Maryam Safajoo, an artist, born in Tehran, Iran, in 1986, uses her work to depict the many forms of persecution faced by the Baha'i religious minority in Iran. Safajoo, a Baha'i herself, now lives in Champaign, Illinois, in the United States. Her younger sister Rouhie was briefly imprisoned in 2016 after writing to the authorities to ask why she had been denied access to university.
Barring Baha'is from higher education has long been part of a government policy in Iran to block the progress and development of the Baha'is. Arrests and imprisonments, disrupting livelihoods, shuttering businesses and confiscating properties, desecrating Baha'i cemeteries, as well as spreading propaganda through official media, are among the other forms of persecution faced by the Baha'is.
Last week, on November 22, security agents across Iran raided dozens of Baha'is homes to demand property deeds and to confiscate other belongings.
Safajoo left Iran in 2012 and later settled in the United States; in 2016, she completed her MFA at Tufts University’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts. She spoke to IranWier to explain how she raises awareness of these human rights violations through her art.
Maryam: thank you for speaking with IranWire. Where are you from? And where do you live now?
Thank you very much for taking the time to raise awareness of this persecution that I am trying to show through my paintings. I’m from Iran, I was born in Tehran and lived in Karaj. I currently live in Champaign, Illinois, in the United States.
Your sister, Rouhie, was briefly in prison for writing to Iranian authorities to ask why she was denied entry to university. What happened to her?
My sister, Rouhie, was 19 years old was arrested in 2016 and was in solitary confinement for about one week, and then when was held alongside other prisoners of conscience for three weeks. So she was in prison for a month and then was released on bail. She ultimately received a five-year sentence so she had to leave her beloved country and be far from her family.
You now live in the United States and work as an artist. How do you address the persecution of the Baha’is through your artwork?
My work directly depicts the various aspects of the persecution of the Bahai’s in order to help raise awareness among the viewers. I have received positive feedback from fellow artists, friends, family, professors and those whom I do not know. I am still in touch with several of my professors who are a strong source of encouragement for me. Many people can’t imagine that this type of persecution is still happening in this world.
My paintings require interviews and a lot of research. My whole life consists of talking, thinking, drawing and designing these stories of persecution. I choose different topics to show the various aspects of this persecution and find stories related to that specific type of persecution.
One aspect is the worry that members of the family feel when their family members are in prison. I have shown this through the painting of my grandfather ("Awaiting") who has spent many days of his life waiting for the various members of his family who have been put in prison. Another aspect is the forced immigration of Baha’is from Iran. Or the denial of Baha’i youth from entering university. Both of these are depicted through the paintings of my sister Rouhie (Forced Immigration). One more aspect is the execution of the Baha’is through various means, which I have depicted in my painting "Nuk" of the atrocities that happened in the village of Nuk. In addition to these, I have also painted about the separation of Baha’i children from their mothers in prison ("The Separation"), the defacing of Baha’i property with hateful slogans ("Hateful Graffiti") and the systematic closing of Baha’i businesses by the Iranian authorities ("Constructive Resilience").
One of the most heartbreaking atrocities depicted in my work is in the painting “Destruction of Baha’i Cemeteries”. Baha’i cemeteries are regularly vandalized, and Baha’is have at times been harassed when trying to bury their loved ones. In the particular case depicted in the painting, the family could not find any place where the authorities would allow them to bury their young son who had tragically passed, so they were forced to bury him under the ceramic tiles in their apartment. This persecution and its different aspects are unlimited, it never ends. I have a list of topics that I work on before I begin to actually start working on the canvas.
As tragic as these events are, I strive to show the beautiful aspects of those who have been persecuted by highlighting their steadfastness, powerful spirits, and their love for humanity. I don’t like to use depressing colors or draw a depressing picture. The heartbreaking stories come through the conduit of beautiful design and color. I work on heavy subjects in each painting which requires a lot of thinking and consideration to not do anything to cause a problem for the Baha’is who are currently living in Iran.
Your thesis at Tufts depicted a ransacked classroom. Why?
The Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (or BIHE, an informal or “underground” university for Baha’is, who are barred from state universities) is very special to me. It was established with great difficulty by the Iranian Baha’i professors who were fired from the universities after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, to help to teach our Baha’i students who were also expelled or barred from entering the universities, by teaching them in people’s homes.
Bahai’s believe in seeking of knowledge and education. Learning science doesn’t have to take place in a special institution; if someone is seeking knowledge, nothing can be an obstacle, even persecution. This is one of the important messages that the BIHE is teaching us.
I made an installation of a ransacked classroom of BIHE – which has been raided by the government of Iran many times. People could walk through that mess of a classroom and feel it, and understand at what price the BIHE professors and students are teaching and learning. I painted three related canvases telling the whole story of the BIHE and the victories behind this crisis.
What role do you think art plays in human rights issues?
Paintings and the arts speak to the hearts of people. The art itself talks and tells the stories. The paintings themselves are active. They are trying to get the attention of the viewer to say what is happening on the other side of the world. Most likely some viewers will be inspired to do whatever they can for the issue. It is important to capture and paint this history.