The forum awards the Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent to those who bring invention and imagination to their activism to alert the world to their causes. Previous winners include Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, Indonesian comedian Sakdiyah Ma’ruf and Emmanuel Jal, a hip-hop artist from South Sudan.
While art, comedy and music have long been deployed in political causes, one of this year’s award-winning projects breaks new ground: It’s a Car.
The PaykanArtCar project transformed an Iranian-made sedan once donated by Shah Mehammed Reza Pahlavi to Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu into a vehicle for activism against Iranian leaders. The idea is to use the car as a canvas on which Iranian artists can protest against the depredations of the Tehran regime.
The first artist to participate is Alireza Shojaian, an Iranian-born, Paris-based artist who has chosen to draw attention to the plight of Iran’s LGBTQ+ community. On a yellow background, Shojaian painted images depicting Ali Fazeli Monfared, a 20-year-old man from Ahvaz in southwestern Iran who was reportedly beheaded last year by his own relatives because he was homosexual. The style evokes the 10th century Persian epic known as Shahnameh, and the artist says he was particularly inspired by one of his stories, the tragedy of Rostam and Sohrab, in which a father kills his son.
International and Iranian rights groups say the LGBTQ+ community in Iran faces discrimination in society and criminalization in law. Same-sex sexual activity carries the maximum death penalty. Mores and laws are upheld by liberal and conservative factions of theocracy. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said there were no homosexuals in Iran, and former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif justified the execution of gays by citing the ‘moral principles’ of Iranian society .
Hiva Feizi, executive director of PaykanArtCar, told me that the project is now looking for a second artist to use the car as a mural for another cause. “They can decide on a specific issue – it can be women’s rights, environmental concerns or anything else – as long as it is related to Iran,” she said.
A Florida-based nonprofit, PaykanArtCar is run by Mark Wallace, a United Nations diplomat under President George W. Bush. Wallace also leads United Against Nuclear Iran, which pursues more conventional means of advocacy — urging policymakers in Washington not to make concessions to Tehran and urging corporations to stop doing business with the country.
The PaykanArtCar project is actually an acknowledgment that conventional efforts are not enough to keep the cause of freedom in Iran fresh in the public mind. This certainly speaks to the Iranian diaspora, for whom the Paykan, which means “arrow” in Persian, is a national icon. Based on the Hillman Hunter, a British car, it was the first car made in Iran, starting in 1967.
Although production of the sedan ceased in 2005 (a pickup version was manufactured until 2015), the Paykan can still be seen on Iranian roads. Hardly the most comfortable or reliable of rides, the car nevertheless invokes pride, symbolizing the dynamic spirit of Iranian drivers and mechanics. It also inspires thousands of jokes, and I heard most of them from Paykan taxi drivers during a trip to Tehran in 2015, just months before authorities tried to ban them to fight air pollution. notorious in the city. My favorite: “How to make a Paykan accelerate from 0 to 100 km/h in less than 15 seconds?” Push him off a cliff.
The Shah’s gift to his fellow tyrant was made in 1974, when developing countries were especially proud of making cars. (My native India was then producing the Ambassador, based on another British car, the Morris Oxford).
Since being reused as a moving mural, it has been exhibited in the United States, Canada and Europe. Feizi says that although Iranian diaspora groups were initially skeptical of its use to promote LGBTQ+ rights, “they have come to see it, and most of them agree that using it as a vehicle for protest is a new idea, a good way to draw attention to people in Iran.
At OFF, he has done a much better job than the motley collection of Oslo-based Iranian dissidents who regularly gather outside Norway’s parliament to chant slogans calling for the downfall of the Tehran regime. They hadn’t received the creative dissent memo.
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Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Hindustan Times, Editor-in-Chief of Quartz and International Editor of Time.
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