There was a time, some four years ago, when Iran held the world’s attention. Protests began there in June 2009, after the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in what many claimed was a rigged vote. A graphic video of the death of a young woman named Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot by a member of the Basij militia, became an international focal point and symbol. But time passed, the protests were violently crushed, Ahmadinejad stayed in power, and then other countries began to erupt with dissent. Most of the world — or at least, the media — moved on.
It’s no wonder, then, that Saman Arbabi feels frustrated. The Iranian-American journalist is a co-creator of the much-lauded satirical show Parazit, which has been dubbed “The Daily Show of Iran.” Despite the attention his show has received and its large viewership, Arbabi feels — no doubt rightly so — that Iranians are often left out of the global conversation. Thanks in large part to Ahmadinejad, whom Western news loves to write off as “crazy,” Iran has become a kind of global pariah.
So when Arbabi was doing a story about artist JR’s worldwide “Inside Out” project, which turns people’s portraits into giant wheatpastes, and discovered that of the more than 120,000 people who’ve participated, only one was from Iran, he got the idea to do his own version, specifically focused on Iran.
“Since it was close to the Iranian Presidential elections,” Arbabi told Hyperallergic, “I decided to use photos of demonstrators who lost their lives during 09 protests. The color bars came last to add life to the photos of the deceased.” The resulting 20-by-50-foot mural went up in the “Bushwick Art Park” earlier this month, featuring the faces of 40 Iranian protesters in eight different colors, and a candlelight vigil was held in front of the mural on June 14, the day of the Iranian elections. “Inside Out Project: Iran,” as the piece is called, is a smart twist on JR’s original idea: instead of simply (and blandly) celebrating life and humanity, regardless of politics, it refocuses our attention on the very real conflict of life and death and the problem of individual expression in the face of a repressive state. It also complicates and belies the “global” nature of the original “Inside Out.”
Arbabi explained by email how the loss of American and Western attention on Iran affected protesters in the country. The movement, he wrote, “died exactly at the time Michael Jackson died! Michael’s death took over US media and Iran was hardly ever mentioned ever again. That really sucked because the Iranian slogan at the time was ‘Where is my vote?’ They were holding those signs in English so foreign press would acknowledge and broadcast their struggle for freedom. Once our focus shifted to Michael Jackson … many protesters felt left out in front of a brutal regime and lost their appetite to fight.”
But, he added, the conditions of the country affected the fight, too. “Unlike what we see in Syria several years after the uprisings began, in Iran it only lasted around 6 months,” he said. “Iranians still have a stable middle class and are much better off than the Syrians to go all out and risk their lives. After six months of unarmed demonstrations and around hundred dead, people gave up and the uprising was crushed by the government.”
The news cycle is swift and merciless; incidentally, so is the cycle of street art. The wheatpastes went up a few weeks ago and are largely gone already. The bottom half of the mural has mostly succumbed to the painted wall underneath, and up top, torn pieces of paper fly up in the breeze. It seems trite to say that the mural is almost more poignant and fitting in this decayed state, so I’ll just say it was good while it lasted.
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