Artists Creating Change

by: Tara Nadjd Ahmadi

Friday 18 September 2009

Change for Equality: I have been active in the Feminist movement in Iran for several years. During these years, I have come across certain questions, the answers for which I am still struggling to find. The following are some examples:

• How much and to what extent can I use artistic expression as a political/social statement?

• What is the form and nature of feminist-artistic activism?

• What distinguishing factors differentiate between protest art and other forms of artistic expression?

• As a woman and a marginalized member of a patriarchal society, how can I express my objection to the status quo through the use of art?

The Indifference of Artists to Social Issues in Iran

In a society like Iran where art is viewed as a gift of the gods and sacred and divine, reducing the position of the artist and artistic creation to the earthly so that she can address tangible issues corresponding with real life concerns is not an easy endeavor. The ability to express and create protest art, so that it objects to the status quo in a constructive, dynamic and creative manner, rather than a mere expression of dissatisfaction is extremely difficult, as in our collective history, whether through writing, culture, literature, daily conversations, there exists an enormous but inactive opposition, which has gradually lost its own power. In essence without the necessary agency intent on creating change the narrator or the artist has limited and reduced herself to the simple expression of pain and hardship.

The history of art, literature and music in Iran is filled with a conservatism and heroism which seeks to glorify the collective identity and history and is less focused on social action, as a form of creating change. It is characterized by a male-oriented history which pushes to the side all those marginalized allowing in the end for a hard and solitary entirety to rise up in a central position, leaving no space for the marginalized to be seen or heard. This form of art has been promoted by governments and dominant religious elites as the official art, and as such has at once captured all viewers.

The "official" art sector which is rooted in religion and spirituality has in past years with the support of men in power elevated the artist to a celestial and godlike creator who free of worldly affairs recreates sacred texts and tales with a moral message. Calligraphy based on sacred texts, and the retelling of the stories of the prophets and saints through religious passion plays or Tazieh is a part of this general trend in Iranian art.

Given such a cultural and historical background a large number of artists in recent years have taken refuge in their private homes and in the recesses of their own minds to describe the world outside through paranoid poetic illustrations. In an effort to escape censorship imposed on their descriptions of the world which often only encompasses their immediate surroundings and about which they are most often grumbling, it remains unclear where and to what their dark and bitter images refer. Is it true that to fight censorship, we must censor ourselves?

The Historical Use of Art in Protest

The Dadaists expressed their opposition and protest to the existing artistic trends of their time, through conducting acts which were against cultural norms in public spaces—something that later in the context of art history came to be known as anti-art. In so doing, they had a clever goal. The Dadaists, having been denied the use of theatre halls and art galleries, would impose their own presence in public spaces. In small groups and without use of décor, a stage or even a specific written play, they would begin speaking. They would show films which were in clear opposition to the dominant culture promoted by the bourgeois artistic community. Whenever they did not have the opportunity to perform or show their art, the Dadaists would use their own bodies, as a representation of that which did not conform to the acceptable norm of dress, culture and behavior, to express their opposition. In between their short performances or films, they would recite the speeches of politicians from newspaper clippings, exactly as they had been printed, but delivered in a manner that would compel the audience into fits of laughter, or even at times would end in verbal and physical fights and arrest by police.

With their creative and lively approach, the Dadaists would work to undermine the existing order of society and they did this through their unusual and unnatural presence in public spaces. They imposed their opposition through their unique presence in public spaces. With great courage, they would laugh at themselves and at others and through unusual acts and endless jokes. In so doing, they quickly turned into a threat to the aesthetics beliefs of the artistic elites of their day and the culture of museums and theatre of the bourgeoisie. Their films and theatrical performances were full of strange and moving criticisms. Their approach was so effective in fact that for the first time and in a serious manner they put forth the thesis of anti-aesthetic as valued criteria for artistic expression.

The organizers of the play "Bread and Puppet" in the United States in the 1960s can also be classified as another group who utilized street performances and protest art as a means to express their ideas. The play "Bread and Puppet" served as a model for a number of young theatrical groups who felt the need to work outside the traditional artistic community and traditional art organizations to address the immediate developments in society and their own daily lives. This play was in touch with the anti-racist and anti-war movements. In essence this new tradition turned its back to the dominant artistic tradition of theatre performed in coffee houses and churches, a tradition which imposed specific methods and places for forms of theatrical expression. In reality this new approach for creative expression was an attempt to exit the traditional forms and structure of theatre. These radical movements did not receive financial support from foundations. This style of art had its own special characteristics as well. Costly costumes, set decorations, and lighting, were non existent in this new form. The actors freely expressed their own personalities. There was no specific script limiting the dialogue of the actors. The scripts were developed through the process of working on the play and were developed in their shortest forms. This new tradition was based on action, rather than dialogue.

This theatre group had a different style of performance. One was street performance, which was performed in a radical manner, with differing storylines and even at times improvised. On occasion and in response to certain social and political developments the theatre group would stage small symbolic street protests. While these protests may have not had much impact or may have not received much press, still they can be viewed as worthy efforts even on a small scale to question the existing political order and to ridicule and damage the existing power structure.

For example, in these protests, the protesters would carry small plastic bags filled with blood, and at an appropriate time, when the police was ready to attack the crowd with batons the protesters would pour the blood on their heads. The Guerrilla theatres of "Mark Sterin" which lacked actors in their traditional sense would use protesters to express concerns. These protesters would paint the flag of Vietnamese Freedom Front on US Mail Boxes to voice their objection to the war, or they would write slogans on restaurant menus or paint cars. In this way Guerrilla theatre worked to undermine the dominant structure of society and through the use of theatre and performances would work to express and critique reality. Art is not necessarily the demonstration of a reality rather it is action, the creation of an event which strives to be the catalyst for change. The act of pouring blood on the heads of protesters and onlookers, seeks to demonstrate the oppressive nature of the American Regime in its purest and most direct form and through the use of irony. The lapse of time between the lifting of the threatening batons and its landing on the intended target, looses its intensity and significance through this act of protest and resistance.

In 1970 twelve members of the "Bread and Puppets" theatre separated from their colleagues to form another street theatre group, with a new message and different approach at raising issues of social concern. This group moved through the streets intent on creating and performing street plays addressing women’s rights. They built their dolls themselves, produced and distributed leaflets, and newspapers which used a significant amount of drawings and pictures to relay their message. Their protest style, unlike that of the Dadaists, was not based on discussion and debate and the creation of pandemonium. In fact when local council members showed up for discussion and debate, the theatre group would leave their location, because they did not perceive debate as part of their responsibility. Rather they viewed their responsibility as one focused on creating and igniting debate, in an environment where debate and discussion had been forgotten.

Their protest marches were colorful and filled with satire and comedy. They aimed to change art into social commentary, transforming it from a beautiful illusion to a biased witness of the injustices of the real world. This transformation was based on the exit of art from an environment defined by ideological rhetoric which claimed that should be autonomous and pure. Street theatre is a good example of how movements have worked through art to create change. This kind of action oriented art, intends to impact the audience and their approach toward and understanding of social realities, rather than present a good play on stage.

It is such that in the twentieth century different forms of social, political, revolutionary, and movement arts appear with the aim of impacting various segments of society and social and political developments through the establishment of close relationships with their intended audiences. In visual arts we can point to environmental art, or "happenings," performance art and street theatre.

Through these developments theatrical performances because of their dynamic relationship with the audience finds a broader and new place for itself. Theatre moves from limited and closed theatre halls and the stage to find a place among the people, so that it can begin to address social concerns, and in so doing finds a simple and communal language through which to communicate with its audience—the ordinary public.

Contemporary feminist movements have commonly utilized these artistic strategies and have tried to relay their issues through use of drama in a manner designed to excite the audience. The following are some examples of this type of effort:

In 1968 a US beauty pageant winner started a protest designed to protest the objectification of women by the media. During the course of this protest, in a symbolic move, women began throwing articles of clothing and accessories, such as hair clips, purses, belt buckles, tight clothing, stockings, and high heels in a garbage can. This action-based performance was shared with ordinary people on the street, who in response also took part in the protest.

In the 1990s a group of female artists, writers and poets initiated a project by the name of "Silent Witness" in an effort to protest the increasing number of women murdered by their partners. This group built about 27 simple wooden statues and carved the name of a woman who had been victimized as a result of domestic violence on each of the statues. "Silent Witness" members holding these statues then marched through the streets of their city. The success of this project was such that in 1997 fifty US states had acquired a collection of statutes. According to the members of "Silent Witness" their goal was to reduce the number of murders resulting from domestic violence to zero by the year 2010.

In 2003 a coalition of women activists, in an effort to protest US war policies and expenditures, utilized an innovative awareness raising approach. The members of this Coalition calculated the amount of contribution of each individual tax payer toward defense spending, and distributed copies of tax returns with the amount of individual contribution toward defense spending to citizens across the city of New York. Additionally the members of this Coalition used comparative figures demonstrating how these expenditures could be used otherwise to provide assistance to poor women and children.

In 2007 one of the most recent examples of such actions took place in front of the US Congress in Washington, DC. In this performance, which aimed to protest the war, approximately 40 persons dressed in sheep’s clothing and set out to engage with ordinary citizens and onlookers.

While many of these efforts do not meet the necessary criteria to be considered as an artistic act in its classical and purest of forms, they still enjoy an essential element of creativity and protest which seeks to engage and is able to impact thought in ways similar to a live performance.

Contemporary Iranian Feminist Artists

The contemporary cinema of Iran, which addresses socials concerns and has received much acclaim for its creativity faces many challenges. Most notable of the challenges faced by Iranian cinema is censorship, such as that witnessed with respect to the screening of the works of Jafar Panahi, the censoring of women’s singing, lack of ability to address the concerns of or even the existence of homosexuality, and lack of space for the expression of the most basic of women’s demands. In fact, the censorship is so great that often the consequences of speaking about issues which are deemed to be taboo include interrogations and imprisonment.

Women’s issues in particular are viewed as highly political in Iran. Approximately 50 of my closest friends in the One Million Signatures Campaign have been arrested due to their activism on behalf of women’s rights. Two of these women were arrested and subsequently spent two weeks in prison while photographing a street play on polygamy.

Despite all these pressures small groups of feminist artists insist on continuing with the production of their works. They create short videos with feminist themes which are shown in private galleries and gatherings. They create posters and clips designed to protest the arrest of their friends or to express their demands for women’s rights. They create short documentaries which are shot covertly, or like Raha Asgarizadeh, who took photographs of a feminist street play a few minutes before she was arrested, they work to document social events addressing women’s rights through art. These artistic productions speak of a new type of visual arts in Iran, a feminist art, which seeks to move in opposition to the status quo and through its mere persistence and resistance seeks to express itself.

These are artistic creations which will in all likelihood never be archived and registered, and will in all likelihood escape notice by most Iranian art historians and art sponsors, who are accustomed to the usual and predominant forms of artistic creation and expression and like to view paintings in galleries, films in cinemas, and posters on main city billboards.

Creative Action

Presentation of art on the street is one of the most notable examples of the dialogue of art with the public and one of the main strategies for breaking free of the closed space and elite nature of the arts, to develop a direct and unmediated relationship with society as a whole. Compared to art which is presented in galleries or theatres, where the audience chooses with awareness to engage with art, street art through a different form imposes itself on a broad public audience which is diverse in nature and background.

The presence of protest in the form of art on the streets in societies with unpopular and undemocratic governments is viewed as highly political and is therefore controlled and limited. Despite this reality, the street or public sphere remains the most viable option in terms of physical space for expression of protest, especially for those who are denied the space to express even the slightest of dissent.

The presence and the showing of films on walls in the street and in public spaces by protest groups is a concept unfamiliar and possibly incomprehensible to those of us who have not had the opportunity for take advantage of public spaces for the simplest forms of expressions. Still the showing of a few short independent street plays with limited news coverage in Tehran, demonstrates that the presence of independent art groups intent on expressing their demands and working to create change is possible.

These types of artistic expressions can take shape through interaction and in direct relation to other dissenting forces and social and political movements. Because art in its most common and typical form is a part of the stale cultural industry and works to justify and promote the status quo, even protest art will be assessed based on and in relation to the dominant and common political structure. Ultimately protest movements must seek to create and promote art that is spontaneous, low cost, and educational—cinemas of sorts which correspond to the nature of the movement and offer innovative and new commentary and interpretations of what is not readily visible or perceived as valuable. Promoters of "happenings" through similar experiences have denounced artistic values which ultimately end in justifying and confirming the interests of existing political systems. In their view artistic works are not that useful or sustainable, and as such they should be used to create a development or happening that impacts the perception and thinking of the audience.

Another factor which differentiates protest art is its style of presentation. In essence the presentation style of this type of art is a major characteristic defining its identity and its ability to have impact through protest. Because those groups who create protest art tend to lack financial resources, poverty for them has transformed into a necessary strategy for resisting the status quo. They use low cost spaces such as garages, inexpensive public halls, empty houses, demolished buildings or ultimately the street for their performances. This type of presentation results in discussion and debate and ultimately because of its shock effect and ability to impact social perception can be viewed as an effort working to bring about a cultural revolution.

For example, this style of presentation in theatre and film, despite its impact cannot endure a long life, because there is lack of understanding and often resentment on the part of the audience, who is accustomed to viewing film and theatre in large and technologically modern theatre halls. The discomfort felt among the audience with respect to the form of presentation can also be viewed positively in terms of the impact this approach may have on undermining the concept of maximizing profits in capitalist societies or even questioning the usefulness of technology. So if the aim of this style of film and theatre and their presentation is to create a spark of thought, which is exemplified in the reaction of the audience, then it has been successful even if on a small scale.

Protest art uses the concept of games as a strategy for impact as well. While a game in and of itself may not be useful in igniting thought and discussion or creating change, in this form it can serve the aims of protesters. The light and lively atmosphere created through games allows the audience to abandon its belief system imposed by a dominant political and patriarchal structure and begin to ask questions. The disobedience that exists in games and then the presentation of ideas and invitation for scrutiny through the presentation of artistic works breaks the sacred male value system. Games as described by Grisbakh, lack strict rules and the need for technical knowledge and allow us to exit our own experiences and perceptions. By positioning games in the public view, even through an unaesthetic form, the artistic work is able to have impact even through the creation of discomfort.

Today despite all the limitations women’s rights activists and feminist movements face in Iran, art has opened up a new path for the presentation of ideas and for establishing relationships with our intended audience. Art allows us to connect with people, while providing a cover so that we can hide from the scrutinizing gaze of governments intent on stopping us. Art combined with a feminist message has
allowed us to break the stillness of closed spaces and enter the public sphere, through street theater addressing women’s issues, through visual representations of women’s struggles and through the power of the internet. We have started an important journey in Iran, but still have a long way to go.


1-Théâtre de " Pain et poupée " œuvre de Françoise Korileski publie par Ghatreh,2004

2-Dada art and anti art, Hans Richter, Thames & Hadson, 2001

3-Dada and surrealism, Mattew Gale, PHAIDON, 2002

4-Attaque contre la situation existante, Sabient fon Direkeh, 2002

5-Politiques dans les rues, Asef Bayat, Shirazeh, 2000

6-Théâtre expérimental,James Roose-Evans,2003


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