Iranian-Americans put protests at the center of their art

The results are gruesome: statues crying blood in mausoleums, bloody guns left on Persian rugs. Many renders are too gruesome for her to post on Instagram. “Sorry my content is so violent,” Nouri wrote in his 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 became 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 women in Iran.”

Nouri worries that he won’t be able to return to Iran because of his recent art. Thousands of political prisoners (including artists, activists and teachers) are held in Evin prison, where some face the death penalty. Looking for a way to speak out on behalf of the prisoners, she discovered a social media project by an anonymous Iranian graphic designer known as “The Miladwhich displays the names and faces of those held captive.

With her permission, Nouri incorporated the footage into her performance The wind in my hair on November 12, as part of an event hosted by Los Angeles-based Iranian artist Katayoun Bahrami in San Francisco’s Clarion Alley.

Using the alley door as a reference to the prison bars, Nouri tied 60 scissors to her red dress and stood with long locks of hair tied to the door, each lock bearing the photo and name of an imprisoned protester. She invited attendees to cut their hair and keep the images as sobering reminders of the unknown fates of these people.

With the final track, Nouri, released from the gate, lip-synched a cover of the Iranian classic “Vatan” (“homeland” in Farsi).

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

The relative freedoms of living in America do not erase the oppression Nouri suffered in the past. “It’s our life, so whatever happens in Iran, we are part of it,” she said. “Now that we are free, why are we silent?”

Pantea Karimi, artist from San José. (Photo by Carolina Porras Monroy)

“The struggle continues”

For many women who grew up in Iran, submission was instilled at an early age. “Learning was intimately tied to religious indoctrination,” says Pantea Karimi, a visual artist from San José who left Iran in early 2001 after being repeatedly harassed by morality police. “I was subjected to this systematic brainwashing to make me a religious female product.”

Today, Karimi draws on her experiences in post-revolutionary Iran to create work that both celebrates and protests Iranian life. A symbol reappears: the Kaaba (or “cube” in Arabic), the holiest Islamic site.

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

Karimi began filming women cutting their hair in solidarity with the Women, Life, Freedom movement. Twenty (mostly non-Iranian) women from her Bay Area and San Diego art communities took part in the project, garnering more than two million views on her. Instagram account.

“Some of the women, while 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 strands of hair pinned to broken glass inside metal cube frame
Detailed image of Pantea Karimi’s “Naked Cube” sculpture at Mercury 20 Gallery. (Courtesy of the artist)

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

“The coin symbolizes simultaneous bravery and mourning,” says Karimi. “None of the hair I presented in the room was truly free – it was pinned to the broken glass, as the struggle continues.”

Karimi says the response from friends and family in Iran has been overwhelmingly positive, and bare cube allowed her to finally express the hardships she endured as a child and young adult. She hopes to return to the exhibit to continue advocating for the uprising, saying, “Iranian women’s struggle to gain their agency cannot die.

“I can only make art”

Like Nouri and Karimi, Aisan Hoss left Iran to pursue his artistic passion more freely. At the age of 12, the Iranian-American choreographer found an underground dance studio in Iran and began presenting traditional dance forms to an all-female audience. Years later, she started her own dance company in Iran, but her practice became increasingly risky as she grew in popularity.

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

For Hoss, choreography is a tool to convey her identity outside of her home country, a theme her non-Iranian dance community has not fully understood until the current protests.

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

“I felt like my art read as this miserable, downtrodden woman,” she says. Hoss attempted to stage 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 willing to be associated with a demonstration.

Then nine months pregnant, she played alone against the backdrop of a “Women, Life, Freedom” mural at the Civic Center, dancing to the Iranian protest anthem, “Baraye.”

“It was very powerful for me,” recalls Hoss. “At first I was very sad not to find any dancers, but I just felt fearless. It was empowering for me to do this during my pregnancy.

Like many Iranian-American artists, Hoss is skeptical of the ability of his work to bring about real regime change in him. “My friends are on the street every day. My mother was shot and beaten. I can only do art,” she says. “It’s like eating a good meal in front of hungry people.”

And yet, Nouri, Karimi and Hoss continue to fight for the liberation of their country of origin through their main means: their own artistic platforms. Nouri planned pop-up ensemble performances; Karimi and Hoss use social media to speak out against the executions of Iranian protesters. At home and abroad, Iranians are preparing to gather for Yalda, a December 21 holiday that celebrates the arrival of winter, the rebirth of the sun and the victory of light over darkness.

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