Neda Taiyebi does not want to be typecast. Female artists in Muslim countries, she says, are all too often pigeonholed as role models for the kind of change westerners would like to see in those countries.
But Taiyebi insists she is no activist, no voice of the oppressed, no torchbearer for female emancipation.
Still, at first glance her work – giving old tanks and military vehicles a paint job that involves exuberant, playful patterns – seems thick with symbolism.
On a dusty plain in Kabul’s Khair Khana neighbourhood, children are crawling on and jumping off an old Soviet-era tank that Taiyebi splashed in goldenrod – a colour named after the plant of the same name – and adorned with flowers.
Another tank, at the top of a hill overlooking the Afghan capital, is bedecked with drawings of pears. The rusting hulk, a relic of war, is now used by police as a tea den.
Taiyebi, a 28-year-old Iranian painter, arrived in Kabul from Tehran about a year ago with a plan to launch an art magazine. The plan was abandoned when she realised how little scope there was for paid media outlets in .
Instead, she set her eyes on some of the relics left behind from Afghanistan’s decades of conflict.
“In Kabul, you cannot find any place to sit and just enjoy, just for your eyes’ pleasure,” Taiyebi said.
So she set upon some of the most obvious symbols of war and masculinity: tanks. These she decorated with motifs of the most beautiful things she could find in Kabul’s cityscape: bulging fruit carts and neatly arranged flower shops.
“I have a bit of a problem painting on tanks because it might make my work seem political,” she said. “But you can’t delete them from [the country’s] history.”
Some might say turning tanks into playgrounds could make children a little too comfortable with weapons of war, particularly in Afghanistan where the countryside in places is littered with munitions that can be mistaken for toys. But to Taiyebi, the dearth of options for Afghan children to have fun is a bigger problem.
“They have nowhere to play,” she said.
Public art is scarce in Afghanistan but Taiyebi’s work is not all that makes her stand out. At a time when Afghans are leaving their country in droves, travelling to or Europe, she travelled in the opposite direction.
“I wasn’t looking for that kind of life,” Taiyebi said about Europe.
In Afghanistan, Taiyebi has found more freedom to work than in her native Iran. The Afghan government has supported her, and provides her with an armed escort while she works.
In December she painted her third tank, in the Panjshir valley next to the tomb of Ahmad Shah Massoud , the late rebel leader considered a national hero. An equivalent invitation would be unthinkable in Iran.
Taiyebi’s patterns draw on memories of her mother’s patchworks from her childhood home near Karaj , Iran, and from kitchen tablecloths. She says she wants to merge the domestic world, where women have been trapped for decades, with the world outside.
“When the Russian tanks came here, most women went to the kitchen, and they couldn’t come out,” she says. “All they hear is political things and advice to be careful about their behaviour. I think their eyes sometimes just need something beautiful and nostalgic to look at.”
Taiyebi laments the lack of visual art in Afghanistan. “The government spends a lot of money on schools and hospitals – and all that is necessary,” she said. “But what about your soul?”