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‘It’s Not Art, It’s Our Lives’: Iranian American Women Put Protests at the Center of New Work

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Woman in red dress with red blindfold and hair tied to gate holds up hand with writing: 'Be the voice of Iran'
Mobina Nouri performing 'The Wind In My Hair' at Clarion Alley on Nov. 12, 2022.  (Photo by Badri Valian)

On Nov. 30, Iranian authorities arrested the creators of a defiant viral video, who stood silently without headscarves in solidarity with the Woman, Life, Freedom movement.

Two weeks later, a collective of Bay Area Iranian American activists restaged the performance in front of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to continue to raise awareness for the protests against the Islamic regime, which has reportedly now killed nearly 500 protesters and carried out the execution of a second detainee in an attempt to quell a national uprising.

Chopped hair and discarded hijabs have become worldwide symbols for women’s liberation after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. And for many Iranian American women, the ongoing movement has excavated traumatic histories and stories of oppression they thought they left behind. But staying silent is not an option, they say, especially since they won’t suffer the same consequences their loved ones in Iran face.

As the Women, Life, Freedom movement continues, Bay Area Iranian American women are bringing their lived experiences into protest art projects that speak to the beauty of the Iranian diaspora while condemning the current regime’s subjugation of its people. The stories they carry prove that Iran is not just a country in turmoil, but the home of a culture and a heritage they’re embodying through their art, for the liberation of future generations.

Grid of images of blood dripping on white cloth in mosques
AI-generated work by Mobina Nouri. (Courtesy the artist)

‘I wanted to be the voice of the women inside Iran’

When Mahsa Amini died, all of Mobina Nouri’s work came to a standstill. Her existing practice, which uses traditional Persian calligraphy and iconography to tell the stories of immigrant women, felt inadequate to express the moment. She turned instead to AI-generated art, creating digital renders by inputting phrases that described her feelings juxtaposed with Iran’s vibrant cultural history, such as “gun blood on Persian carpet” and “women sculpture shot in blood in a mosque.”

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The results are macabre: statues crying blood in mausoleums, bloody guns left atop Persian rugs. Many renders are too gruesome for her to post on Instagram. “Sorry that my content is so violent,” Nouri writes in her captions, “but this is the reality of our experience.”

For Nouri, who left Iran in 2010 after experiencing oppression, the project means more than raising awareness. It has become a healing process. “I witnessed so much cruelty,” she says. “I could feel the brutality of the regime on my skin, and I wanted to be the voice of the women inside Iran.”

Nouri fears she can’t go back to Iran as a result of her recent art. Thousands of political prisoners (including artists, activists and teachers) are held in Evin Prison, where some face the death penalty. Searching for a way to speak out on the prisoners’ behalf, she discovered a social media project by an anonymous Iranian graphic design artist known as “The Milad” who posts the names and faces of those held captive.

With permission, Nouri incorporated the images into her performance The Wind In My Hair on Nov. 12, part of an event organized by Los Angeles-based Iranian artist Katayoun Bahrami in San Francisco’s Clarion Alley.

Using the alley gate as a reference to prison bars, Nouri attached 60 scissors to her red dress and stood with long strands of her hair tied to the gate, each strand bearing the photo and name of an imprisoned protester. She invited participants to cut her hair and keep the images as sobering reminders of these individuals’ unknown fates.

With the last cut, Nouri, freed from the gate, lip-synced a cover of the Iranian classic “Vatan” (“homeland” in Farsi).

“So many people from Iran reached out to say thank you for being their voice,” Nouri says. “I feel like I’ve given them hope to not give up.”

The relative liberties of living in America do not erase the oppression Nouri experienced in the past. “This is our life, so whatever is happening in Iran, we are a part of it,” she says. “Now that we are free, why are we silent?”

Woman with dark hair and classes holds pen surrounded by works on paper
San Jose artist Pantea Karimi. (Photo by Carolina Porras Monroy)

‘The struggle continues’

For many women who grew up in Iran, subservience was inculcated at an early age. “Learning was intertwined with religious indoctrination,” says Pantea Karimi, a San Jose visual artist who left Iran in early 2001 after experiencing harassment on multiple occasions from the morality police. “I was subjected to this systematic brainwashing to make me a religious female product.”

Now, Karimi draws from her experiences in post-revolutionary Iran to create work that simultaneously celebrates and protests Iranian life. One symbol reappears: the Kaaba (or “cube” in Arabic), the most sacred Islamic site.

Like Nouri, Karimi moved quickly to address the protests in her own work, which erupted while she was preparing a solo exhibition for Oakland’s Mercury 20 Gallery. “The upheaval and flashbacks took me to a very dark, emotional place,” Karimi says, and she felt compelled to reinvent her show.

Karimi began filming women who cut their hair in solidarity with the Women, Life, Freedom movement. Twenty (mostly non-Iranian) women in her Bay Area and San Diego art communities participated in the project, garnering over two million views on her Instagram account.

“Some of the women, cutting their hair, had tears in their eyes, and their hands were shaking,” Karimi recalls. “It’s a meaningful gesture, when a woman cuts her hair in solidarity.”

Overhead view of locks of hair pinned to broken glass inside metal cube framework
Detail image of Pantea Karimi’s sculpture ‘Naked Cube’ at Mercury 20 Gallery. (Courtesy the artist)

For her exhibition, Karimi marked the opening and closing by staging a performance around Naked Cube, a sculpture made with donated hair. The piece is dedicated to Iranian women and girls, including Karimi’s cousin, who was beaten by the morality police just a few months ago.

“The piece is symbolic of simultaneous bravery and mourning,” explains Karimi. “None of the hair I presented in the piece was truly free — they were pinned to the broken glass, because the struggle continues.”

Karimi says the response from her friends and family in Iran was overwhelmingly positive, and Naked Cube has allowed her to finally express the hardship she endured as a child and young adult. She hopes to reprise the exhibition to keep advocating on behalf of the uprising, saying, “The struggle of Iranian women to gain their agency cannot die.”

‘I can only make art’

Like Nouri and Karimi, Aisan Hoss left Iran to more freely pursue her artistic passion. When she was 12 years old, the Iranian American choreographer found an underground dance studio in Iran and began performing traditional dance forms to a female-only audience. Years later she started her own dance company in Iran, but her practice became increasingly risky as it grew in popularity.

Hoss left Iran in 2013 at age 22, launching her contemporary Iranian dance company Aisan Hoss and Dancers in the Bay Area in 2017.

For Hoss, choreography is a tool to transmit her identity outside of her home country, a theme her non-Iranian dance community didn’t fully understand until the current protests.

Visibly pregnant woman in black dress dances in front of mural depicting Iranian flag and protest messages
Aisan Hoss performing at at a Women, Life, Freedom march on Oct. 7, 2022 at San Francisco’s Civic Center. (Courtesy the artist)

“I felt like my art read as being this miserable, oppressed woman,” she says. Hoss tried to organize a flash mob as a symbol of Bay Area solidarity weeks before San Francisco’s Women, Life, Freedom march on Oct. 7, but she couldn’t find enough dancers who were willing to be associated with a protest.

So nine months pregnant, she performed by herself against the backdrop of a “Women, Life, Freedom” mural at Civic Center, dancing to the Iranian protest anthem, “Baraye.”

“It was very powerful for me,” Hoss remembers. “At first I was very sad that I couldn’t find dancers, but it just felt fearless. It was empowering for me to do this while pregnant.”

Like many Iranian American artists, Hoss is skeptical that her work can instigate real change in the regime back home. “My friends are in the streets every day. My mom got shot and beaten. I can only make art,” she says. “It’s like eating a nice meal in front of the people who are hungry.”

And yet, Nouri, Karimi and Hoss continue to fight for liberation in their home country through their primary means: their own artistic platforms. Nouri has pop-up ensemble performances scheduled; Karimi and Hoss are using social media to speak out against the executions of Iranian protesters. Here and elsewhere, Iranians are preparing to gather for Yalda, a Dec. 21 festival that celebrates the coming of winter, the renewal of the sun and victory of light over darkness.

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In this spirit, Hoss says she asks herself: “Should I just be quiet or does my art really change something? And then I decided, yes, it does.”

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