“We have a shared history of oppression,” George Faison said, looking up at the new mural painted on the side of his Faison Firehouse Theater in Harlem, New York. “That’s why we identify with each other.”
This month, the Not A Crime campaign, IranWire’s sister project, launched a new series of murals in Harlem as part of its mission to raise awareness about the Iranian government’s treatment of Baha’is — and particularly its ban on Baha’is pursuing further education. The Firehouse Theater is the first Harlem institution to host a mural from the new series, a piece by South African muralist Ricky Lee Gordon. Gordon also created a mural in Cape Town at the end of 2015 as part of the Not A Crime project.
There are seven million Baha’is around the world – 300,000 of them in Iran. Baha’is are the country’s largest religious minority, and are frequently jailed on false charges and denied access to higher education. Thousands of Baha’is currently study through an underground education system known as the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education. Not A Crime produces murals around the world to tell the story of the tens of thousands of young Baha’is barred from studying because of their belief.
The new murals – up to 15 of them – will all be painted in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. Harlem has a rich history in the arts dating back to the Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, as well as the graffiti movement of the 1970s. Not A Crime painted four murals in Harlem last summer – two of them on the historic Amsterdam News building.
Maziar Bahari, founder of the Not A Crime campaign and IranWire’s editor-in-chief, said that one of the reasons for choosing Harlem was “because it is the most famous place in America for many people in Iran.”
Bahari described how the Iranian government has used the history of African-Americans to make a case against the United States’ human rights record. “Since the Iranian Revolution, the government has been using the treatment of African Americans in the United States to deflect attention from its own human rights violations against different groups of people in Iran, including the Bahai’s,” Bahari said. “After the revolution Iranian TV was saturated with programs about African-Americans because the Iranian government presented itself as the savior of the oppressed people around the world. When we first came to Harlem in 2015, people were surprised to learn about the Iranian government’s use of their community and legacy to fuel their propaganda machine, and they immediately embraced our campaign. Through street art, we are answering the suppression of creativity with the expression of creativity.”
For Iranians, Bahari said, “Harlem is synonymous African-Americans’ civil rights struggle, and the battle for equality. Harlem’s fame in Iran is one of many reasons for staging the campaign here. People in Iran and other countries can learn so much from the victories of this continuing movement. Also, Harlem is home to people like George [Faison] who have enriched American and world culture. We are here to work with Harlem artists and its creative community to share ideas and create beautiful and important works of art. Also, it really helps that the food is amazing in Harlem!”
Andrew Laubie, co-founder of Street Art Anarchy, and the curator of the Not A Crime murals, said that people in Harlem “appreciated the concept of creating beautiful works of art to address discrimination.” He said street art was a good way of raising awareness. “Street art takes back the messaging of a public space that is often consumed with commerce, and drives social conversation.”
Faison – the first African American winner of the Tony Award for his choreography on the Broadway hit The Wiz – founded the Firehouse Theater in 1999 to serve inner city youth who may not have had opportunities to explore the performing arts and to seek careers in musical theater, dance, and similar fields.
“For the last 15 years, we’ve tried to deal with kids issues,” he said. “Guns, gangs, violence, teen pregnancy.” Faison’s work in overcoming challenging social issues, while bridging gaps between need and opportunity – and his own experience of discrimination in the United States, given that he was born “during a period in which America had laws to manacle the spirit and limit the aspirations” of African Americans – meant that he was an immediate friend to the Not A Crime campaign. People and their problems “are one,” he said, and discrimination in one part of the world is discrimination everywhere.
Gordon said that both his mural on the Firehouse Theater, and the first piece in Cape Town, were for “the youth that are denied access to education … that hits me.”
A self-taught artist, born in Johannesburg and based now in Cape Town, Gordon has been named in the South African newspaper Mail & Guardian’s “200 Young People in South Africa Who Make a Difference” list. He began working in 2008 and has painted murals around the world. A number of international news outlets have covered his work, including CNN and National Geographic. He has also been active in creative activism and social issues in South Africa.
“The first mural in Cape Town was a portrait of a boy holding a pigeon in his hands, meaning that even for the students that are denied education, it doesn’t mean there’s not a huge amount of potential in them, it’s just dormant,” Gordon said. “Everyone has the right to happiness. How can we let such a human rights violation exist in today’s world? How can we have not evolved and not realized that the suffering of one is the suffering of all?”