Visual arts | Afghanistan

“I had to destroy my own artworks”

Artist Salwa Rahen describes destroying a lifetime of work and why she can't imagine herself working again under Taliban rule. A conversation.

Birds and a woman veiled with burqa are sculpted in 3D from a lime-colored mass. The background is light brown.

This artwork no longer exists. A friend of Salwa Rahen photographed it during an exhibition in 2021. Rahen herself was forced to delete all photos of her artwork


Ms. Rahen, you work as a visual artist in Kabul. What is your work about?

I make sculptures, mainly from wood and fabrics, and I draw. Most of my work is about women's rights, because our situation in Afghanistan is extremely difficult, and it's getting worse. Many of my paintings show women, which has now become a problem.


The new government is targeting any form of art that depicts people, and women seem to have it doubly bad. If the Taliban find out that you continue to produce art or even make music, you will be persecuted. It is very dangerous to be an artist in Afghanistan in 2022. That's why I had to destroy my works with my own hands.

How did this happen?

After the Taliban came to power, artist friends and I kept hearing about artists being murdered. This disturbed us very much. Of course, I didn't want to get caught. And I didn't want to be a risk to my family. One day I learned through social media that the Taliban were searching houses in our neighbourhood.

As quickly as we could, my brother and I then destroyed everything: all the paintings and sculptures that were in our house, we tore them up and destroyed them. We hid the remains under the house garbage. We had to hurry so much that I could not even take photos of all the pieces. When the Taliban reached our house, they couldn't find anything.

What did you feel in that situation?

It was extremely painful. After all, it takes a lot of time to create works of art. And there are a lot of emotions in them. When I destroyed my paintings and sculptures, it felt like I was also erasing my ideas. Now everything seems so hopeless to me.

I am no longer allowed to be an artist, I can no longer exhibit, I am unemployed. Before the takeover, I sold many of my works and I taught children and young people how to draw. All that is no longer possible now. When I can't resist the urge to paint anymore, I paint a picture in a hurry - and destroy it right away.

Is it still possible to be artistically active in any way?

Yes, some artists continue to work, but they are only allowed to produce works that have to do with Islam, such as Islamic symbols. For me, that doesn't work. I am an artist because I use my art to express my feelings and thoughts. For me, art is freedom. And that no longer exists in today's Afghanistan.

Interview by Gundula Haage