'It's not over yet': Artists work to keep Iran's protests in view
Mahsa Amini peers out from a mural that covers an entire building side in a Washington, D.C. alley, her head and shoulders floating over the words "Woman, Freedom, Life," and a lion and lioness flanking her.
The mural's painter is Rodrigo Pradel, a Chilean immigrant. He had no links to Iran or the large protests that erupted there when Amini, a young Kurdish woman, died in police custody last year. But it was his friend, Yasi Farazad, who inspired him to bring the movement half a world away to the streets of D.C., after seeing a similar piece in Los Angeles.
The project was a challenge. Unable to participate in the city's official mural program, Farazad had to seek out a site on her own, and finally found one with the help of a friend in a building that was owned by an Iranian American man. Pradel painted the mural in under 20 hours.
The mural shows Amini in the center with the colors of the Iranian flag. The lioness is a symbol of strong women in Persian culture.
"Mahsa is in the middle of it but she's not the only one who needs protection," Farazad told NPR. "I wanted this painting to represent all of us protecting women and men."
Before Pradel spray-painted the wall, a craft he has employed since the 90s, Farazad explained the history and context of revolutionary movements and protests in Iran to him.
"I felt honored to paint among many great muralists in D.C. but also be the extended paintbrush for all people who support life and liberty in Iran," he said.
Pradel then met local Iranian artists in the D.C. area and learned about their street art.
Keeping the fight from fading from view
Many artists are fueled right now by the protests, working out their thoughts and emotions in bold, colorful pieces and trying to keep the fight of Iranian women from fading from view.
Amini was detained in Tehran on Sept. 16 by Iran's "morality police" for allegedly violating the country's dress rules. She died three days later in police custody. Her birth name was Jîna, which means 'life' in Kurdish.
Protesters flocked into the streets, often shouting the slogan "woman, freedom, life," and men and women all across the world expressed their support. The #MahsaAmini hashtag was one of the most popular in Twitter history.
In the United States, artists were among the first to demonstrate their support in both traditional and innovative ways.
Art in major cities and globally "has awakened people about the struggle in Iran and kept them engaged with the ongoing fight of the Iranian people even when it stopped making headlines and the U.S. media largely stopped covering it," said Persis Karim, director of the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at San Francisco State University.
It has become an important vehicle to show what people in Iran are enduring, said Karim. She believes social media, particularly Instagram, has made Iranian art more accessible online. She highlighted MOZAIK's digital exhibitions as a significant example of collaboration between the diaspora around the world and local artists in Iran.
"It's not a revolution," she said. "It's a revolutionary movement, and it's not over yet."
'This wall is like my dream'
The wall at 14th and U Streets in what is known as D.C.'s Harlem has already been vandalized twice, and Pradel is planning to repaint it.
For Farazad, who was born in Iran and had to leave when she was just 15 months old, everything about this wall is deeply personal.
Like the current revolution in Iran, this art has brought people together in ways she had never seen before, she said.
"There were two times in my life when I was really proud of myself," she said. "One was when my daughter was born. The second time was that evening when we finished painting the wall."
Since her family left Iran in 1979, Farazad has never been able to return.
"This wall is like my dream," she said. "I want to be able to go to Iran one day, not in shackles, not caged. I am raising a little girl to be a strong woman. I want all those little girls to have the same opportunities as my daughter does in America. And they don't."
Street art from Tehran to D.C.
Iranians have always used art to protest and communicate their ideas, said Mina M. Jafari, a Washington, D.C.- born Iranian American artist.
Since the protests last year, Jafari has noticed that Iranian art is moving out of the galleries and museums and onto the streets.
In Iran many artists don't have the luxury of exhibiting their work privately and they are constantly policed and censored, she said. So now they produce visual and performing art pieces literally in the street and at small community events.
"In Iran, art is many things. Sometimes it's a performance, sometimes it's a dream, sometimes it's anger and desperation, but it's always a way to live freely," she said.
Jafari quit her job working on Iranian-American issues at a progressive think tank because she thought Iranian voices, especially those of women, were being "ignored and excluded," she said. She and her Iranian husband now own an art studio called "Kucheh," which means "alley" in Farsi, less than three miles from Pradel's mural.
Jafari says her work is more nuanced than "hijab or removing the hijab."
In a bold, graphical piece called "Woman, Life, Freedom!" Jafari used black, white and red to relay a deeper meaning of the current revolution.
Two minarets of a masjid, or mosque, are formed by large hands, with a woman's face taking the place of the masjid's dome. A middle finger rises at the top of each minaret and flames flow from the mouth. The flames say "woman, life, freedom," in Persian, and Amini's name appears among the stars.
The face's unibrow represents all Iranian women, including queer Iranians, without eurocentric and gendered beauty standards, said Jafari.
"My intention with this piece was to show that religion belongs to people," she said. "We deserve to take back our religion from those who use and abuse it for power."
Art vs. sanctions
The revolution begun less than a year ago is fizzling out, some scholars and observers say, not because the people have reached their aspirations but because of their economic struggles.
Many Iranians simply can't afford to sustain protests or strikes, said Assal Rad, author of State of Resistance: Politics, Culture & Identity in Modern Iran.
There are many pressures: U.S. sanctions, a record-high inflation rate of almost 50%, soaring youth unemployment. Over half of Iranians are now living in poverty, according to data from Iran's Statistics Center. On top of that, many Iranian artists who move to the U.S. say it is almost impossible to sell their work or send money home to their families' bank accounts.
In comparison to all past revolutions in Iran, this one was "leaderless," primarily spearheaded by young women, said Alex Shams, editor-in-chief of Ajam Media Collective, a platform focused on culture and society in Iran as well as Central and South Asia.
That fluidity has made the roles of artists even more important, he said.
"The artist movement outside of Iran can echo the voices inside of Iran and eventually create these connections across borders that both the Iranian government and the U.S. government have done a lot to prevent," he said.
Back to Jafari's painting of the woman and the mosque. At the time it was painted, an anonymous Iranian artist was dyeing fountains in Tehran blood-red. Jafari said, though, she also designed the flame coming out of the mouth of the woman to depict an Iranian symbol of rebirth.
"My art is not about destruction, but about bringing new life and leaving room for something else to grow," she said, adding that the women's revolution embodies that idea.
"It's infinite because it planted new seeds in us. Those who have lost their lives believed in women, life and freedom. And it's something that lives inside every Iranian," she said.
This digital story was edited by Lisa Lambert. contributed to this story
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.