Sepideh Moafi on the red carpet at the 80th Annual Golden Globe Awards ® on January 10, 2023 (photo courtesy Golden Globes)

In a long, sequined black dress decorated with a blooming red flower on her right hip, Sepideh Moafi brought the women’s revolt in Iran to this year’s Golden Globe Awards. The Black Bird actress wore the gown in homage to the people in Iran risking their lives fighting for freedom and an end to the country’s theocracy. 

What some may not know is the story behind the dress, a collaboration between two Iranian-American designers and artists: Amir Taghi, who created the silhouette, and Milad Ahmadi, who calligraphed the flower.

Milad is a 26-year-old Iranian multidisciplinary artist living in New York City. A frequent collaborator of Amir Taghi, they hand-painted the vinyl red poppy flower to commemorate the lives lost since the death of Mahsa (Zhina) Amini after her arrest by the morality police. Their names spiral chronologically on the petals, with those of the four young men executed by the Islamic Republic after sham trials prominently featured on the front four petals.

“I wish I never had to write these names down,” Milad wrote in an Instagram post following Moafi’s appearance at the Golden Globe Awards. The victims were “artists, journalists, musicians, teachers, students, chefs, bloggers, designers, doctors, children, teenagers, brothers, sisters, friends, mothers, fathers … real humans.” 

Milad Ahmadi’s finished poppy design before being attached to the dress (photo courtesy Milad Ahmadi)

Over the past four months, protest art has propelled Iranian women’s fight for freedom and the government’s brutal crackdown into the cultural spotlight. In New York, artists organized a “die-in” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a protest at the Guggenheim Museum, and an event called “Baraye Azadi: An Evening of Resistance Through Art” at the Chelsea Market Maker’s Studio.

In December, at the Baraye Azadi — meaning “for freedom” — charity arts event co-organized by Moafi, Milad painted for the audience during a recitation of Iranian poetry. “I wanted the painting to be symbolic of hope,” they said. “The element of hope is integral to my work, it’s all we have.”

Milad writing the victims’ names in Persian on the flower petals (photo courtesy Milad Ahmadi)

Broad, caressing brushstrokes filled the human-sized canvas of a mother embracing a child holding a rose. The maternal figure is symbolic of “mother Iran,” while the colors red, white, and green represent the Iranian flag. “Protest art means everything to me. That’s all I stand for,” Milad said. The artist-designer describes their work as “fashion adjacent,” using their fine art skills to produce pieces that are then printed onto both casual and formal attire. 

In 2022, they designed artwork for the Freedom Dress as part of Amir Taghi’s limited collection with actress Nazanin Boniadi. The print flows fluidly from a “dark background to this glimmer of hope running through it. It’s bright, it’s golden,” they said. The dress was notably worn by Empress Farah Pahlavi, the widow of the last Shah of Iran, and actress Olivia Coleman, with proceeds benefiting human rights organizations. 

In the upcoming weeks, Milad will create a piece of artwork to be printed on crewnecks and t-shirts as part of Azadi Co.’s newest collection portraying, in their words, “young women trampling the patriarchy.” After attending weeks of protests in New York, Azadi Co. co-founder Helen Kamali noticed that people were wearing homemade shirts with Sharpie-scrawled slogans across them and then changing into regular clothes directly after. She thought if protesters continued to show their support for the feminist movement through their apparel, then people could become “walking billboards for the movement” and broaden its reach. That was the impetus behind Azadi Co. 

The clothing line’s slogan is “streetwear for freedom,” referring to the brand’s political message advocating for the feminist movement as well as its mission to direct proceeds to US-based, Iran-centered nonprofit organizations, such as the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran.

A protester wearing Azadi Co.’s “Be A Voice” sweatshirt (courtesy Azadi Co.)

Azadi Co.’s collection of eight protest designs portrays powerful Iranian women, celebrates Iran’s multicultural society, and condemns the Islamic Republic. 

The “Be A Voice” print is a montage of photos of young protesters who have been killed in Iran and snapshots of women protesting for their rights. Multidisciplinary visual artist Nilou Kazemzadeh originally produced the design as poster art in the early days of the protests. 

For Kazemzadeh, protest art is indispensable because “it transcends cultural, social, and political constructs,” allowing non-community members to “see the pain we’ve felt or hopes we have for the future.” In the US, these visuals connect the public to the seemingly distant news stories of egregious human rights violations in Iran. Protest art portrays Iranian women as mobilizers and agents of resistance, a perspective that decades of institutionalized stereotypes and US-Iran tensions have masked. 

For many Iranian artists, especially those living in exile or outside of their home country, the power of art extends beyond raising awareness. “It’s revolutionary, it lets us imagine possibilities,” Milad says. While the future of Iran is unknown, protest art depicts revolutionary prospects.

Mandy Taheri is an audio and print journalist covering art, culture, and cuisine. Find her on Twitter at @mandytaheri.