Inside an Iranian school, a couple of dozen artists in their twenties are using their talents to make radical political statements.
Small portraits of protesters who were killed while marching against the Islamic regime – and of commanders accused of ordering shootings – are spread on the floor.
A model of a hot-air balloon hangs upside down in the middle of the room. Ballot papers have fallen from the balloon to the floor, where passers-by can walk on them, symbolising the artist’s rejection of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad’s proclaimed victory in the presidential election a year ago.
Iran’s artists largely supported Mir-Hossein Moussavi, himself a painter, when he ran against Mr Ahmadi-Nejad for the presidency. Many joined the street protests that followed the election – and these displays are a way of continuing to register dissent.
“I chose a balloon because it is the symbol of freedom and liberation and it’s upside down because everything is upside down now,” says the young artist who created this display in a school in Tehran. “When you spend months in street protests, your works are naturally affected”.
Another student places four dishes of soil by headphones over which a mourning song plays. The idea is Iranians are being buried alive. On supermarket shelves, hotdogs are arranged in compressed air bags like human corpses.
“Art has been politicised more than before over the past year with radical political and religious messages,” says one scholar. “A sense of frustration, devastation and depression is evident in the political works.”
These politically motivated works are mainly by young artists. Many use new media, notably digital, audio and video displays.
But established artists have steered clear of direct political statements, even though many works reflect post-election depression.
But the owner of a gallery says hope is also evident. “Before the unrest, the artworks with political statements showed a sense of complete closure – but that black dead-end has opened up now,” he says. “Some hope has replaced despair even though fear and stress can also be found.”
State censorship has not been imposed on visual art. Artists were isolated in the first decade after the 1979 Islamic revolution, but the regime gradually opened up, allowing almost all works to be exhibited. Only nudes were formally banned.
Some, fearing punishment, prefer private displays or to send works abroad – sometimes under false names. A prize for contemporary Iranian art will be awarded at the Royal College of Art in London next year after a global search to identify the “most talented emerging Iranian artists”.
A sculptor says: “Art, in particular new media art, has been gradually going underground as rap, rock and hip-hop music did.”
Some university professors estimate that about 20 to 30 per cent of the works of young artists during the past year are secret. Of about two dozen art galleries in Tehran, only a few have shown works related to the unrest. To date, they have not experienced specific harassment.
In some exhibitions, the regime’s justifications of the killings or methods are ridiculed. A bullet has penetrated into a brain but the illustration says “meningitis”, while the faces of innocent young men are described “rogue” and “enemy” next to glass bottles allegedly used for rape against them.
Female artists have quietly created protests against male chauvinism and religious restrictions. Students at the art school have hung black chadors that many Iranian women wear on the walls – with slogans urging rights for women written across the garments.
One display is a pointed reminder to Iran’s politicians. A chair with a comfy cushion – but shaky and unstable being half-plastic and half-stone – stands on the floor. “Rulers sit in that chair without realising they might fall any moment,” says one student.