The murals were painted ahead of President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to the United Nations General Assembly opening in September, and developed into the largest ever single-issue mural campaign in the city. Artists from Argentina, Brazil, and the United States kicked it off, with six murals focused especially on the Baha’i religious minority in Iran and the authorities’ repeated attack on their right to higher education. Five more were created to raise awareness of the threats to free expression and jailed journalists in Iran.
A series of murals across the world began later in the year as the New York project inspired new works in Brazil, South Africa and Australia.
Maziar Bahari, who founded IranWire, started the #NotACrime campaign to expose the Iranian government’s abuses of the rights of its own citizens – and in particular to engage a new audience with these issues. Bahari partnered with Street Art Anarchy, an arts production group in New York, to curate the September murals campaign.
The project is considered by the New York street art community to be the largest single-issue mural campaign ever brought to the city. Street Art Anarchy worked with prominent international artists – such as Ron English, Nicky Nodjoumi, Alexandre Keto, and several others – to produce artworks that would inspire conversations about human rights in Iran and the power of the arts to advocate for social issues.
“The reaction was immensely powerful,” Bahari said. “The artists, building owners, community residents and local legislators all came together in support of equal access to education for Iranian Baha’is and for the freedom of the press. I’m grateful that we were able to shine a light on how the Iranian government is mistreating the largest religious minority in Iran, as I believe it serves as a barometer for understanding whether Iran is ready to operate like a modern and rational government.”
The campaign attracted significant media attention. The Associated Press, the New York Times, and the Washington Post all covered the initiative, featuring the murals and discussing the human rights crisis in Iran; and Roxana Saberi, the Iranian-American Al Jazeera America journalist, covered the campaign in a broadcast featuring artists Ron English and Nicky Nodjoumi. The Associated Press news piece was syndicated across hundreds of US publications.
Andrew Laubie, co-founder and director of Street Art Anarchy, attracted a diverse lineup of artists to join the campaign on the strength of its social message.
“We received incredible support and interest from high-profile street artists across the globe,” Laubie said. “Their dedication to #NotACrime meant that we accomplished a huge amount over just a few short months.”
The murals focusing on the denial of higher education to Iranian Baha’is — painted by artists from the United States, Brazil, and Argentina — followed on from last year’s Education Is Not A Crime campaign, which screened Bahari’s documentary To Light a Candle in nearly 300 locations worldwide.
David Torres, also known as Rabi, is one half of the LA-based street art duo Cyrcle. His painting of a broken ruler, in Harlem, summed up the core of the issue – the breakdown of the Iranian government’s responsibility to educate all its citizens. Marina Zumi, an Argentinian artist based in Brazil, painted a blinded gazelle in a fantastical landscape next to the famous gates of Tehran University. Alexandre Keto, a Brazilian whose work concentrates on bridging cultures between South America, North America, and Africa, painted a scene depicting a family under the traditional baobab tree of knowledge. And Jennifer “Cake” Caviola, based in Connecticut, painted a haunting portrait of the Iranian Baha’i educator and poetess (and one of seven jailed community leaders) Mahvash Sabet.
The campaign carried on after its New York launch with murals in Brazil, South Africa and Australia.
A team of artists and local Baha’is in Rio de Janeiro created a pavement painting of a sapling growing out of a destroyed tree to symbolize the Iranian Baha’i community’s efforts to educate their youth with an underground university. Several others across Brazil made a series of portraits to support the campaign and raise awareness. And photographs from across the campaign were projected on to national monuments in the capital Brasilia at a major #NotACrime event.
South Africa joined the project with a large mural in Cape Town by the artist Freddy Sam. His piece depicted a boy tending to an injured bird. Two artists in Johannesburg, Andrew Whispa and Wesley Pepper, staged a street art “hustle” in which they engaged with passers-by and painted a mural on the theme of education equality.
Artists and local Baha’is in Sydney also took up the campaign, where it will continue in the new year. Artists Camo and Crimson and Scott Nagy painted two murals in Sydney; a third, on the famous art walk at Bondi Beach, will be completed in the new year.