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Art | Painted Politics: The Mural in Modern Iran

by BAHAMIN AZADI

02 Jun 2012 01:22Comments

Striking contrasts between outdated official styles, an urban milieu reflecting different values, and a new, less politicized generation of paintings.

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Bahamin Azadi is a pen name for an independent researcher in sociology.
[ art ] The history of mural painting returns to the first efforts of human beings to trace their experiences and thoughts in pictorial form in an effort to communicate and adorn their lives. The term comes from the Latin word murus, "wall." Urban murals are distinct from other forms of painting in that they bear the feature of "publicity" -- in other words, a painting that is created in public for the public.

In the modern era, across different societies and cultures, mural painting has generally reflected the political atmosphere of the time. Murals have been used to express protest and a desire for emancipation. Through their use of symbols, murals have the power to express narratives that promote social awareness and a variety of minority and socioeconomic class viewpoints.

Bringing art into the public sphere is one of the most important characteristics of murals. In numerous societies -- especially ones, such as postrevolutionary Iran, that are highly politicized -- they tend to express the ideological values of the state because they are almost invariably commissioned and sponsored by the government or its affiliated organs. Art, and in this specific case, murals, can perform the role of a vital medium for the expression of ideological, economic, social, and cultural change. This is because they are a "place" where everyday life, publicity, and artistic expression cross paths.

The Mexican muralist art movement, identified with painters such as Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and José Orozco, is perhaps the best-known of this genre. Other countries with important traditions of political mural painting include Northern Ireland, Colombia, and East Germany. In each, murals played an important role in reflecting changes in the political culture through the depiction of subjects ranging from religion to sex.

Murals in modern Iran and elsewhere have often served the role of creating public awareness of certain issues and in decisive ways performed the function of sociopolitical critique, as well as reinforcing political and community identities. The mural has the power to act as a mediator between the public, the government, and artists. This relationship is complex and very prickly at times, especially when, as is so often the case in Iran, art is politicized and politics is aestheticized.

Murals have the power to open up for ordinary people ways of seeing that are not their own and help them take control of the way they view the world around them. This isn't always the case, and it's clear that murals equally can have a negative effect under certain circumstances, especially when in the hands of an unaccountable and/or ideologically driven state. Totalitarian governments use murals as a means to grab people's attention and shape their politico-ideological convictions through the occupation of public space.

BAzadi2.jpgIn the social context of postrevolutionary Iran, murals are rarely neutral or disengaged but rather advocate a particular worldview. Many exhort with messages that glorify the values of the Islamic state and the religious moral code of which it claims to be a faithful advocate and enforcer. Qur'anic verses and sayings of the Prophet Mohammad and the Shia Imams, along with homilies and edifying verses from classical Persian poetry, blanket the city. Murals with this sort of content can be understood as an extension of the state's authority as guardian of the public space and its "moral probity." Paradoxically, both the people and the state know very well the "effrontery" to such values perpetrated behind the doors of average Tehran residents, who dare to hold mixed parties with Western pop music and suggestive dancing, and those of government officials alike.

A key function played by murals is the engendering of changes in the values of those who see them on a daily basis. This is a long-term process, which takes effect at both a conscious and unconscious level. In the mural paintings in and around Tehran, we find many that convey clear messages meant to influence the people who live or work nearby and pass them on a regular basis. The effect of murals on the aesthetic of the city and people's sensibilities and feelings has the capacity to educate and inform them. They can also serve as highly effective propaganda weapons, demarcating perceived threats to all that is "good" and "wholesome" within the society.

After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, revolutionary mural paintings proliferated across Tehran in a disorganized and unpredictable way, in step with the revolutionary zeal that characterized the first years after the Pahlavi monarchy's downfall. The government didn't dictate where murals ought to be drawn and self-proclaimed revolutionaries painted when and where inspiration struck. There was as yet no formal authority for the commission and oversight of murals. Political organizations close to the government, such as the Foundation for the Oppressed and the Foundation for Martyrs and Veteran Affairs, were the most prolific patrons of wall murals during this period.

The main goal of mural painting was the remembrance, re-creation, and revival of revolutionary passions in the name of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. Murals also served as ideal vehicles for the revolutionary state to heap admiration upon the heroes and victims of its interminable war with neighboring Iraq and to galvanize the population in the name of the "greater good," the "Imam," "Islam," and the "vatan" (homeland). As the conflict dragged on and spirits flagged, murals sought to boost morale. They also allowed those not on the front lines to connect to the "heroics" on the battlefield and to band together on behalf of the values propagated by the state. Famed martyrs would find themselves "immortalized" on the walls of the cities from which they hailed, encouraging a spirit of "sacrifice" and "transcendence." Murals also provided a significant public outlet for the Islamic revolutionary leadership's denunciation of the West and "Western perfidy," held as implacably hostile to the Revolution and all it represented.

BAzadi3.jpgThe institutionalization of ideas and ideals, comparable to the Mexican revolutionary mural movement of the 1920s and 1930s, is one of the most important characteristics of this generation of mural paintings in Tehran. Technically speaking, there was little if anything innovative about the postrevolutionary Iranian paintings, and to that extent the analogy with the Mexican movement is wanting. Indeed, in terms of technique, Iran's postrevolutionary paintings are arguably far closer to the genre of Soviet realism. The well-known Iranian Assyrian artist Hannibal Alkhas (1930-2010), for instance, painted murals throughout the city with his students that explored themes addressing radical issues in anti-imperialism. The iconic mural on the wall of the American embassy is his most famous work. (The original has been covered with the mural seen at right.)

Another important artist of that period was Bahram Dabiri (1950-), responsible for a major mural at the south Tehran bus terminal. Reflecting upon his revolutionary murals some decades later, he stated that his aim was to change the public's very identity through the artistic representation of social and political messages. Dabiri proposed to the municipality that he take as his canvas the bus terminal because it was a heavily trafficked space, where the effect of his murals would be amplified by the station's repeated broadcasts of revolutionary anthems. The public, witnessing the painting created before them as they went about their daily lives, would imbibe revolutionary consciousness into their quotidian existence, so that the two became a seamless unity.

After a short time, however, Dabiri's bus station mural was erased as the Islamic state sought to forcefully stamp its control on the images that helped define the visual landscape of the metropolis. The problem, according to the authorities, was an excess of the color red in the painting, thought to indicate that its sympathies were communist. Today, Dabiri contends that this period of painting has little artistic merit because, as a sociopolitical phenomenon, the Revolution can not or rather should not be aestheticized, since it is almost invariably detrimental to art to put it in the service of political ends.

The murals that depict the "purity" and the "holy" struggle of those who fought and were martyred in the eight-year war against Iraq rely on an iconography of blood, birds (symbolizing freedom), guns, and soldiers' battlefield appurtenances, such as thermoses and fatigues. Some recent Persian-language critiques pointing to the prevalence of such images have contended that while no doubt important as a reminder of the sacrifice so many young people made in the course of the war effort, long-term exposure to such images day in and day out may not only distort viewers' aesthetic sensibilities but damage their psychological well-being -- they are examples of "visual pollution," to use a term employed within the fields of landscape design and urban theory.

These mural paintings that have spread around the city in ad hoc fashion have in recent years been criticized for lacking artistic value. They have also become damaged and antiquated. Their moral, sociopolitical, and religious messages loom in striking contrast to the traffic jams, trash, and other urban eyesores around them, along with all the other unhappy features of city life, such as domestic violence, drugs, poverty, and prostitution. Moral clarity and morality ambiguity collide. "Purity" and "degradation" and "filth" stand side by side, contradicting one another and yet unable to efface each other's presence. (Some practitioners of mural art state that their true role is to transform the neighborhoods where they paint into more pleasant and comforting ones for their inhabitants and others who frequent them.)

Another irony is the juxtaposition of commercial billboards and revolutionary murals -- gratuitous luxury and the pretense of austerity and humility, again side by side. A new class of wealthy Tehranis has sprouted up, many of whom derive from the political and mercantile elites instrumental in the religious-revolutionary mobilizations of the late 1970s and early 1980s. This class has in many ways come to embody the strange tensions between humble religious origins, newfound wealth, and political power. Similarly, while the first revolutionary murals were explicitly painted for the purpose of espousing anti-imperialist and anti-American sentiment, some 30 years later murals across Tehran coax revolutionaries-cum-consumers to spend their hard-earned money on the hottest brands and latest technologies. And these billboards are painted in the same style as are the murals of Iran's revolutionary leaders.

Place-memory in urban life is formed on a day-by-day basis, a process in which murals can play pivotal roles. The manner in which our memories become associated and intertwined with places leads to an emotional connection. As a result, we find we can be both repelled and attached to certain locations.

BAzadi4.jpgThe photograph at left shows a mural on Enghelab (Revolution) Avenue, the second longest street in Tehran, which connects its east and west sides. Many thousands of pedestrians and cars pass down this street on a daily basis; jammed with traffic most of the time, its sonic ambience is defined by the honking of horns and blaring car stereos. Visual pollution and noise is characteristic of this street, which has been a venue for demonstrations and other political activities since the Islamic Revolution.

This wall painting seek to demonstrate the "fatherly," "watchful benevolence" of the Supreme Leaders of the Revolution, who are always depicted in larger scale than any other figures with whom they might share a given mural -- in this case, a young soldier who fought in the Iran-Iraq War. Religious and political hierarchy is thus continually reiterated and reinforced. After 30 years of such images, one wonders how they are now received by most Iranians and whether they have fallen into obsolescence, become no more than reminders of a past age rather than testimony to a dynamic, youthful city. One wonders whether such images do not merely breed further resentment at the state's failures, magnifying discontents accumulated over many years.

Moreover, while such images can potentially contribute to a kitschy form of tourism, particularly among travelers from the Western hemisphere -- for whom such sanctification of political leaders is increasingly unusual -- this genre of public art, laced with anti-Westernism, has probably served to turn off many more potential tourists from visiting Iran.

The idea of "gharbzadegi," or "Westoxification" -- the term was coined by the Iranian intellectual Jalal Al-e Ahmad in the 1960s -- informs the official political creed. It also stands as a reminder that the state sees itself as predicated on "cultural independence" from the Western world. Western cultural encroachment -- or "cultural onslaught" (tahajom-e farhangi), as official organs often put it -- is regarded as a pressing threat to the Islamic Republic's identity, if not its very existence. Most murals are thus still intended to perform the role of reminding Iranian citizens that they are expected to remain faithful to the official ideological cast of mind and uphold its values in their daily lives.

BAzadi6.JPGThere are some interesting trends that break with the orthodoxy of the past three decades. For instance, today one can find murals in many cities that attract Iranian tourists from different parts of the country. Their sites have been adopted as scenic spots, where families may visit and perhaps picnic nearby. This remodeling of the function of the mural, in addition to encouraging domestic travel in some modest way, also appears to be having an incremental impact on the visual culture of Iran, which has grown weary of images of the past.

Unlike the conventional images that stress anti-Westernism and hostility to foreign influences, some contemporary murals bear the unmistakable influence of European and American styles of painting, embodying a stylistic eclecticism, toward which state pronouncements have often expressed antipathy. Whereas much of the official imagery depicted in murals explicitly and implicitly informs Westerners that they are unwelcome on the streets of Tehran, many recently painted murals in the capital completely avoid that antagonistic aesthetic.

Examples of the latest generation of mural paintings in Iran tend toward relatively apolitical subject matter and are less inclined to exalt revolutionary values. Many reflect the everyday life of Iranians or portray calming natural landscapes. They are more decorative, as opposed to emotive, and no longer attempt to inspire or mobilize in the name of a cause.

This new generation of murals began to appear in the 1990s. In 2001, under the presidency of President Mohammad Khatami, a special department for mural paintings and graphics was established by the Tehran municipality. In 2006, I interviewed the department's head, who told me that mural paintings in Tehran had progressed substantially and recent stylistic changes and technical innovations echoed in important ways those found in other world capitals and metropolitan centers. Although he spoke about some of the problems presented by the first generation of wall paintings, specifically the issue of "visual pollution," he still did not have a clear position on the issue of erasing the city's many old, worn, and damaged murals that reflect outdated ideas and obsessions. He told me that a lot of time would need to be spent on considering what would be painted in their stead. His department's actual power is limited mainly to preventing other agencies from commissioning murals without its authorization. Its role is for the most part technical and advisory, including weighing in on artistic issues and matters of taste.

Despite the many aesthetic, technical, and political problems in the field of Iranian mural painting, it seems that lessons are gradually being learned. As a result of the work of courageous artists, and even some conscientious local authorities, there is reason to believe that mural painting in Iran's capital, as well as its other major cities, has a vibrant future.

Photo of mural depicting ayatollahs Khamenei and Khomeini with soldier: A1one. Mural of rain cloud: Mehdi Ghadyanloo.

related reading | Tehran: Paradox City 1 | Tehran: Paradox City 2 | The Writing on the Wall

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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