In Iran, art at the heart of the revolt

It’s stronger than her: Maryam (1) keeps humming. At bedtime, on waking, in a traffic jam in Tehran, while writing her next novel, a melody seizes her. “In the name of women, in the name of life, let us free ourselves from the bonds of bondage, may our dark night come to an end…”

Sometimes it’s this adaptation of the Chilean communist anthem, The united people will never be defeated, intoned on October 29 by music students at the university, their faces hidden behind white sheets. It can also be the melancholy air of Baraye (“For” in Persian), composed by his compatriot Shervin Hajipour from popular demands expressed on Twitter. “For students and their future, for this forbidden paradise, for the elites in prison…”

“Artists and intellectuals have become the faces of the opposition”

Maryam is spoiled for choice. Since it began on September 16, a multitude of refrains have accompanied the Iranian uprising. Solemn or intimate, they form a soundtrack that both prolongs and galvanizes it. “Everyone hums these tunes, they keep us moving”, Maryam continues. In return, the revolt feeds the musicians, but also many other artists. Drawings, videos, performances… Mainly broadcast on social networks, creations inspired by events abound in most areas.

” A lot of’Iranian artists are involved in the revolt,” observes the art historian Pamela Karimi, professor at the University of Dartmouth, in the United States, and author of a remarkable book on alternative art in Iran (Alternative Iran, not translated). Their involvement is due to a simple reason: “For years, Iranians have been prevented from forming political opposition groups. Given this lack, artists and intellectuals have become the faces of opposition. The role of artists is particularly important because the language of the arts is often indirect and abstract. »

Fruit of a creation on the spot, in the immediate wake of events, art does more than represent the uprising: it participates in the same movement and, in the end, merges with it. “Art is not the facade but the heart of the revolt”, summarizes the researcher.

The visual arts play the leading role, which they owe in part to the long Persian tradition of miniatures and calligraphy. This preponderance is also due to social networks, conducive to wide distribution, essential “to prove to the protesters that the world is with them”notes cartoonist Kianoush Ramezani, exiled in France and regular contributor to The cross. “Not dependent on translation, the visual arts can very quickly cross borders”, completes the author in exile Nasim Vahabi (2).

The images redouble their evocative force

The image also has the advantage of allowing an almost instantaneous reaction, much more than fiction for example. “Literature is always a retrospective thought and cannot do much in the midst of events”, explains, on condition of anonymity, a writer from Tehran, to whom his art imposes a heartbreaking place of spectator: “Part of me wants to take to the streets and throw stones at the police; another wants to stay back to observe these stone throws in order to tell them well later. »

Nourished by a terrible present, the images redouble their evocative force. Here, it is the cartoon of a delicate, naked and immaculate female corpse, which levitates on a black background while gunshots ring out – grace coiled in tragedy. A soft voice sings the drama, the entrails open but, rather than blood, the branches of a tree gush out. Hope, despite everything, would be permitted. A light that closes many stagings, such as this photo montage placing the Supreme Leader’s turban on a blocked ear, accompanied by the subtitle: “You don’t hear the noise of truncheons, or the crying of mothers, or sorrow, or the yearning for freedom”.

The role of ephemeral art

The images contribute to forming a symbolic repertoire of the uprising. Next to the unveiled face, which has become iconic, of Mahsa Amini, a young woman killed by the religious police on September 16, there is now the tender little head of Kian Pirfalak, 10, killed on November 17 by the police. , according to his family. Since then, the Web has been populated with portraits of the boy, most often crowned with a rainbow of which he had invoked “the god” in the video explaining one of his inventions – he was keen on robotics. And the red, orange, yellow, green stripes… to become emblematic.

Ephemeral art also plays a role. Several times a week, fountains in Tehran fill with blood-red ink. A disconcerting denunciation for the authorities, who strive to empty the basins before the author of the performance, anonymous, fills them again – a challenge to the regime in the form of a tragicomic enigma.

Frequent, anonymity feeds the feeling that the revolt belongs to all and that the people unite. It protects, too. The range of risks is wide. The music students who adapted the Chilean anthem received a zero in advance on their final exam – a compromising mark for their diploma.

Artists push the boundaries of fear

But most often, it is detention that threatens. Street artist Hamid Nikkhah, who paid tribute to the resistance on street signs in Zahedan, Sistan-and-Baluchistan, has just been arrested by intelligence. “Many of my colleagues were summoned and warned by the intelligence services for having criticized the repression, confides cartoonist Mana Neyestani, in exile in Paris. This is why many radical drawings against the regime and the mullahs have been published by anonymous profiles on Instagram or by artists outside Iran. »

​​​​​​​Marginalization is also part of the dangers. The actress Taraneh Alidoosti – present in many films of director Asghar Farhadi – took the risk by publishing, on November 9, a photo showing her unveiled, with a sign “woman, life, freedom” in hand (the slogan of the revolt).

By posing like this, Taraneh Alidoosti sends a very strong message of support to the people, which implies that his career is not a priority., explains Asal Bagheri, teacher-researcher at Cergy Paris University, semiologist and specialist in Iranian cinema. Because if the regime continues, she may never be able to work in Iran again. »

Like the demonstrators, the artists push back the frontier of fear. The future will tell if their commitment contributed to bring down the regime. Curator originally from Iran and based in London, Vali Mahlouji warns: “In a revolutionary moment, art has incredible aesthetic power. But when disaster strikes, he must do more than represent or disturb, he must defend hope. But the terror has already begun. »


The revolt in dates

On September 16, Iranians learn of the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, arrested by vice squad for violating the rules on wearing the veil in public. This is the kick-off of the demonstrations, which spread throughout the territory.

On September 30, 90 people are killed by the security forces during a demonstration in Zahedan, capital of the province of Sistan-and-Baluchistan.

The 3rd of October, Supreme Leader of the Revolution Ayatollah Khamenei says “These riots and insecurity are the work of the United States, the Zionist regime, of their mercenaries and some traitorous Iranians abroad who helped them”.

November 24, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations announces that more than 14,000 people have been arrested in two months. The crackdown has also killed at least 416 people, including 51 children, according to the NGO Iran Human Rights (IHR). Six death sentences in connection with the protests have been handed down.


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