When Fotini Christia, a Ph.D. candidate in public policy at the Kennedy School, first arrived in Tehran to study Persian, she was struck by the enormous murals that dominated the city.
Huge portraits of the Grand Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei painted on the sides of buildings and on highway overpasses, tributes to martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war, denunciations of Israel and the United States, and enormous compositions filled with religious symbolism created a visual presence unlike anything she had ever seen before.
Then Christia discovered something even stranger. Hardly anyone seemed to be aware of these murals. To ordinary citizens of Tehran they had become invisible, a vague visual backdrop to the everyday activities of life.
Christia decided to document the murals photographically, something that had never been done in a systematic fashion before. She borrowed a high-resolution camera and started taking pictures, correlating the images with a map of the city.
“My friends thought I was crazy. They were also afraid I would get in trouble if the authorities figured out what I was doing,” she said.
Christia didn’t get in trouble and the many photographs she took made it back safely as well. They can now be seen in the South Concourse Gallery of the Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS), 1730 Cambridge St. Working with Iranian designer Ghazal Abbasy-Asbagh, Christia has created large-format prints of the photos on a variety of materials (canvas, vinyl, watercolor paper, mylar) that give a very good sense of the monumentality of the originals. The exhibition, which runs through June 15, was supported by grants from the Weatherhead Center, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and the Office of the Provost.
On May 18, a series of panel discussions were held to discuss the meaning and significance of the murals. Titled “Walls of Martyrdom: Iran’s Propaganda Murals,” the discussions were co-sponsored by the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and the Islamic Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School.
Michael Fischer of the Anthropology Department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) discussed the murals as a reflection of the tension between the culture of death and the culture of life.
The Shiite branch of Islam, which constitutes about 90 percent of the population of Iran, places particular emphasis on death, mourning, and martyrdom, Fischer said. In Zoroastrianism, the religion that preceded Islam, there is a perpetual struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, but in the end it is believed that good will prevail.
Under the shah, there was an effort to de-emphasize images of sadness and death and replace them with more upbeat Zoroastrian symbols, such as those associated with the Zoroastrian festival of Nowruz, celebrating both the New Year and the return of spring.
With the Islamic revolution of 1979 led by Ayatollah Khomeini, the cult of martyrdom and death gained the ascendancy. Now, nearly three decades later, the culture of life is beginning to make a comeback, associated in many instances with youth culture imported from Los Angeles.
Chrisiane Gruber, an art historian at Indiana University and a specialist in Islamic art, drew attention to the many examples of public art in Tehran that are neither celebrations of Islamic martyrdom nor diatribes against the West.
“Visual culture has undergone a change since the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war,” she said. There is now an effort to promote “social virtues” and to “introduce Islam to the world as it really is.”
Hence, one can now find giant portraits of Khomeini in which his judgmental scowl has been replaced by an expression of tolerant kindness. Another mural shows Khomeini strolling through the streets of Neauphle-le-Château, the Parisian suburb where he lived in exile before his return to Iran.
“Here the focus is on Khomeini taking a contemplative daily walk, an image blatantly devoid of anti-American sentiments,” Gruber said.
Pamela Karimi, a Ph.D. candidate at the MIT School of Architecture, who was unable to appear in person and whose paper was read by Gruber, also treated the theme of mural art that does not fit the propagandistic mold. One of her primary examples was Firoozeh Golmohammadi, a woman artist who painted several large murals in the 1990s in which mystical Sufi-influenced images prevail, executed in glowing pastel colors.
Other artists have followed a similar course, rejecting political messages in favor of designs that give freer reign to the imagination. Many show the influence of Western artists like Andy Warhol and David Hockney.
Karimi pointed out that in today’s Tehran, the owner of the building on which a muralist chooses to paint must give his permission before work begins, and most building owners prefer murals in which there is no overt political message.
The theme of martyrdom occupied Alireza Korangy, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, but from a literary and historical perspective. Korangy spoke of the pessimism and sense of inevitable defeat that seems to dominate Persian literature even before the coming of Islam.
“There is always another one who wants the land, always another one who wants a place in the beloved’s heart.”
So prevalent is this idea of defeat and doom that in many Persian love stories, the beloved is seen as the suitor’s enemy, one who brings about his downfall, but for whom he nonetheless sacrifices himself.
One of the strongest influences on the Persian theme of martyrdom, he said, is somewhat curiously, Jesus Christ.
Houchang Chehabi, Professor of International Relations and History at Boston University, served as discussant, summing up the presentations with some remarks and observations of his own.
Since Persia’s traditional form of painting is the miniature, the giant murals on the streets of Tehran can only be called “maxiatures,” he said. The way they impose themselves on the consciousness of passersby through sheer size he sees as a symptom of totalitarian government.
They are also a symptom of the hot climate and building traditions of Tehran. In a typical building, the facades that receive the most sun are constructed without windows, creating numerous “blind walls” or “dead walls,” which are “appropriate places to glorify death.”
These enormous images of religious leaders and of those who have died fighting for Allah convey another message, a reminder that Iran is an Islamic theocracy, Chehabi said.
“The idea is, don’t think you’re in Europe. We don’t want a European city. The murals are a constant reminder that this is not the Champs-Elysées.”