Artists and Activists Plan Mass Actions on Anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s Death

Nearly one year ago on September 16, 2022, Mahsa (Zhina) Amini died after she was beaten into a coma by Iran’s so-called “morality police” for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly. The day after Amini’s death, protests erupted across Iran and rapidly spread beyond the country’s borders. The ongoing movement adopted the originally Kurdish slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom” to denounce human rights abuses and the systemic oppression of women under the authoritarian Islamic Republic regime.

On Saturday, September 16, mass actions in dozens of cities across the country and world will commemorate Amini on the one-year anniversary of her death. Here in New York City, activist organization Woman Life Freedom NYC will lead a march across the Brooklyn Bridge and open an art exhibition that reflects on the past and future of Iran.

Meysam Azarzad, “Untitled (Portrait of Mahsa Amini)” (2022), 17 x 22 inches (image courtesy the artist and Pamela Karimi)

A member of the Iranian-based art and activism group Tehran Artist Circle, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of government persecution, explained to Hyperallergic that the killings of hundreds of protesters; the internet crackdowns; the arrests of artists, activists, journalists, and professors; and the suspensions of students have stymied public protests in Iran, and the brutal governance of Iran has gone on largely unchanged. 

“But the civil disobedience of the people inside Iran continues,” the activist said. “It is a sign of Iranians’ growth and courage; in other words, the more suffocation in Iran, the more protesting.”

Leila Abdollahi Miller, a leader of the Woman Life Freedom NYC organization that has staged large-scale protests in the city since the group’s founding last October, emphasized the artist’s point, telling Hyperallergic that Iranians have continually performed acts of “micro civil disobedience”: painting graffiti, singing in the streets, dancing in the subway, refusing to wear the hijab, and talking back to the morality police. She noted that Iranians continue to be punished for these actions.

“It’s just a very emotional time as we reflect on the last year,” Abdollahi Miller said. “I start to remember all the people who have died — and still feeling kind of stuck with this regime. I think people are eager for action right now.”

At noon on Saturday, Woman Life Freedom NYC will lead a march from Lower Manhattan’s City Hall across the Brooklyn Bridge.

A Tehran Artist Circle action last year in Spain (photo courtesy Tehran Artist Circle)

Later that day at 6pm, the organization will open an exhibition at the School of Visual Arts’s Flatiron Gallery, a space that frequently houses student projects and community-driven displays. The show, titled Dear Ayandeh: Open letters to a free Iran, comprises protest signs and posters, photographs from past actions, and handwritten notes from around the world in different languages. The texts include letters to Iranians who have been killed, poems, and children’s drawings of a free Iran in a mix of meditations on the past and future — “things left unsaid,” as Abdollahi Miller described. The notes will be placed on transparent film and attached to mirrors on low-lying platforms resembling traditional Iran tombstones. When the viewer reads the notes, they will be forced to face their own reflection. Dear Ayendeh will remain open through the afternoon of Monday, September 18.

“We tried to do something that felt participatory,” Woman Life Freedom NYC member Sahar Ghaheri told Hyperallergic. She is an artist and industrial designer who co-organized the show with fellow artist and graphic designer Sara, who preferred not to use her last name out of caution for her ability to travel to Iran in the future. “People often feel very hopeless. How can we engage them in different ways? Maybe not everybody wants to go to a march, but people want to be around community.”

“It’s about the importance of keeping it relevant — it’s not on the news all the time,” Ghaheri added. 

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Arghavan Khosravi, “The Garden” (2022), acrylic on canvas mounted on shaped wood panels, 59 x 71 x 6 inches (image courtesy the artist)

Since the birth of the Woman Life Freedom movement, artists and filmmakers, both as collectives and individuals, have come to play an integral role in expanding the revolution and voicing solidarity. Cultural institutions have often hosted vital actions, sanctioned and unsanctioned, and performance-based protests have occurred across the country. Woman Life Freedom NYC held a die-in at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last December and an arts-based demonstration in Washington Square Park in November. A group of anonymous activists draped red banners down the spiraling walkway of the Guggenheim Museum last October, and a different group unfurled nearly identical banners at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art almost a month later. At the Los Angeles County Museum of Modern Art in November, artists and activists staged a poignant demonstration in commemoration of Iran’s “Bloody Friday” massacre. An exhibition at Culture Lab in Long Island City titled Anonymously, Iran opened this past March.

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Meysam Azarzad, “Untitled” (2022), 17 x 22 inches (courtesy the artist and Pamela Karimi)

This Saturday, September 16, Tehran Artist Circle will stage an installation-based protest in Houston, Texas, and other global cities. It will be the latest in a string of protests that center performance and sculptural exhibitions. The group’s core members are based in Tehran and its partners are located across the world. This action will comprise a table set with cups filled with red liquid and plates flanked by knives and covered in a blood-colored substance.

“The Iranian people need a spirit to continue their voice in the world — what better than art?” the Tehran Artist Circle member said, explaining that performances can build solidarity between people in Iran, people in the Iranian diaspora, and non-Iranians.

Other notable exhibitions and actions outside of New York include an installation of work by artist Meysam Azarzad at Dedee Shattuck Gallery in Westport, Massachusetts. Curated by Merri Cyr and Pamela Karimi, who is a Hyperallergic contributor, the show features a chronological arrangement of Azarzad’s work that begins with the artist’s portraits of protesters killed by Iranian authorities, including Amini, Nika Shahkarami, and Sarina Esmailzadeh, and continues with protest imagery. The accompanying labels delve into the victims’ personal and familial stories and explain the Farsi verses overlaid on the images — lines from the 11th-century epic poem Shahnameh.

Another Massachusetts exhibition at Brandeis University’s Rose Art Gallery, on view through October 22, showcases work by Iranian artist Arghavan Khosravi. The sculptural wall pieces in the show, titled Black Rain, explore Khosvari’s experiences of growing up in Iran, living as an immigrant, and now, living in exile. 

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The Woman Life Freedom NYC protest performance last year at Washington Square Park (photo by Shadi Garman, courtesy Woman Life Freedom NYC)

As protests have slowed in Iran, Woman Life Freedom NYC is evaluating what to do next. “Our mission is to amplify the voices of the people in Iran and reflect the work that they’re doing,” Abdollahi Miller said, explaining that at the beginning of the movement, Woman Life Freedom NYC was staging protests in front of large audiences, which mirrored what was happening in Iran. The current acts of civil disobedience happening in the nation are more difficult to echo.

“For us in New York, we don’t have a direct for translation for that,” Abdollahi Miller asked. “We’re at a renaissance and evaluating our role as diaspora — or if our role should be anything besides just solidarity. Which is a big question that across the country and globe that I think Iranians should be asking themselves: ‘What is our role? Is this our revolution or are we supporting people in Iran’s revolution?’” Recently, the group has been meeting, planning, and restructuring in order to adhere to its mission and preserve energy for when mass protests spike up again in Iran.

After this weekend’s events, Woman Life Freedom NYC will stage an action on Tuesday, September 19 in front of the United Nations in Manhattan, where President of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ebrahim Raisi is slated to speak.

Fatemeh Hassani, “Untitled” (2022), digital illustration (image courtesy the artist)

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