The silhouette of a young girl walks off into a sky blue horizon, carrying a stuffed tiger. Curled up, colorful drawings are scattered behind her. The image, which adorns a 50-foot wall on 126th Street in East Harlem, New York, is part of the Not A Crime campaign launched by IranWire’s founding editor-in-chief, Maziar Bahari.
“The drawings represent the dreams of college-aged Baha’i students in Iran who are not allowed to attend university in the country because of their religious beliefs,” said Swiss street artist Bustart, 33, who painted the mural.
Not A Crime raises awareness of the human rights violations against the Baha’is in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Baha’is, Iran’s biggest religious minority, cannot teach at or attend universities in Iran, and they are subject to harassment from the authorities — including arbitrary arrests and imprisonment — because of their beliefs.
The campaign teamed up with Street Art Anarchy, a street art curation group. Together, by the end of the summer, they will have erected 15 murals around Harlem this summer ahead of the United Nations General Assembly in September. Not A Crime has also commissioned murals all over the world, including in Australia, Brazil, India, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
“It’s shocking when you see how people got treated,” Bustart, who was in New York for 10 days to complete the mural, told IranWire. “People got put into jail, and just disappeared out of nowhere, and a regime holds all that down,” he said. “It’s not in the news in Europe,” he added.
Bustart told IranWire that he painted a young girl as a way of addressing the problem for kids who can’t go to school due to financial, political, or religious reasons. “It’s a big issue of equal rights in education,” he said.
Indeed, it is not only Baha’i university students that face persecution in Iran. According to a report published by the Baha’i International Community in July, “Baha’i schoolchildren at all levels continue to be monitored and slandered by administrators and teachers in schools. Secondary school students often face pressure and harassment, and some have been threatened with expulsion. Religious studies teachers are known to insult and ridicule Baha'i beliefs. In a few reported cases, when Baha'i students attempt to clarify matters at the request of their peers, they are summoned to the school authorities and threatened with expulsion if they continue to ‘teach’ their Faith.”
Bustart described his artistic style as being heavily influenced by comic books, including Stan Drake’s The Heart of Juliet Jones, and pop art, which originated in the 1950s and was popularized by artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol. “I like the portraits of [Roy] Lichtenstein,” he said. “You could also say I like Calvin and Hobbes.” The iconic comic strip character Hobbes inspired the tiger the child is holding in his mural, he said.
“For the last five years, I started recycling my childhood,” said Bustart. “So I go into 80s cartoons and 80s comics. I like that I can put something up, which you didn’t see for 20 years, but at one point it was out there, and you can still recognize it.”
When creating his mural, the artist collaborated with students at the Association to Benefit Children (ABC) school, which helps homeless and disabled children and other vulnerable kids. The drawings the girl in the painting drops behind are actually exact replicas of paintings he was given by children from ABC. “I really tried to paint them as they gave them to me. So if you think there is a leg that’s too big or a funny looking ear, it’s the kids’ fault,” he joked. Then he added: “The kids can never be wrong because they don’t know about all the evil in the world yet.”
The Metro North train, which takes people in and out of New York City almost as far north as Massachusetts, passes by the mural, so passengers going through Harlem will get a chance to see Bustart’s contribution to the Not A Crime campaign.
“I like the message, education is not a crime – that’s pretty tight,” said Tommy, 18, who was waiting on the platform at 125th Street Station to go to Connecticut. The 125th Street station overlooks the colossal Harlem mural.“The child’s in black and white, the stuffed animal’s in color, and all the things are in color,” he said. “I think I know what the message is. It’s trying to say that education is full of color. It’s not this bleak dark thing, like what it usually looks like. You see the backpack — that looks so boring, but there’s actually a lot of color and life and everything else.”
Dara, 37, said, “It makes you feel kind of sad that she’s losing all of these beautiful drawings.” She added, “It looks like she is in a darker place than those drawings.”
Adam, 52, a child psychiatrist at the ABC school, said, “To me it's some mysterious child, and brings to my mind all the children I work with. When I look at this picture I’m very curious about the face of this child and what’s happening there, and what she or he is thinking about. Where is she or he going? It’s like unknown.” After hearing about the Not A Crime campaign, Adam told IranWire that it made him think about his childhood in Poland under communism because although education was highly cherished, it was also very distorted.
Bustart’s mural is the ninth mural put up across Harlem this summer. Six others are due to be commissioned for the project.