As Iranian protests sparked by the death of a woman in police custody continued, several Tehran fountains on Friday appeared as if filled with blood, according to photos and a video — verified by Storyful — that were shared widely on social media. The Persian-language Twitter account 1500tasvir, which has been monitoring the state crackdown that has killed dozens, credited the red liquid in the fountains’ basins to an anonymous artist/activist, referring to it as a protest artwork whose title roughly translates to “Tehran sinking in blood.”
The affected fountains are in culturally significant locations, including one in Daneshjoo Park, near the City Theater, which has been the subject of government censorship, and another in front of the Iranian Artists Forum, an interdisciplinary arts space founded during the reform-oriented presidency of Mohammad Khatami.
According to the Voice of America, citing the BBC’s Persian service, the fountains have since been drained. But for a moment, the ephemeral work served as a visceral reminder of the sacrifices made in the name of women’s rights.
Iran’s weeks-long protests began in mid-September, after Mahsa Amini, 22, was arrested by the “morality police” for allegedly wearing a hijab incorrectly, and died in custody. The death has fueled sprawling protests. Schoolgirls have removed their head coverings and raised middle fingers. Women have burned their hijabs and cut their hair. People have flooded the streets chanting, “Women, life, freedom” and “Death to dictator,” a reference to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Pamela Karimi — an art historian at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth who recently published a book about Iranian contemporary art called “Alternative Iran” — said that artists are at the center of this protest movement. “Unfortunately, in the past 40 years, they haven’t been able to create political groups that can stand up to the government,” she said, pointing to Iran’s failed progressive movement. “Because of that, art has become a tool in the hands of the people to communicate their unhappiness with the system.”
But the art that has emerged during the protests — illustrations depicting women cutting their hair, for instance — stands out for its directness, Karimi said.
In a country where the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance must approve all art, Karimi says that artists typically circumvent rules by seeking alternative spaces for art-making — dilapidated factories, empty warehouses — and by being coy about their messaging.
“Iranian art is very complicated. You cannot just describe it in a black-and-white, easy way,” Karimi said. “Sometimes when you talk to Iranian artists, they don’t even directly talk to you about their political position. You have to read between the lines.”
Dyeing water blood-red might seem a little on the nose by comparison, but that’s the point. “Now what we are seeing on the internet these days is a surge of images that are very bold, very revolutionary in character and are not shy about what they want to say. So this kind of art is unique to this movement,” Karimi said.
Dyeing fountains isn’t a new idea. Animal-rights protesters have spilled fake blood in fountains at London’s Trafalgar Square to call attention to factory farming. And in 2017, a man turned the Trevi Fountain red to protest corruption in Rome.
In Iran, though, such practices have a special significance as a way of honoring the dead. Karimi, who spent part of her childhood in Tehran, remembers visiting the city of Mashhad after the Iranian Revolution and seeing fountains dyed red in remembrance of martyrs. Tehran’s Behesth-e Zahra cemetery once had a pond with a fountain that flowed red — known as the Pond of Blood — to memorialize those who died in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.
With this most recent iteration, Karimi says the artist’s choice to stay away from the spotlight adds to the work and reflects the strength of the protest movement in Iran. “The beauty of it is that the artist himself or herself is anonymous. Art is not just something that you use in order to promote your own profile,” she said. Instead, it gets at something more selfless: “The anonymity shows that art is now pure activism. ”