The proliferation of images and symbols of a dictator throughout the city serves as a gauge for understanding the extent of dictatorship in that government. When the shadow of a regime’s ideology completely falls upon the art of a region, art transforms into a means of promoting the beliefs and values of that government.
She has designed a memorial for Nika and one for Sarina. She has even decided where to install them. A statue of Navid Afkari in Shiraz, Khodanur in Zahedan,Vida Movahed on Enqelab street in Tehran and many others who are always on her mind. Vida’s statue is larger-than-life, her hand grasping a symbolic staff that would later become an emblem of freedom. She has been a potent source of inspiration and who has kindled a sense of courage in others, who, inspired by her example, have also adopted this emblem of bravery. Throughout the years, she has gazed upon her city with deep contemplation, sketching a vision for its future. In her eyes, it remains an occupied city, yet in her dreams, she envisions its liberation. Every corner she turns reveals traces of these heroes, prompting her to wonder about the city’s transformation after gaining freedom, adorned with memorials that will pay tribute to the champions of liberty.
Monuments are integral parts of urban spaces that engage with memory, time, and place. They take various forms such as buildings, sculptures, and statues, commemorating individuals, specific groups, or historical events. These physical entities, with their unique visual language, serve as reminders of particular moments in history, etching them into our collective memory. These structures are urban symbols, intricately linked to a community’s perceptions, culture, history, and beliefs, sometimes even evolving into symbols of the city itself. However, different narratives exist for each era of history, and which perspective prevails in history is often influenced by structures of power.
The decision to create and install monuments in urban spaces is a political one, indicative of the authorities’ control over the surrounding space and the city’s identity. Therefore, monuments from any given period reflect the prevailing ideology of that era.
In recent decades, monuments have undergone significant changes in both content and form. For example, the “Counter-Monumentalism” movement, which originated in Germany, questioned all aspects of monuments related to the promotion of a state’s ideology or a specific individual. This implies that art and urban design should not merely uphold or endorse specific moral values but can also challenge and stimulate discussions about them. The counter-monument movement presented a challenge to break free from the burden of imposing, unwelcome structures that mar the cityscape, serving as endorsements of the dominant historical narrative, which often favored imperialist and dictatorial regimes.
Other than Tehran, Neyshabur is the only city that houses a sculpture department at its university, which is why there are numerous sculptures scattered throughout the city. Watching the statue of Khomeini being decapitated evokes a wide range of emotions in the viewer, including enthusiasm, anger, and excitement.
Indeed, that’s why throughout history, many monuments have been brought down from their lofty pedestals to the ground. As people gain power and voice their protest against the government, the dominance of the ruling ideology within the city’s space becomes shaky. These popular movements have occurred in various periods of history, such as the English Reformation, the French Revolution, and the fall of the Soviet Union, leading to the removal of numerous buildings and memorial statues.
However, it was in 2020 that a significant wave of iconoclasm emerged worldwide, aligned with the “Black Lives Matter” movement. This movement led to the destruction of a large number of statues representing slaveholders and imperialists who had engaged in looting and atrocities in colonized regions by protesters. This iconoclasm gave rise to more contemporary structures in urban design, such as memorials for groups, nations, and individuals who were subjected to slavery and captivity, as well as for lands and languages deliberately destroyed. (Image 1)
The toppling of statues of rulers is specifically seen in countries with dictatorial and totalitarian regimes during times of uprisings and revolutionary periods. This act, symbolizing the people’s relative triumph over the government, involves the image of citizens bringing down the dictator’s statue and shattering a significant taboo. One of these iconic images that remains firmly imprinted in our collective memory is the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statues.
Saddam emulated Stalin’s propagandistic style and, like him, commissioned a large number of statues to portray himself as a benevolent hero. Saddam’s statues were the embodiment of his megalomaniacal obsession. At times, he had bizarre ideas for his statues, depicting him in unconventional situations, such as a monumental portrait with a religious headdress resembling the dome of a mosque. In Saddam’s regime, the use of his portrait was mandatory, and all schools, public buildings, and government offices were obliged to display his image. (Images 2 and 3)
In Iran as well, the construction of statues and prominent sculptures has a long history that traces its roots back to ancient Mesopotamia. In fact, the remaining works of art, in the form of monumental structures from various periods of monarchy, serve as indicators of the extent of power and influence of the governments in the region. That’s why rulers of each era either destroyed previous works or paid tribute to them, using them to shape their own identity.
Examining the destiny of contemporary Iranian rulers’ statues reveals these challenges. During the first Pahlavi era, Reza Shah removed works of the Qajar period (although the Qajars had left relatively few memorials of themselves) and erected numerous statues of himself throughout the city. These statues depicted him in military attire, with details and elements inspired by visual symbols of the Achaemenid period.
His son and heir, Mohammad Reza, followed in the same path. The works of art he had commissioned were, one by one, toppled down during the 1979 revolution. After Mohammad Reza Pahlavi left Iran, statues of Pahlavi kings were destroyed in many cities. Even the tomb of Reza Shah was bombarded by zealots and religious hardliners, including Ayatollah Khalkhali.
Khalkhali, who even baffled his own kind with his terrifying ideas, had decided to destroy the Persepolis complex and the Achaemenid heritage, but he faced opposition. After the revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, new statues featuring religious and clerical figures replaced the old works, sometimes sitting on the same pedestals. The fate of the remaining parts of these statues remains uncertain. However, some of these fragments have been repurposed into new pieces of art. For example, after a large statue of Reza Shah was toppled during the revolutionary movements in Ahvaz, its remnants transported to Sa’dabad Palace, where they are still preserved today. (Images 4 and 5)
Therefore, it can be said that the proliferation of images and symbols of a dictator throughout a city serves as a gauge for understanding the level of dictatorship within that government. When the shadow of an ideology completely falls over the art of a region, it not only creates various limiting guidelines to constrain artists but also turns art into a means of promoting the beliefs and values of that government.
In cities that fall under the intellectual authority of the government structure, different forms of urban art can be observed, reflecting the extent to which the government utilizes art as a tool for its propaganda. These forms may include murals, banners, and city sculptures that are present in the daily lives of the people. In Iran as well, for decades, all these forms of urban art have served as a showcase for the dominant ideology of the Islamic Republic. Examples include the monuments in Enqelab Square and the large banners in Valiasr Square in Tehran, which change according to each occasion and event.
The content of each banner essentially mirrors the standpoint of the regime regarding various issues. However, even in the design of these banners, the image presented of the people is often reduced to depict only supporters, while the majority is left out. These works are designed within the propaganda chambers of the Islamic Republic and are executed by a network of artists devoted to promoting that propaganda. Similarly, cities across Iran are adorned with images of heroic men who championed the regime’s values and women who, through their veils, uphold the fortress of Islam. (Image 6 and 7).
Most of these urban arts are commissioned and managed by the municipality-affiliated organization called the “Urban Beautification Organization.” According to their self-declaration, their mission revolves around improving and preserving the urban environment’s identity, striving to enhance citizens’ quality of life. This mafia-like entity distributes the hefty capital under the guise of cultural and artistic project budgets among artists who either perceive art as a manifestation of the regime’s values (as true Islam) and are core members of propaganda or profit-driven individuals who consistently align themselves with those in power. Most commissions are typically channeled to a select group of these opportunistic creators, whose names often prominently feature in various symposiums and festivals.
In the midst of this invasion by the so-called “urban art” in Iran, there have always been students and artists who, fueled by a glimmer of hope, sought to express their unique perspectives. They endeavored to bring their ideas to life and showcase them throughout the city. At times, they also took on certain commissions due to financial constraints and managerial incompetence, becoming subjects of exploitation, both materially and spiritually.
Among these individuals are graduates of the discipline of sculpture making from universities. This discipline, which had been banned for years due to its categorization as ‘haram’ (forbidden) and condemned in Islam, was removed from the curriculum during the Cultural Revolution. However, in 1993, it was reinstated through various pretexts and tactics, thanks to the efforts of graduates of the discipline from the pre-revolution era. Despite the absence of a general prohibition against figurative art in Islam, the Islamic Republic opposed the concept of sculpture making from its inception. This is because the “body,” especially the female body, is where the power of this regime is exercised, and the sensitivity surrounding this issue is evident in all levels of government structures.
Therefore, to revive the field of sculpture making and to justify it to the authorities, various interpretations were employed to demonstrate that sculpture art is not limited to the creation of figurative forms but can also encompass Islamic concepts such as martyrdom, chastity, and freedom. In the early years following the reopening of this discipline, which occurred after the Iran-Iraq war, numerous sculptures with themes related to the war were created. Artists aimed to create a new approach to sculpture by blending modernist tendencies, particularly formalism, with motifs from Islamic art and handicrafts, aligning with the discourse of the revolution.
Moreover, in the creation of works related to the war, artists didn’t limit themselves to the classical style of monuments, typically figurative, static, and elevated. Instead, they harnessed modern formal and conceptual elements in architecture and visual arts, giving rise to new forms for expressing the values of the regime. One notable example was the use of the color red as a symbol of blood, which was featured in park fountains. After the “woman, life, freedom” uprising, anonymous artists employed this technique not only to directly reference government massacres but also to reclaim the ground by taking back the values governing art.
For this reason, in order to control the political and social potential inherent in art, we have always witnessed the heavy presence of some regime figures in art universities to monitor the growth environment of young artists. Individuals in important executive roles within the educational institutions (such as department heads) oversee the activities of art students. In addition to monitoring, they impart the ideologies of the system in the context of rich Iranian-Islamic culture to the students and propose them as subjects of work.
For example, Taher Sheikh-al-Hokamaei, the former head of the sculpture department at the University of Tehran, who held this position for many years, has repeatedly spoken about the issue of hijab as a rich Iranian-Islamic cultural concept and regarded the prominent figures of Persepolis as historical evidence of the history of hijab in Iran. He emphasized the attire of the individuals depicted in the statues in an attempt to convince the students that the culture of hijab has existed among Iranians since the time of the Achaemenids, and that it’s the artist’s mission to preserve this culture in their works.
These discussions occurred while female students at the Faculty of Fine Arts, like in all other universities, were constantly dealing with dress code restrictions. This included post-2009 restrictions as well as new restrictions, one of which was the mandatory use of wimples, which was met with resistance from students (Female students at art universities use wimples and formal clothing less frequently). The issue led to a significant confrontation between female students and the female university security staff at the University of Tehran, which had prevented some girls from entering the campus. Eventually, with the burning of a large number of wimples by female students in the courtyard of the Faculty of Fine Arts, a resounding “no” took the form of flames, temporarily reducing the sensitivity of the security personnel.
The existing restrictions in art universities not only pertain to the outward appearance and behavior of students but also affect their thought processes. These limitations continue to grow each year, hindering the creative and collaborative efforts of young artists. The sculpture studios, like other workshops and practice spaces, are under such scrutiny that it often leads to the rejection of many ideas. However, these challenges did not silence the students. Instead, they innovatively used these limitations to make their voices heard.
Students prepared themselves to face the consequences and actions of authorities aimed at removing their works. The officials who had dismantled prominent pieces like Bahman Mohassess’s sculptures, breaking them into pieces and storing them in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran, would not hesitate to exclude the works of these emerging artists. The criteria for removing artworks, either from art galleries or exhibitions, has various red lines. One of these red lines is any reference to the “collective power of the people” within the artwork. This power breaks fear and creates solidarity. Many artworks, even those with an indirect and symbolic reference to this theme, have been removed.
One of these urban art ideas was the sculpture “Us” created by Afshin Seighali, which was initially created for the Urban Sculpture Biennial in 2018 and was later placed in front of the craft market in Laleh Park, on Kargar Street in Tehran. This sculpture was removed after a while and relocated to an unknown location. Despite efforts to inquire about this relocation, inconsistent and unsatisfactory explanations were provided.
The City Beautification Organization of the Municipality, despite initially stating that this artwork had “protest value,” later contradicted their previous statement, claiming that the removal of the sculpture was due to deterioration in its form. The aging of an artwork over time is considered part of its meaning and the creative process in many artworks, and it ultimately completes the work. Eventually, with the artist’s perseverance and the reactions of many users on social networks and its coverage in newspapers, the concrete sculpture returned to Laleh Park. However, the story of “Us” served as a wake-up call for artists to remind them of how little patience and tolerance they have for ‘us’, how much they fear our unity, our coming together, and how powerful ‘us’ can be. (Image 10)
Another example of the reasons for the removal of some artworks is simply their reference to ongoing realities in the surroundings. For instance, the sculpture “The Dream of TahmasbAbad Garden,” created by Shahriar Rezaei in Kerman in 2018, was removed. This installation consisted of platforms placed around a traditional pool. Five sculpted figures were seated on these platforms, gazing at the pool of water. The artwork addressed the water crisis and the onslaught of urban construction and insane construction projects that had led to the destruction of historical sites in Kerman, including TahmasbAbad Garden (the location of the artwork).
The platforms of this artwork quickly became a gathering place for people who had connected with the piece, and by sitting on these platforms, they added more significance to it. However, this artwork was removed under the pretext of being “too melancholic.” (Image 11 and 12)
The Islamic Republic has, from the beginning, solidified its identity through suppression, censorship, and the removal of freedom of speech and thought. This pattern continues to this day. The atmosphere of fear and terror of the 1980s forces people to accept many strange and horrifying restrictions. The shadow of the regime’s absolute control extends from the most private to the most public aspects of individuals’ lives.
One of the prominent signs of this shadow is the omnipresent image of the two leaders of the regime. They are everywhere: at the beginning of every textbook, above bank counters, in shops, restaurants, cafes, sports centers, and on the streets and squares. They even have no qualms about adding the images of the two elderly men to historical sites, such as painting their portraits on the façade of the Ali Qapu palace! (Image 13)
This is not limited to the image of the two leaders alone. Only a year after the killing of Qasem Soleimani, signs of him can be seen in all cities of Iran. Sculptures that not only symbolize the weight of the regime’s ideology but also indicate the waste of people’s resources. Resources that are spent on projects and works that lack even a shred of quality in terms of visual and technical aspects; dull sculptures that act like a blow to the heads of the country’s artists. (Images 14, 15, and 16)
After the dark years of the 1980s and with the emergence of various protest movements, taboos began to break down to some extent, each time depending on the level of public presence and anger during that period. Perhaps the first time we witnessed this was during the protests of the Green Movement when a picture of Khamenei was set on fire in the streets by the people themselves. This protest directly challenged the rule of the Supreme Leader and was repeated in subsequent periods, such as the November 2019 protests.
During the “Woman, Life, Freedom” uprising, numerous taboos were shattered, and various false authorities crumbled. This included the destruction of images of the regime’s leaders, which were either burnt to ashes in the flames or stomped on by people and students in the streets and schools. These images rapidly circulated on social media, empowering the people to question the sanctity of the regime’s values and stand up against what they did not desire.
One of these powerful images is a video of breaking a statue of Khomeini in the city of Neyshabur. After Tehran, Neyshabur is the only city with a sculpture program at its university, and for this reason, numerous sculptures can be seen throughout the city. Watching the video of Khomeini’s statue being smashed to pieces evokes various emotions like anger and excitement in the viewer. By breaking Khomeini’s statue, the empty space (negative form) inside the sculpture becomes visible, reflecting the hollowness of all the structures of the regime. The atmosphere of the film is filled with the revelation of the naked truth. (Image 17)
During this revolutionary movement, artists seized every opportunity to leave traces of “Woman, Life, Freedom” uprising in the streets. From various graffiti on walls and doors to installations that convey their messages directly and swiftly, these works must be evaluated with consideration of their specific context and conditions. The creation process of these works is usually short due to their reactive nature.
The installation of protest artworks must also be quick, as these artists and activists put themselves at risk by creating works in the city. Many of these installations engage with the concept by re-contextualizing the space, creating a new form of memorial to endure in collective memory. For example, the memorial of “Khodanur” in Siasi alley, executed by an anonymous artist (Image 18), was an artwork that made us remember the tragic killing of Khodanur by the Islamic Republic’s killing machine when we saw the streetlight and tied hands, which encouraged us to “not forget.”
This artwork was reproduced in a different form several months later during the mourning ceremonies of Muharram and Ashura. Young people recreated the same position as Khodanur’s body, redefining the concepts of martyrdom and freedom with their own bodies. This re-appropriation continues in various forms in everyday acts of resistance.
All over the city, we hear conversations and witness everyday actions by bodies that seek to reclaim urban spaces. These urban spaces have been filled with fear, anxiety, and turmoil for years, but it’s now time they transformed into safe havens for breathing, work, leisure, and, in essence, the shared life of all citizens, regardless of their religion, gender, or nationality. The artworks of this city must also reflect the people, instead of serving as tools for imposing a particular ideology upon them.
Over the past few months, she has seen signs of “us” more than ever in a city that has long ignored our presence. Even its art is now infused with the experience of “becoming us.” A new and pleasant sensation that empowers imagination. The imagination of a day when the city belongs to us. A day that marks the beginning of a new era, with a rainbow of liberated bodies. She dreams of adorning the city with memorials dedicated to those who fought for its liberation, even though she knows that nothing, not even those memorials, will ever fill their void. But there’s hope for a day when hand in hand with the city’s people, she will dance around the fallen statues of oppressors, because our dance will set the city free.