Two protestbanners, from Utrecht to Berlin
“What is the topic today? Revolution” – reflecting on (artistic) solidarity and agency in- and outside Iran
Katayoon is an artist who finds herself physically in the Netherlands, but mentally in Iran, where her friends are currently fighting for their freedom. Being an artist that belongs to the Iranian diaspora, she tries to contribute to the protests that emerged in Iran in response to the death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini. In what follows, Katayoon reflects not only on the past tumultuous month and a half, but on all the revolutionary movements that preceded it. What can art do in times of uprising?
In 2009, when I first entered the Fine Arts faculty of Tehran University, the Green Movement arose: powerful and peaceful protests that emerged in response to fraudulent elections. Today, thirteen years later, I see videos of similarly young, passionate and hopeful figures studying in the same town, sharing the same fight. While physically miles apart – I currently live in the Netherlands, where I recently graduated from a MA Fine Arts department of a Dutch Academy – I stand with them and their strong determination to get rid of the so-called “Islamic Republic”.
Iranian protests throughout the years
Let me go back to 2009, when the Tehran University stood as one of the centres of the predominantly student-led protests. Then and there, I learnt to raise my voice, demand my rights and join my peers. Then and there, I felt the warmness of solidarity and the coldness of violence for the first time. As students, we wanted to bring the fights we had started within university’s walls outside; to the streets. We wanted to unify with all these different people residing in Tehran and to collectively take back the city that had been stolen from us many years ago. While this was an amazing experience, the movement was marked by some horrible events as well. I remember seeing guns pointing at peaceful protestors; an extremely surreal but vivid sight. Ever since, I have learnt how to escape from police violence and find shelter, how to take care of others and myself and finally, how to turn the horrors of bloodshed into collective energy and strength.
It took time for the regime to control the fire of our rage, and even though our flames were never completely turned off, they managed to suppress us in the end. I learnt how to remain optimistic about the power of the people. Back in our classrooms and ordinary daily lives, we continued fighting in our own ways. The simple fact that we lived and existed became a form of resistance. Walking around Tehran, we found spots in the city that could be turned into and our places. We felt confident when we were in these safe zones, despite the many efforts made to undermine this confidence. During the anti-hijab movement The Girls of Revolution Street in 2017, we recognised how important our bodies are as tools for battle; to stand on a utility box without a hijab on became a forceful way of protest. We continued to break the rules in any way possible, stepping forward every day.
Meanwhile, the country was ravaged by an economical meltdown, leaving many of the city’s inhabitants to immigrate. I found myself saying goodbye to a friend of family member at least once every month; the airport became a sort of liminal space that hosted our farewell rituals. I too was faced with the question of whether I should stay or go. The economical and political situation posed a dilemma for me: on the one hand, I wanted to travel in order to broaden my artistic horizon internationally only to then return to Tehran with even more energy and inspiration. One the other hand however, I had learned from others that returning to Iran after having gone elsewhere is very difficult given the current circumstances. Moreover, while I would have liked my decision to leave to have been a personal one, motivated by my ambition to enrich my artistic practice, I could not ignore the fact that due to societal pressures I had no choice but to go somewhere else. The decision to leave Iran was not a personal one; like all others belonging to the diaspora, I was forced to. To be separated from your loved ones, knowing they are struggling socially and politically every day, is tough. But I knew it was my turn to go and join the Iranian diaspora of eight million people, and counting.
While I would have liked my decision to leave to have been a personal one, motivated by my ambition to enrich my artistic practice, I could not ignore the fact that due to societal pressures I had no choice but to go somewhere else
As soon as I arrived in the Netherlands, the situation in Iran became even worse. A huge wage of protests emerged in response to an enormous increase in fuel prices. During these so-called Bloody November (or Bloody Aban)-protests in 2019 and 2020, I had to cope with the feeling of being far away from these struggles and therefore unable to do anything. I went to a meditation centre in the Netherlands to practice a form of meditation called Vipassana that I had tried before in Tehran, before the Iranian government banned it. I felt the need to refuge, to observe myself and to pay attention to the emotional situation I found myself in as a non-EU art-student from Iran. The morning I went to the meditation centre, I heard on the news that the American army killed the Iranian supreme commander (Qasem Soleimani) in Iraq. Ten days of silence and complete isolation later, I left the mediation centre and heard that the Ukraine airline Flight 752 was shot down by the Islamic revolutionary guard corps (IRGC), and that all passengers and crewmembers had been killed: a disaster caused by years of tension between the United States and Iran, which admitted they had targeted Flight 752 after mistakenly identifying it as an American cruise missile.
I remember walking out of the meditation centre and into a small, neat and very quiet village in the middle of the Netherlands. The contrast between the stability and flatness that surrounded me, and the chaos that I knew was hitting Iran, was destroying me. Shortly after, Navid Afkari, a young wrestler who had joined the Bloody November-protests and was the voice of the Iranian people, was executed. I never did meditation again. Instead, I started my artistic practice here at the HKU in Utrecht, trying to release pressure and reflect on the struggles of being an immigrant. Still, there was a lack: a lack of real-life solidarity, solidarity that goes beyond mere theory, words and capital. I was looking for practical solidarity with my people and a collective way of caring for all bodies fighting against tyranny anywhere in the world.
Two years after Bloody November and my graduation in The Netherlands, a new rage of protests started. On September 16th, 2022, the 22-year old Mahsa Jina Amini, a Kurdish woman, dies in the hands of the Iranian police. Jina’s death was the last drop, overflowing the society with frustration and anger. This is why the protests are still going strong, both in- and outside of Iran, despite the fact that the regime confronts the protestors, especially those belonging to marginalized communities, with shameless threats, arrests and mass murder. In many ways, this revolutionary movement is unlike previous ones. From the very beginning, the Iranian diaspora showed a high degree of solidarity, with many brave people risking their lives. Many different events, talks, texts, and other forms of activities were organised. Protest groups were formed organically, initiating new friendships between people with different backgrounds that share the same fight. Researchers, activists, artists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, and several positions gathered together, all trying to contribute in any way possible. Together, all these activities enabled a form of collective memory or even recovery.
Collective activities such as these are necessary in order to take care of the wellbeing of those belonging to the diaspora. Being here, we constantly try to keep up with what is happening there. This ambiguous way of life, where you are physically in one country but mentally in the other, is exhausting. You need to gather with, and talk to, others in order to fight depression, passivity and isolation. In this sense, all gatherings and collaborations function as our remedies.
Art in times of uprising
The importance of art in times of uprising became clearer than ever to me during the past months. After the death of Jina, artists in- and outside of Iran have been working endlessly in order to show their solidarity and spread the message of the protestors. Inside Iran, artists sprayed graffiti slogans in all kinds of public spaces like pouring red colour in city fountains – anonymous and selfless happenings that make me wonder about the agency of these artists that do not belong to any institution and that do not ask for any credit. Outside Iran, artists of the Iranian diaspora got involved in activist work as well; protesting in front of Iranian embassies or inside the Guggenheim museum (where red banners were draped across four floors) and thereby showing their solidarity.
Solidarity comes not only from Iranians; all kinds of people who experience similar struggles or simply feel sympathy with the protestors joined our fight as well. A month ago, I organised a demonstration against gender apartheid in Utrecht and people from all walks of life supported me. During a workshop we collectively made banners, writing down slogans in different languages. My favourite one is: “What is the topic today? Revolution.”, which is taken from a scene in the movie The Hidden Half (2001) by female Iranian director Tahmineh Milani. I have taken it to all other demonstrations I joined ever since; it became ‘my’ sign after a while, making it easy for my friends to recognize me in a large crowd.
When we received the invitation to join the rally in Berlin on October 22nd, we started to organize transportation and places to stay for those joining the protest. An old friend of mine, who is a Paris and Berlin-based artist, hosted me. We knew each other from elementary school, a prison-like school full of idiotic rules, and talked about all that happened during those years and ever since. Amazingly, we were together again now, standing up against all the suppressions that we had experienced.
During the demonstration, which counted 80.000 protestors (!), I saw many friends from art school, as well as other familiar faces. It was a magnetic power that gathered all of us in one location. Sharing big hugs and chanting powerfully, we formed a fearless group of people! We were united by an enormous wish to experience this collectivity one day in Iran; the “we” has always been a big threat to dictatorship. Countless of art pieces by artists and non-professional artists passed by during the Berlin rally. A 10-meters long painting/banner that visualised the resistance of the people, for example, and a portrait of the Supreme leader of the Islamic Republic consisting entirely of balloons! Again, I was struck by the power of this form of selfless art that did not need to be claimed by anyone.
Of course, one of the most important and dangerous of art’s potentials is its power to imagine other realities. As artists and activists, we believe in our power, resistance, and solidarity more than in the past. A big change is on its way due to the power of the people, and art can help to trigger it. However, the creativity of the people exhibits itself not only in art. It is when people stand against tyranny with their own bodies, when they start to collectively rebel against existing political structures, that a new reality is imagined and generated. The figures of resistance that I see in videos and images of protests in Iran, that the anonymous Iranian writer “L” described beautifully in her essay titled “Women Reflected in Their Own History”, remind me of the trilogy of Egyptian feminist, writer, and activist Nawal El Saadawi, called “Creativity, Dissidence and Women”. These female bodies and other figures that are resisting against the vicious system bring El Saadawi’s novel to life; they disobey and break the real-life and deeply systemic structure of patriarchy with creativity. Creativity is a feminine power that I believe resides within everyone, regardless of gender and sex, and that can generate a hopeful perspective, even in times when dictatorship is trying to counter creativity by spreading fear and dogma. Thus, let’s chant all together: Jin, Jiyan, Azadi; Woman, Life, Freedom!
Katayoonis an artist