyes with the slogan “I SEE YOU”, they know exactly what is meant. We also use murals to make it clear to people: you can change something! It’s your country, your society and future – for which you bear responsibility.

Some photographs of Afghan murals have also been exhibited in a Berlin gallery. Is there support for them from other quarters too?

So far, we have only been putting our own money and energy into the project. But we had some very good conversations on this trip. We are also in close contact with the Goethe-Institut in Kabul – it is an important place to go for Afghan artists. I would be very pleased if there were cooperation between Afghan and Berlin artists.

Is that to be understood as an appeal?

Yes, absolutely! I must also say that Germany is the only country that is involved culturally in Afghanistan. The French wanted to open up an institute, which, sadly, was attacked. There is huge potential for cooperation. My dream is that Kabul becomes the world’s graffiti capital and artists come from everywhere. We have more than enough walls.

The first thing that comes to mind when people hear the word “Afghanistan” is bombs and war…

Unfortunately, yes, but that is only one side of it. There is a lot of art here, a vibrant civil society and many good ideas. Germany has got lots of things moving in Afghanistan, which is something that is not sufficiently known in the German media. When Kundus fell, German organisations were supporting a concert attended by 25,000 people, including women, who were on the streets until 11 o’clock at night.

Or take this information tour – it is a huge success. We have spoken very openly and honestly with a wide variety of partners from society, politics and art and have networked well among ourselves in the group. We are the new Afghanistan!

The tour marked the occasion of 100 years of Afghan-German friendship. Do many Afghans really see Germany as a friend or even an ally?

A lot of money comes into the country from abroad, but with it comes corruption and paternalism. The Germans, who give much less than the Americans, are really the only ones to think about how to avoid doing damage. They respect our society and values and think about the effects of their work. They therefore support many grass-roots organisations and youth projects. We are already linked by 100 years of friendship – may it last for another hundred years!


Afghan producer and actress Martine Zikria

Martine Zikria is an Afghan producer and actress. A portrait.

The producer and actress Martine Zikria flew in from Kabul, together with ten Afghan guests, at the invitation of the Federal Foreign Office – as a kind of cultural ambassador. The occasion was a celebration of 100 years of German-Afghan friendship. For a week, Afghan artists, producers, researchers, ministry staff and executives travelled around Berlin to exchange views and network with German contacts and colleagues in NGOs, foundations, media, the Bundestag and the Federal Foreign Office. As well as very specific projects, assistance and cooperation, the discussion turned again and again to the question of how a new media image of Afghanistan could be created, beyond the narrative of the Taliban, bombs and the suppression of women.

A single woman in Kabul

Martine Zikria, the lead actress and producer of the film Utopia, sets an example. She is single and rents a flat by herself in Kabul – something that is quite unthinkable in Afghanistan. “Young girls around the age of 25 are downright terrified of being unmarried. A woman cannot live as a single person in Afghanistan. I do, it’s my choice and I’m lucky. I come from a family in which I am accepted. But of course, my mother would much rather see me having a husband and children – but I always tell her that I’m married to my job.”

She was born in Kabul, lived in exile in France for a long time and returned to Afghanistan in 2005, when she was in her late twenties. After all, who, if not young, well-educated people like herself, should develop the country? She began by studying dental technology and then business administration in Paris. In Kabul, she set up a project company for documentary films and radio features two years ago. She wants to tell stories from her country, particularly women’s stories.

Producer and actress in Utopia

Your film Utopia was submitted for an Oscar in 2016 as the Afghan entry in the “Best Foreign Language Film” category. You not only co-produced it, but also played the leading role – although you had never stood in front a camera before. “We do not have many actresses in Afghanistan in any case – two, three at most. So it was hard to find someone to play the leading role. So I said: I can feel how she feels, I can play her. And that is how I came to be Janan, a very strong woman.“

Janan’s husband was paralysed in the war and became infertile. But she desperately wants to have a child. She takes many risks to make this happen, travelling as far as Scotland to be artificially inseminated in a clinic. A young medical student whose father caused a great deal of harm as an officer in Afghanistan, intentionally exchanges the donor sperm for his own. To her horror, Janan discovers this too late.

Film as a weapon and a message

For Zikria, submission by the Afghan Film Organisation is a success in itself, because when she showed the script to the Afghan film board, “they refused to give us permission to film in Afghanistan. It was not until I went to see the Minister of Culture myself that we got permission.” That was just the beginning of a series of problems during filming work in Afghanistan. Filming was anything but easy, says Zikria. The people feared the camera like a weapon. Every film is in fact a weapon – a peaceful one, that can create a new image of Afghanistan.