Producer, Educator & Writer
For KQED News.
Earlier this week, after a brief rain in San Francisco’s Mission District, the sun appeared on Clarion Alley where a small team of women were brushing green paint on the top of a “Women, Life, Freedom” mural. The green, red and white of Iran’s flag served as the backdrop to the drawing of a woman cutting her ponytail with scissors — one of the many iconic images emerging from Iran in the past several weeks.
This is the second of at least three planned murals in solidarity with Iran. The first was completed in Albany at the end of October.
“The first mural in Albany shows a woman who is burning her headscarf, which is a symbol of oppression in Iran,” said Leva Zand, the executive director of ARTogether, a Bay Area nonprofit that uses arts for community building. Zand clarifies that when Iranian women burn their headscarves, they are not necessarily opposing the religious aspect, but rather what they see as an oppressive government.
The Iranian people are calling for regime change following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died in Iran after being arrested by Iranian morality police in mid-September for not properly wearing the hijab. Security forces, including paramilitary volunteers with the Revolutionary Guard, have violently cracked down on demonstrations, killing over 300 people and arresting more than 14,000, according to human rights groups.
Artists in Iran also are under fire. Recently, family members of Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi expressed concern for his health after he was arrested during ongoing protests. Salehi’s lyrics speak against corruption, poverty and the killing of protesters in Iran.
The Clarion Alley mural was finished earlier this week, and at least one more mural is planned for Oakland. The Oakland mural will take up a larger wall; be a collaboration between Iranian and non-Iranian artists; and require additional fundraising — so far, ARTogether has raised $1,500 of their goal of $15,000 for the final mural.
Zand says the mural series has two main goals: raising awareness about what’s happening in Iran, and showing solidarity with Iranians inside the country.
“It’s just heartwarming to me that my family and friends know that they are not alone and [that] we are thinking about them,” she said. Zand is a refugee from Iran, having left in 2003. She is also a scholar in feminist studies, so the fact that the current revolution is woman-led is important to her.
“We believe in [the] healing aspect of art and also [in the] community-building aspects of art,” she said. ARTogether programs support refugee and immigrant artists in different stages of their careers.
Zand sent pictures of the first mural to family in Iran, and received multiple messages from different people expressing thanks.
The murals are already serving as a point of discussion and collaboration in San Francisco. On a recent morning, a school group walked by and took photos. Keyvan Behnia, who lives in the area, stopped by after seeing posts on Instagram and brought grapes for the artists. A few minutes later, Sahba Aminikia, a local Iranian American musician and composer based in SOMA, stopped by on his morning run.
“I feel proud,” he said, seeing the mural on Clarion Alley. “I feel proud of the women in Iran and how democracy is evolving in Iran into something far more better.”
Behnia said one way of keeping what’s happening in Iran in everybody’s consciousness is through art.
Painter Farnaz Zabetian, lead artist on the project, was born in Tehran. Her art is inspired by poetry, colors and everyday women. In her online artist statement, she says she is invested in finding a “shared space” between poetry and colors to illustrate her work. Zabetian left Iran for Paris in 2012 and moved to San Francisco shortly thereafter. In addition to murals, she has had solo exhibitions in the Bay Area and a book of poetry published in Iran in 2017.
Zabetian said she hopes her work supports the women and people of Iran, “to be the voice that has been taken from them.”
Zand also said in addition to supporting the murals, she has been calling senators to let them know what’s happening and to make sure attention continues to be kept on Iran. Anytime she feels tired, she reminds herself that this moment is about something larger than herself.
“We are not in a place to be tired, while people inside Iran are in front of the bullet,” she said. “I think this is the least we can do.”