Earlier this month, BBC Culture published an excellent article by Arwa Haidar exploring the global reach and universal language of protest art through the murals painted across the world to honor George Floyd – the black American man whose murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May sparked a massive uprising for racial justice in the United States and beyond.
In an equally insightful article for AFAR, Maya Kroth also drew our attention to how artists around the world are able to transform border walls that symbolize division and oppression into powerful manifestations.
Indeed, from Syria and Palestine to Egypt and the United States, artists defiantly transform the walls that divide us into virtual galleries of resistance against injustice, cruelty and violence, reminding tyrants and to the mass assassins who rule them that they are being watched and will one day. be held accountable.
Mirror mirror on the wall
This year’s Black Lives Matter uprising in the United States and the way it resonated with people in different corners of the world brought renewed attention to the art of protest. However, the distinctive art forms that express and help shape social movements and revolutions exist within a much larger frame of reference that certainly includes, but is not limited to, the Black Lives Matter movement.
From Asia and Africa to Latin America, murals and graffiti calling for justice, honoring the dead, and shaming the oppressors act as mirrors to a broken and fragmented human soul yearning for unified liberation made impossible by the very walls on which they are drawn and painted.
Together, these works draw a map of the world different from that shaped by fictitious colonial borders that divide nations and their collective dreams. From murals and graffiti painted and drawn in the last century during the national liberation movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America, to those created during the ongoing struggles for freedom and justice in Kashmir, Palestine, Hong Kong and more recently in the United States, these works reveal the crossing of false borders and the mapping of the global challenge.
From heaven to earth and back
In the famous Persian poet Farid al-Din Attar’s 1177 masterpiece, The Birds Conference, we read the story of a flock of birds that embarked on a journey to Mount Qaf to find their “King”, the mythical bird Simorgh. In the poem, Attar tells us how this divine bird once dropped a single feather from its wing on China and thrown the whole world into turmoil:
This feather is now in a museum in China –
This is what the Prophet meant by “Seek knowledge even in China!”
If the color of his feather hadn’t been revealed
So much turmoil would not have happened in the world …
The sublime mystical allegory of Attar has found renewed meaning in our troubled times. It is as if dozens of selfless, mostly unnamed, artists across the world saw a vision from Simorgh’s lone pen and were inspired to inscribe humanity’s collective cry for freedom on them. walls surrounding them.
Simorgh’s feather has always been a symbol of beauty and truth, inspiring poets and philosophers to do and say the beautiful and the just. These anonymous artists, the mystics of our time, portraying the cruelties of our time on these frightening walls are the descendants of Simorgh.
Murals as mirrors
Revolutions and social movements, however successful they may seem at the time, often run the risk of being crushed by blunt military force or opening the way for another kind of oppression over time. But the works of art they inspire keep alive the dreams and aspirations of the brave souls who initially brought them to fruition.
Let me share an example: Soon after the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979, my colleague Peter Chelkowski and I assembled a whole archive of revolutionary art that included murals, posters, graffiti and other related material and published the first book on visual memories of this historic event. Our book, Staging a Revolution: The Art of Persuasion in the Islamic Republic of Iran (1995), has come to be seen as a close examination of all the iconography of the revolutionary uprising and placed the Iranian revolution next to events. similar highlights, such as the French, Cuban and Russian revolutions and the monumental body of public and political art they produced.
Decades later, I came across a valuable collection of pre-revolutionary posters from the 1950s and 1960s anticipating the 1979 revolution. I used this collection to help organize an art exhibition in Ashville, NC. North, and I then published a book about these posters, In Search of Lost Causes: Fragmented Allegories of an Iranian Revolution (2014). During this time, I was also working on the archiving of Palestinian cinema in an effort to preserve a precious body of art documenting the struggle and dreams of the Palestinian people.
Simultaneously with my efforts, thousands of others around the world, from Iran and Syria to Egypt and the United States, were working to produce, preserve and promote political art that has helped and continues to help ordinary people defeat armies, end occupations, overthrow dictators and claim most basic rights and freedoms.
The Iranian revolution has degenerated into theocracy. The Egyptian revolution that followed decades later was brutalized by a military coup. The Syrian revolution has been murderously slandered by the combined forces of Bashar al-Assad, reactionary Arab rulers and their Western benefactors. Palestinian national liberation faces the gargantuan US-Israeli military machinery. The Black Lives Matter uprising in the United States is fighting a racist and militarized police force that the first black president says we must not call to be canceled. But what remains constant in the ebb and flow of all of these dreams and struggles are the visual and performing arts that they inspired.
Mirrors as walls
Now let me turn to another example: In February 2004, I visited Palestine alongside a number of renowned Palestinian filmmakers to participate in a film festival that I helped organize. As we passed a checkpoint near the apartheid wall between Jerusalem and Ramallah, legendary Chilean-Palestinian filmmaker Miguel Littin began to speculate on how he might project his feature film onto the apartheid wall. Our hosts living on both sides of that wall quickly persuaded Littin to drop the idea, expressing fear that trigger-happy Israeli snipers would shoot and kill anyone who came near the wall to watch his film.
On this occasion, we were unable to project a Palestinian filmmaker’s vision of freedom onto the Israeli apartheid wall. But soon, countless Palestinian artists, mostly unnamed, transformed these very walls into a mirror gallery of their struggles.
The walls are not just artificial political borders that dangerous fascists like Trump or Netanyahu erect in an attempt to preserve their shattered empires and settlements. The walls are also invitations to paint, to dream, to challenge, to dismantle what they represent.
At the end of the Attar Bird Conference – in a play about the word “Simorgh” which literally means “30 birds” – only 30 birds survive the difficult journey to Mount Oaf. Upon reaching their destination, these birds come face to face not with the legendary bird, but with a mirror in which they see only their own reflections. They realize that “Simorgh” was none other than their 30 courageous and provocative souls who, against all odds, had dared to see that they were the agents of their own destiny. They didn’t need any king, they were all kings.
Artists who defiantly use the walls that divide us to deliver a message of hope and unity are like these birds – kings seeing visions of their freedom in the mirror of walls they had beautifully painted and boldly faced. .
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.