Members of the acclaimed Afghan artist collective ArtLords will adorn Brattleboro’s historic downtown with temporary murals honoring art destroyed by the Taliban.
BRATTLEBORO, VT — When the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in August 2021, one of the first things they did was whitewash the powerful murals that had been painted on bomb blast walls in the capital city of Kabul. Soon after, the artists who had created those murals were targeted for arrest or worse.
Those artists were members of a 50-person Afghan-led artist collective called ArtLords. Fearing for their lives under the Taliban, the ArtLords and thousands of other Afghans fled their country, became refugees, and ended up scattered around the world.
Recently, about 100 of those refugees arrived in Brattleboro, Vermont, a town of 12,000 in one of the most racially and ethnically homogeneous states in the nation. Brattleboro opened its arms to its newest community members. Dozens of local nonprofits, schools, government agencies, and faith communities, joined by scores of individuals and families, hastened to provide them with housing, food, transportation, and other essentials.
Among those who found refuge in Brattleboro were five members of the ArtLords—Marwa, Negina, Meetra, Zuhra, and Abdul.
After a period of settling into their new home, those five ArtLords, with support from the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC) and in collaboration with a Boston-based public art group called Tape Art, are now embarking on a project that will adorn Brattleboro’s historic downtown with temporary murals paying homage to the ArtLords murals destroyed by the Taliban.
The ArtLords have chosen to call the project “Honoring Honar”—honar being the Dari word for art.
According to Negina, the first mural the Taliban destroyed was the first one she had helped to create.
“The suppression of women was one of the many challenges we were addressing in our art,” said Negina. “We showed our support by painting pictures of prominent Afghan women, including the members of Zohra, Afghanistan’s first women’s orchestra. It was my first mural project and the biggest achievement of my life. I remember that day very well. It was our new year (Nowroz), and that mural made my whole year. Later, when I found out that the mural had been whitewashed, I was very sad, but it also confirmed what we already knew—that our art was very powerful and represented a real threat to the Taliban and their noxious ideas.”
“Honoring Honar” will unfold over the course of three weeks in August. For five days beginning August 8, the ArtLords will work at BMAC with Tape Art founders Michael Townshend and Leah Smith to create 20 large adhesive-backed murals containing recreated fragments of ArtLords murals destroyed by the Taliban, including the Zohra mural.
The public will be invited to view the artists’ progress at BMAC August 10-12, and the murals will be displayed throughout downtown Brattleboro August 13-28. A map of all 20 murals will be available at BMAC and elsewhere around town, with QR codes linked to images of the original murals in Afghanistan.
The collaboration between ArtLords and Tape Art was the brainchild of BMAC Manager of Education & Community Engagement Programs Kirsten Martsi, who has previously developed arts programs with and for refugees at the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, N.Y., and the New England Botanic Garden at Tower Hill in Worcester, Mass.
“I was having conversations with each of these groups about how BMAC could support their work,” said Martsi, “and then it dawned on me that a collaboration might be possible. Everyone liked the idea of working together, and we were off and running.”
Critical support for “Honoring Honar” and for Brattleboro’s Afghan community in general has been provided by the Multicultural Community Center of Southern Vermont, an arm of the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC), the federal resettlement agency for southern Vermont.
“ECDC has seen how community engagement radically improves the welcome of our new neighbors,” said Thomas Huddleston of the Multicultural Community Center. “The Afghan artists who have settled here hope that Brattleboro can become ArtLords’ second home, and so do we.”
“This project is a testament to the indomitable spirit of art and artists everywhere,” said BMAC Director Danny Lichtenfeld. “The ArtLords, their artwork, and their powerful ideas have survived and will continue to thrive, despite the Taliban’s efforts to squelch them.”
“When the Taliban whitewashed our murals,” said Negina, “they forgot that art cannot be stopped. I left Afghanistan with only a small backpack. I wish I could have taken all my good memories, my family members, friends, and my country with me, but I couldn’t. The three things I took with me were a sketchbook, pen, and paints—because I believed in the power of art. I have learned that good art educates and creates empathy, and empathy leads to change.”
ArtLords was established in 2014 as a global grassroots movement of artivists motivated by the desire to pave the way for social transformation and behavioral change by employing the soft power of art and culture as a non-intrusive approach. ArtLords realized the opportunity to convert the negative psychological impact of blast walls on the people of Kabul into a positive visual experience through murals. ArtLords’ work has been celebrated by artists and leaders around the world and has been displayed at the United Nations.
About Tape Art
Leah Smith and Michael Townshend are part of Tape Art, an evolving group of public artists who create large-scale temporary drawings and installations out of low-adhesive tape. Founded in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1989, the Tape Art Crew is cited as the world’s first tape artist. All of their artwork is intentionally temporary. Over the last 33 years, Tape Art has created over 500 large murals and thousands of smaller drawings on walls around the globe. Tape Art’s extensive teaching practice has resulted in the introduction of tape drawing to over 50,000 first-time users in a wide range of institutions, including schools, community centers, elderly homes, hospitals, psych wards, and prisons.
About the Multicultural Community Center
The Multicultural Community Center (https://www.ecdcus.org/mccvt/) was established in 2021 by the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC) to aid with Afghan refugee resettlement in Brattleboro. Director Joe Wiah explains the center’s mission as helping refugees integrate successfully into the community by engaging the energy, enthusiasm, and resources of individuals, service groups, churches, health, and educational institutions, businesses, and community leaders. Wiah, who left his native Liberia when he was 18, has lived in Vermont for nine years and praises the state for its welcoming, humanitarian spirit. “I’ve never seen the collective commitment to refugee resettlement that I see here,” Wiah said.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2022, the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center is a non-collecting contemporary art museum focused on the art of our time. An anchor of southern Vermont’s vibrant cultural life, BMAC brings notable art and artists to Brattleboro and provides a platform for its region’s many artistic riches. BMAC presents 15-20 exhibitions annually, complemented by 60-70 public programs and extensive educational offerings developed in partnership with area schools and service organizations.