The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sentenced in Iran, political artist faces type of silencing in U.S., too

ED. NOTE: In June, Comic Riffs launched the #Draw4Atena campaign after Cartoonist Rights Network International and Amnesty International spread word that Iranian political artist Atena Farghadani had just been sentenced to 12-plus years in prison for her visual commentary criticizing her nation’s parliament.  The following column is about the latest effort to salute Farghadani through art.


MAZIAR BAHARI wanted his project to launch a dialogue in New York. Instead, he says, this apparently “was not a conversation they wanted to have.”

“They” is whoever decided that the best way to respond to a symbol of freedom of expression is to decry it and deface it — the latter, a splattered reaction that Bahari sees as ironic.

Some people, he tells The Post, just see “the face of a Muslim woman being drawn on a wall” — her mouth veiled in silence. “We tried to explain that this idea was not to celebrate oppression, but that this Muslim woman is a symbol [against] many of the things you are against. We are on the same side. But many people wanted not to think about — they just wanted to be angry.”

“This Muslim woman” is Atena Farghadani, a political artist and cartoonist who last year drew members of her nation’s parliament as animals to satirize their votes to curb birth control. In retatliation, she was thrown into infamous Evin Prison in August of 2014, and re-arrested early this year after she spoke out about her mistreatment. Several months later, she was sentenced to 12-plus years behind bars. (Note: At that time, Comic Riffs put out an open call to artists to #Draw4Atena in support.)

[Iranian artist Farghadani, who drew parliament as animals, sentenced to 12-plus years]

Bahari, an Iranian-born BBC reporter and human-rights activist, knows about being behind bars in his birthplace. He was once jailed and tortured for months there while on assignment — an ordeal depicted last year in the Jon Stewart documentary “Rosewater,” Through Education Is Not a Crime and Journalism Is Not a Crime, Bahari now campaigns for the rights of the Baha’is in Iran, and for the rights of reporters and editorial artists around the world.

[Open Call to Artists: #Draw4Atena to support appeal of Iranian artist’s 12-year sentence]

Those efforts led to #PaintTheChange, a Not a Crime campaign to raise awareness through public art and social media (what Bahari calls a mix of “old-school and new technology”). Last month — as part of a series of murals planned ahead of the Iranian president’s trip to the United Nations late this month — a four-story mural created by noted South African artist “Faith47” (her nom-de-mural) was put up in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. To spotlight the silencing and suppression of free speech, the mural depicts a mouthless Atena wearing a hijab.

Within days, however, the free-speech mural was defaced twice, splattered with red and white paint. Artist and fellow advocates alike were upset by the vandalism, and now have plans to remove the work.

“The mural was like a short fierce flame that ignited something,” Faith47 tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “We’re seeing the correlation of the aggressive censorship of a totalitarian state like Iran and the hateful censorship of an individual.

“This is not a problem faced only in Iran,” she continues. “This is a deep human psychological crisis.”

Bahari is quick to note, though, that the mural has also received encouragement. “Many people have expressed solidarity with us and sent us nice emails,” Bahari tells me. “They are the minority who have done this. Like many situations, it is the loud minority that tries to overwhelm the majority.”

And unwavering is Faith47’s support for her fellow socially conscious artist who remains imprisoned in Iran, and who last month was named the 2015 recipient of the Courage in Cartooning Award, as presented by the Washington area-based Cartoonist Rights Network International.

“I’d like to send my love out to Atena Farghadani,” she says, “and wish her and others like her strength and courage.”

[Iranian artist win CRNI’s 2015 Courage Award