At the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual gathering of political activists and dissidents, attendees are confronted with the challenge of making the world care about long-running tyrannies. The passage of decades makes it that much harder to draw international attention to the plight of Cubans, say, or Zimbabweans — and harder still because newer causes, such as the tragedy of the Uyghurs, clamor for our collective concern.
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 have included Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, Indonesian comedian Sakdiyah Ma’ruf and Emmanuel Jal, a hip-hop artist from South Sudan.
If art, comedy and music have long been deployed in political causes, one of this year’s award-winning projects breaks new ground: It is a car.
The PaykanArtCar project has turned an Iranian-made sedan that was once gifted by Shah Mehammed Reza Pahlavi to the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu into a vehicle for activism against Iran’s rulers. The idea is to use the car as a canvas on which Iranian artists can protest the depredations of the regime in Tehran.
The first artist to have at it is Alireza Shojaian, an Iran-born, Paris-based artist who has chosen to draw attention to the plight of Iran’s LGBTQ+ community. Against a yellow background, Shojaian has painted images depicting Ali Fazeli Monfared, a 20-year-old man from Ahvaz, in southwestern Iran, who was allegedly beheaded last year by his own relatives for being gay. The style is redolent of the 10th century Persian epic known as Shahnameh, and the artist says he was especially inspired by one of its 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-gender sexual activity carries the maximum sentence of death. The mores and laws are defended by the liberal and conservative factions of the theocracy. Former President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad famously declared there were no homosexuals in Iran, and former foreign minister Javad Zarif justified the execution of gays by invoking Iranian society’s “moral principles.”
Hiva Feizi, executive director of PaykanArtCar, told me the project is now seeking a second artist to use the car as a mural for another cause. “They can decide the specific issue — it could be about 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 heads United Against Nuclear Iran, which pursues more conventional means of advocacy — pressing policy makers in Washington not to make concessions to Tehran and pressuring companies to stop doing business with the country.
The PaykanArtCar project is in effect an acknowledgment that conventional efforts aren’t sufficient to keep the cause of freedom in Iran fresh in the public mind. It 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 manufactured in Iran, starting in 1967.
Although production of the sedan ceased in 2005 (a pickup version was made until 2015), the Paykan can still be seen on Iranian roads. Hardly the most comfortable or reliable of rides, the car nonetheless invokes pride, symbolizing the can-do 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 address the city’s notorious air pollution. My favorite: “How do you make a Paykan accelerate 0-60 mph in less than 15 seconds? Push it off a cliff.”
The Shah’s gift to his fellow tyrant was made in 1974, when developing countries took special pride in making cars. (My native India was then producing the Ambassador, based on another British car, the Morris Oxford.) It was still roadworthy when Ceausescu was toppled in 1989, and was twice put up for auction before it was acquired by the PaykanArtCar project.
Since being repurposed as a moving mural, it has been displayed in the US, Canada and in Europe. Feizi says that although Iranian diaspora groups were initially skeptical of its use to promote LGBTQ+ rights, “they’ve been coming to see it, and most of them agree that using it as a vehicle of protest is a novel idea, a good way to get attention for people in Iran.”
At the OFF, it did a much better job of that than the motley gathering of Oslo-based Iranian dissidents who assemble regularly in front of the Norwegian parliament to chant slogans calling for the downfall of the regime in Tehran. They hadn’t got the memo about creative dissent.
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Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time.
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