Today marks 20 years since the US launched the war in Afghanistan, which it only weeks ago ended.

The impact of that war on art, journalism and free speech in Afghanistan is the subject of Twenty Years, a free online event launching today and culminating in a major art exhibition at Blacktown Arts Centre in 2022.

“How artists respond to conflict is something many in the West don’t understand, don’t see, and don’t think much about,” says Sydney-based journalist and filmmaker Antony Loewenstein, coordinator of the Twenty Years project.

“Afghan voices aren’t heard, and when they are, it’s in the context of a disaster. This is an attempt to give the public a new perspective.”

The free event will feature artists, poets, musicians and writers from Australia and around the world, live traditional music, and a film commissioned by Afghan-Australians to comment on the legacy of the war.

“When people think of Afghanistan they think of war and conflict,” says Lowenstein. “But there has been too little assessment of how and why that [conflict] was created.

Black and white illustration of a girl

Fatima Mohammadi by Tia Kass.

“There has been little interest or appetite in the media or the political elite in Western accountability, including Australia’s. For many years there was a lot of pro-war and pro-military propaganda. Journalists were often embedded with the Army,” Loewenstein says.

“The picture is actually much more nuanced than what we are often getting in the West.”

One of the artists taking part is Hazara poet and visual artist Elyas Alavi, now living in Adelaide. As well as exhibiting at the Blacktown Arts Centre next year, Alavi will be performing previously unpublished poetry at this week’s online event, including new work written during the upheavals of the past two months.

Boy with brightly coloured balloons in the street at night

A young Afghan balloon seller waiting for customers during Eid-al Fitr in Kabul. Photograph by Najiba Noori.

For Alavi, the Twenty Years project is a chance to show the world what’s happening in Afghanistan and reinforce the connections between Australia and the Afghan people.

“Instead of thinking that this is all going on in some faraway place which we have no connection with,” Alavi says, “I hope the Australian people will think: they [Afghan people] are human like us, they have the same habits, they play the same games and watch the same programs.”

“As an artist, I do feel very helpless, but at least I can say I documented what is happening now and what my people are going through.”

Alavi sees the power of art to transcend time and place and expose our common humanity. He points to Picasso’s 1937 painting Guernica, depicting the bombing of a Basque village, which brought to life for him the horror of war in a place he had never visited.

“That painting itself – made from brushes and paints – could not save those people,” Alavi says. “But it made that incident so real. Looking at that painting, I feel that horror and deep fear, that war is horrible everywhere [whether it happened] yesterday in Spain or now in Afghanistan. “

In this way, art can literally go through time.”

Woman sitting at outdoor market

Shur Bazaar, Kabul. Photo by Najiba Noori.

Alavi is dismayed by what he sees as the Australian government’s lack of responsibility and compassion in providing safety for the people of Afghanistan.

“The Afghan community has a connection to this country, they contributed to this country,” Alavi says. “I think just by realising how close we are, how many connections we have, then [Australians] would really understand the despair and the fear for our lives of the Afghan people.

“The Government could increase the humanitarian visa intake from 3,000 visas,” he says. “We [Australia] can do much more, and I hope Australia doesn’t forget their Afghan friends.”

Photographer Najiba Noori left Kabul just after the Taliban takeover in August and escaped to Paris thanks to her employer, Agence France-Press. Noori’s images have borne powerful witness to events in Afghanistan and she will join in the online events this week from Paris where she is now based.

She says that her work aims to “document social stories specifically illustrating women and youth”.

“I portray the attack on their educational centres but also the positive changes that they bring within the society,” she says.

Twenty Years is free but donations are welcome. All proceeds will go to the Afghan Australian Development Organisation, an NGO with years of experience educating Afghan youth. Its work continues after the Taliban takeover to support programs to teach science and life skills for Afghan women.

Book here and visit the Twenty Years website for more information.

Main image of Elyas Alavi at work in his studio. Photo by Sam Roberts.