IN CONVERSATION WITH MARZIEH POOYAN
Graffiti art in Iran has adopted a powerful and political stance against increasingly aggravated socio-political conflicts and injustices towards precarious communities. An anonymous art collective named The Street: Tribune for the Political Prisoner has initiated the painting of a series of black-and-white graffiti images on the walls of mostly Tehran city as well as other cities. They began this project in order to demand justice and equality through the medium of art as well as to mourn and remember those from the past or present who have died during the recent protests in Iran in December 2017 or have been imprisoned for political reasons. This raises the questions: how does street graffiti art seek justice for the oppressed and the dead? And how do graffiti and its intervention in the city artistically display mourning?
Graffiti on Tehran’s Walls: Visual Stories of Injustice and Inequality
For decades, graffiti art and images have been an indispensable part of Iran’s contemporary history and have formed a significant genre of Iranian political art. For instance, graffiti of anti-Shah slogans appeared on the walls of Tehran shortly before the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Moreover, graffiti played a role in post-revolutionary Iran, the Iran-Iraq war (1981-1989), the 2009 presidential era and, most recently, the events prior to, during and after the countrywide protests in 2017, which responded to the country’s socioeconomic conflicts and political upheavals.
In December 2017, a massive countrywide protest emerged, which was mostly due to the economic crisis and precarious living conditions for the working and the lower middle classes. Alongside these protests, new images and paintings started to appear on the walls of the capital and some other cities. These images depicted political prisoners, imprisoned students, workers, teachers and activists who were killed in prison, and deceased intellectuals from past decades with slogans about inequality and injustice in the country. These graffiti images are arguably among the first in Iran’s recent history to present images of imprisoned people demanding justice. This raises a need for further elaboration on how the appearance of graffiti images in Iran has and continues to mingle art and activism in order to mourn and demand justice for those who were killed or imprisoned during these years.
The Right to Appear on the Walls of the Cities
If someone walks through the Enghelab (Persian word for Revolution) Street of Tehran, certain main streets in the capital or other cities in the country, they will observe black prints and slogans everywhere on the walls. The walls are the canvases, frames and platforms on which The Street collective has printed many images. One of the first graffiti works created by the anonymous collective was an image of Shahrokh Zamani, an Iranian union activist who died due to a stroke and the consequence of long-term hunger strike in prison in 2015. The images on the walls arguably reclaim the right to appear in public spaces, while the real bodies that the images represent are either killed or incarcerated within prison cells.
Street Graffiti as Artistic Manifestation of Bodies Assembling
In Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (2015), gender scholar Judith Butler has specified that participants of street demonstrations demand justice merely through their presence, as “when people amass on the street, one implication seems clear: they are still here and still there; they persist”. This claim applies to silent protests as well, as
… even when they are not speaking or do not present a set of negotiable demands, the call for justice is being enacted: the bodies assembled “say” “we are not disposable,” whether or not they are using words at the moment; what they say, as it were, is to claim that “we are still here, persisting, demanding greater justice, a release from precarity, a possibility of a liveable life.”
Regarding the activism of people who “assemble on the street, in the square, or in other public venues”, Butler has labelled it as a performance which is “exercis[ing] – one might call it performative – of the right to appear, a bodily demand for a more livable set of live”. Moreover, as Butler has advanced her theory of the “right to appear”, she has posed the seminal questions of “what is justice, and what are the means through which the demand for justice can be made, understood, taken up?” The present article proposes that the means of reclaiming justice could be more powerfully employed in combination with the arts – in this case, street graffiti. Such means of demanding justice manifest the performance of the right to appear, which Butler has stipulated as follows:
For when bodies gather as they do to express their indignation and to enact their plural existence in public space, they are also making broader demands: they are demanding to be recognized, to be valued, they are exercising a right to appear, to exercise freedom, and they are demanding a liveable life.
Street Graffiti as Visual Expression of Images of the Suppressed
Similar to the performative gathering of bodies for recognition in a public space, the graffiti images could also provide a medium for the visual expression of images of the suppressed. Each night – or even during the daytime – the art collective endangers their lives and takes accountability for printing images on the walls of the city. Thereby, they precisely perform the art of exposing images of the suppressed “to be recognized, to be valued”. When the bodies of the artist merge with the bodies that should not be forgotten, the demand for justice and its intervention in the public space becomes more manifestly potent. Furthermore, the graffiti images on the walls of Tehran are “simple” works of art. They don’t lay claim to aestheticism or grandiose appreciation and investment by gallery curators. Their function is not to reproduce the slogan of “art for art’s sake”; rather, they perform the banned acts of witnessing and mourning.
Graffiti Images on Walls of Tehran as Witnesses
The message of the artworks in the images above is clear: the dead will not be forgotten. Artists from the collective have continually printed images of prisoners to force everyone to memorise their faces and encourage collective remembrance and mourning. There have been other instances of worker activists and students who were imprisoned for political reasons. In this sense, the images on the walls of Tehran and other Iranian cities bear witness to the increasingly unjust conditions that various communities throughout the country oppose every day.
In her article “Memory Acts: Performing Subjectivity” (2001), visual culture scholar Mieke Bal has analysed the photograph installation of Irish artist James Coleman and noted that memory can be performative:
The point – or rather, – the performativity of these images without image, is that you think of something, something that is culturally embedded so that the sequence of the images to come will confirm or infirm the association. Memory as stage director. This is what makes the viewer a performer.
When memory acts as a “stage director”, it becomes a significant element and motif as well, and “[i]n this conflation of performance and performativity, memory is the crucial element, the motor of both activities and the factor that makes the event social”. In this regard, the graffiti images can play a crucial role in this performativity of memory and actively bear witness to a social event. Thereby, graffiti reflects “cultural memory [and] bridges the gap between public and private”.
Although graffiti images of past and present Iranian political prisoners are applied to Tehran’s walls every day and night, government officials remove them during the daytime. Nevertheless, their efforts have not exhausted or hindered the activity of the anonymous resistance artists, who have accomplished exposure and the art of memorisation through inscription.
Graffiti as testifying and mourning for the dead
Thus, as a popular genre in the Iranian context, graffiti art enacts revolt against forgetting the oppressed and the dead. Graffiti images reflect the injustices that have occurred in the polis, a space where the organisation of people is under surveillance and heavily regulated. In this sense, in “Bearing Witness in the Polis: Arendt, Kristeva, and the Space of Appearance” (2005), Noëlle McAfee has highlighted the function of graffiti art in times when people are constantly denied from their voices and rights. In explaining how brutal regimes have denied the right of citizens to the city as the space of appearance, McAfee has drawn on philosopher Hannah Arendt’s notion of engaging with the polis – the “space of appearance” – and furthered her argument concerning how to bear witness through narratives:
Arendt would like to consider narrative as action, not production, but here the line between these two activities blurs, especially given the fact that the kind of narrative that interests her is the one that is memorializing and to remain so must be recorded: a story turned artefact.
McAfee has also stated that acts of testifying “not only help heal the speakers’ own psyches they help heal a nation.” Therefore, narratives and testimonies in public spaces are two important tools to come to terms with the brutalities that a government has imposed on a nation.
As argued thus far, graffiti works in Tehran have functioned as testimonies. There are few legal means, if any, to demand justice or heal the injured psyches of generations of people due to the harshness of past and present times. Therefore, the only remaining approach is to creatively amplify the voice of the silenced and seek for other ways of mourning, as mourning of dead bodies in the way it’s commonly regarded is hardly possible.
Thus, mourning has become a fundamentally political act in the current Iranian context. In such a situation, graffiti images perform the ritual of mourning and demanding justice through the framework of art. Thereby, I argue how they act as “shadows” of the dead bodies that haunt the city to testify and demand justice. Under a condition that forbids grieving and mourning and in which justice is far from tangible, it is through art and activism – here, through graffiti images – that the demand for justice and the mourning of the dead become feasible and radicalised.
Marzieh Pooyan is currently studying GEMMA Master’s program in Women’s and Gender Studies. She is from Iran. Marzieh is a poet and a feminist researcher working on history of women’s movements and feminist interventions in urban spaces. Marzieh Pooyan is her pen name.
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Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.
Bal, Mieke. “Memory Acts: Performing Subjectivity.” Boijmansbulletin.nl 1, no. 2 (February 2001): 8-18.
Butler, Judith. Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. London: Harvard University Press, 2015.
McAfee, Noëlle. “Bearing Witness in the Polis: Arendt, Kristeva, and the Space of Appearance,” in Revolt, affect, collectivity. The unstable boundaries of Kristeva’s polis, edited by Tina Chanter and Ewa Płonowska Ziarek, 113-127. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.