04/07/2014 09:21 BST | Updated 01/09/2014 06:59 BST

Don't Shoot the Messenger! Especially If You're The Taliban


In the early summer of 2010 I sent an email to the owner of an Afghan press agency called "Kabul Pressistan" expecting no response. The email was the type that weeds out the rare breed of people who are willing to help me do potentially dangerous things to make art. On this occasion I was asking for help to travel around Kabul, and make moulds of Taliban bullet holes which I wanted to use in sculptures. The standard reaction to such requests is no response at all, which I'm used to. So when Sardar Ahmad Khan who owned Kabul Pressistan replied with a casual but confident "We can help with this." I knew that the journey would happen.

Several telephone calls followed and within a week Sardar had marked out the locations of a number of Taliban suicide bomb attack sites in Kabul, and visited them all with a driver. I had stressed the need to find bullet holes which were specifically made by the Taliban, which he succeeded in doing. Sardar spoke to local people at each location, including a local date seller who had witnessed the carnage unfolding at one of the sites.

That August his research came to fruition when I successfully made the moulds and carried them back to London with a great sense of relief. I had been all too aware of the high probability that I would leave without the moulds, and coupled with the risks associated with being in Kabul in the first place, I felt an extra sense of relief as the plane took off from Kabul airport. Other people had helped, but without Sardar's initial work the project wouldn't have happened.

At the end of 2011 the resulting "Taliban Relief Paintings" were exhibited in London. People travelled to see them and the media coverage was extensive. Phaidon, one of the art world's biggest art publishers described the works as "The most significant to have come out of the Afghan war" I tipped my hat to Sardar again...

In an earlier telephone conversation Sardar had mentioned that he was in direct communication with the Taliban. They were feeding him statements which he then released to the wider press. We spoke at some length about the nature of this relationship, and I had expressed an understanding of the need to hear what they had to say for themselves, whether one appreciated their position or not. In distributing their words Sardar was doing them a service which made him important to the Taliban and to a wider world which continues to struggle to understand them and their country.

Two months go, whilst waiting for a train in New York I looked casually at the cover of the Wall Street Journal, reading a front page article about the Taliban massacre at the Serena Hotel in Kabul with a heavy sinking feeling. Four Taliban had entered the hotel compound and within minutes were shooting the guests. The first victim, shot at point blank range, was Sardar. He was followed by his wife, five year old daughter, three year old son and then their one year old son who survived but with bullets in his head. Even by Afghan standards the scene was horrific. The victims were starting a festive dinner when the shooting began. Witnesses say that Sardar's wife pleaded with the gunmen to shoot her and not their children. At least nine of the diners were killed in the carnage that followed including local dignitaries, an American and two Canadians.

I feel that in many respects the random and ruthless nature of the shooting at the Serena Hotel summed up the way that the world understands the Taliban. They shot their messenger, and his entire family. Sardar was a very giving man who helped local orphaned children, adored his family and worked hard to help the outside world understand his country. His and his families' deaths resounded like a shockwave in Kabul. His funeral was attended by hundreds of people from all walks of life, and the press responded with anger, disbelief and horror. As the remaining western forces withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban wait in the wings... What will happen when we leave? One can only imagine... But If Sardar couldn't survive the Taliban, who can?

To see a short film about the Taliban Bullet hole paintings. click the link below.