Afirst they Tried performing arts. Across Iran, young men and women crouched, their heads bowed in obedience, their arms handcuffed to trees or lampposts. Protesters bent over padlocked mannequins to street signs as police began rounding them up. At sports games, players adopt a similar posture when scoring, recreating the fate of Khoda Nour, a protester tied to a flagpole by the mullah’s men, with no food or drink, and a glass of water placed in front of him in the out of his reach.
Then they move from theater to visual arts. Two months after Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini was arrested for showing her hair under the mandatory veil, protest art is changing the urban landscape. The stencils of Amini and other women killed on the uprising plaster walls rival the state’s ubiquitous murals glorifying martyrdom. A public fountain spewed red dye, prompting authorities to drain it. Stickers cover old street signs with new names. Ekbatan, on the western outskirts of the capital Tehran, has been dubbed Arman after a young man was shot dead during protests. Demonstrators waved black Islamic flags and had mockingly wavy haircuts. Middle-class girls in northern Tehran carry a new type of handbag with splashes of red that mimic bullet wounds.
Graffiti artists have to work fast; some get shot. “It’s hard to create when the workspace is so hostile,” explains one. It takes seconds to spray paint the stencils and tie the paper leaves with the names of fallen protesters written on them to the tree.
Iconoclasm is usually the fastest. Portraits of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, spilled from rooftops and red paint often lined the sides of residential complexes. The faded image of the regime’s founder, Ruhollah Khomeini, with bleeding eyes (see above). Traffic noise is also changing. Drivers honk their horns to the rhythm of “Death to a Dictator,” and women wave their veils from their windows.
To be on the safe side, many artists are retreating online. Some fashionable medieval images have armies armed with spears surrounding a turban-wielding woman. Others went for pop art, showing scissors cutting Mona Lisa’s hair.
Still, they have struggled to create an icon for their defiance across Iran’s racial, religious, economic and gender divides. Some recreated images of the 1979 revolution, Soviet-style fists clenched and chains snapped. Some female artists worry that men will try to intrude on their sphere. “They say we are all part of the patriarchy,” grumbled one male artist, trying to distribute one of his posters. ■