- “Walls of Martyrdom”: Tehran's Propaganda Murals
An exhibit of Fotini Christia’s photographs will be held from May 18 to June 15 in the South Concourse Gallery of the Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS), 1730 Cambridge Street, thanks to the support of the Weatherhead Center, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, and the Office of the Provost. View some of the exhibition photos below.Largely closed to U.S. visitors for almost three decades, Tehran is the cryptic capital of an increasingly powerful and defiant Iran. Vast and densely populated, this Middle Eastern megalopolis makes for a rich urban topography, its mystique amplified by a shroud of chronic smog. Though landscape stimulants competing for the visitor’s attention abound, none are more gripping than the city’s propaganda murals. As dominant fixtures of Tehran’s visual space, these state-sponsored murals are painted by artists close to the regime. Cast across the city’s prominent avenues, on both private and public buildings, the murals are of a distinctive artistic style. Their sheer number and size, along with their powerful iconography and aesthetics, set me on a quest to systematically document them. My exhibit “Walls of Martyrdom”: Tehran’s Propaganda Murals—a selection of over 130 images of Tehran’s murals taken over the summer of 2006 during my affiliation with the University of Tehran—draws from the findings of this documentary exercise.
The Islamic Republic introduced murals on an extensive and organized scale as part of an orchestrated propaganda campaign aimed at asserting the Islamic character of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The use of murals as a means of state propaganda continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The “Imposed War”—i.e., the Iran-Iraq war—was the dominant theme in a second wave of murals, which extolled the war’s fallen as a way of recognizing the Iranian people’s massive sacrifice on the battlefield. Midway through the Iran-Iraq war, the Artistic and Cultural Bureau of the Qom Seminary’s Office of Propaganda published a collection of exemplary Iran-Iraq war murals along with a set of detailed guidelines for aspiring muralists. These guidelines clearly underscored the role and importance of murals as a propaganda medium:
Under all circumstances the effectiveness of the revolutionary mural must be kept clearly in mind. Vague, indirect and superfluous paintings should be avoided at all costs. ‘What is significant is to consider what a passer-by (sic) can take away in his memory and mind.’ The artist must study religious texts as seriously as he examines the techniques of other artists. Murals with a theme or a scene are preferable to portraits with no specific message. Revolutionary posters should not be merely copied. Every artist must let go of his unique imagination and create something unique. The location of the murals must be selected carefully so that passersby can clearly see the complete picture. But the ultimate objective should be brevity of message, deliberate and emphatic brush strokes, clear cut shapes and brilliant colors. Every mural should be framed by solid colors, selected from one of the dominant colors of the picture.¹
Indeed, in an effort to guarantee the maximum possible resonance with the public, muralists have traditionally employed strong visual cues of the Shi’a faith. The iconography and symbols revolve around holy sites such as Mecca, the Dome of the Rock, or Imam Hussein’s shrine in Karbala. Though primary colors dominate the muralists’ palettes, the Islamic green is overwhelmingly the color of choice. Calligraphy, geometric shapes, and curvilinear designs suggestive of Islamic art are also part of the muralists’ artistic repertoire. These are in turn fused with highly specific symbols such as the hand, whose five fingers standing for Mohammad, Ali, Fatemeh, Hassan, and Hussein represent the prophet’s family. Bloodstained hands evoke the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in Karbala and the mutilation of Abbas, Hussein’s half brother, while red flowers such as the tulip or the rose symbolize love and sacrifice. They depict the blood of martyrs, and they promise reward of heavenly bliss. Slogans, whether Koranic verses or sayings of Ayatollah Khomeini, are also a prominent fixture of murals, inscribed mostly in Farsi but also in Arabic and on occasion even in English.
Though less numerous than those depicting the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, the most thematically persistent murals have featured anti–United States and anti-Israeli images. Appearing in the early days after the 1979 Iranian Revolution and gaining traction during the U.S. hostage crisis, they have persisted unabated to this day. The complicated politics of the region—such as the U.S. backing of Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war, the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the U.S. invasion of Iraq—have provided the regime with consistent and topical themes and inspirations for new murals.
Though Iran’s propaganda culture has been a subject of academic inquiry, mural images per se have not been systematically presented to a U.S. audience. At a time when Iran makes daily headlines and a U.S. attack is certainly possible if not imminent, this exhibit aims to give an insider’s view of the Islamic Republic’s psyche. The exhibit’s primary objective is to document and present images that are part of Tehranians’ daily urban experience and of which people in the United States are largely oblivious. But the exhibit also aspires to debate and deconstruct the murals’ narratives. After encountering the images, it is important to step back and consider the extent to which they express revolutionary fervor and religious fundamentalism or merely the regime’s anxieties and insecurities. These murals underscore the complexities of the relationship between Iran and Iraq that tend to be oversimplified in the context of the current Iraq war. Examining the extent to which they resonate with the Iranian public could lead to an understanding of whether isolationism or dialogue with the West is the best way to render the murals’ narratives unsustainable, if not inconsequential.
These themes will be raised and debated in two academic panels that will accompany the exhibit. The first panel will host Iran experts from across the disciplines to discuss the use of murals in the Islamic Republic of Iran, interpret the murals’ iconography and symbols, and present their views on the murals’ appeal and resonance with the Iranian public. The second panel will be of a regional-comparative nature and will involve academics who study Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. They will in turn discuss the use of propaganda murals by regimes and political movements in the broader region, commenting on the similarities and differences with murals in Iran. Both panels will conclude with a discussion of the contemporary political relevance of Iranian mural art, commenting on the extent to which mural narratives are playing into U.S. fears, and whether those fears can be abated if the United States were to engage in dialogue with Iran.
Curated by Ghazal Abbasy-Asbagh, an Iranian architect, the exhibit will employ mixed visual media such as a fifty-foot-long cityscape design, depicting a number of murals in their urban context as a way to recreate the feeling of walking down a Tehran avenue; a digital map of Tehran with pictures of several of the murals superimposed on their real location to give a sense of their sheer number and geographic spread throughout the city; installations simulating martyrs’ shrines; and a number of mega-banners suspended around the walls of the CGIS South sunken courtyard.
1. The guidelines are translated and paraphrased in: Peter Chelkowski and Hamid Dabashi. Staging a Revolution: The Art of Persuasion in the Islamic Republic of Iran. New York University Press, 1999 (p.291).
Fotini Christia, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, is a Graduate Student Associate and Dissertation Completion Fellow at the Weatherhead Center.