With ‘Eyes on Iran,’ Artists Bring Protests to Roosevelt Island

A hand holds a burning white hijab. Scattered behind it are incongruously pink reproductions of a computed tomography scan showing blunt force trauma to the head. The pointed image is an enormous photo print by the Iranian American artist Sheida Soleimani, currently on display in front of a former smallpox hospital on Roosevelt Island.

The scans were leaked after Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman who also went by the name Jina, died in Tehran in police custody in September. She had been detained on the grounds that she was not properly observing Iran’s hijab law. Her death sparked widespread protests in the country, and though pushback from government forces has been severe, with hundreds reported killed and thousands more arrested, the protests still haven’t stopped.

Sepideh Mehraban, “Thread of Stories” (2022), a large reproduction of a Persian carpet laid out on the park’s pavement.Credit…Austin Paz/For Freedoms

In an effort to keep international attention on the protests — and, more specifically, to pressure the United Nations to remove Iran from its Commission on the Status of Women — the activist/artist collective For Freedoms, working with a female-leadership-focused NGO and a loose coalition of prominent Iranian women, recently mounted a group show called “Eyes on Iran” in Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms State Park, directly across the water from the U.N. building.

Floating among the park’s tree branches are Persian carpet patterns printed on mesh by the conceptual artist Shirin Towfiq, while red, white and green bandannas tied on by Aphrodite Désirée Navab adorn their trunks. Another carpet is reproduced on the pavement by Sepideh Mehraban, and a list of protesters who’ve been killed — compiled by the anonymous artist whose conversation with the For Freedoms director Claudia Peña kicked off the whole project — faces the U.N. from a low wall. A large reproduction of a 1993 photograph of a woman’s eye by Shirin Neshat — who spoke at the show’s opening, as did Hillary Clinton — comes into view only from certain angles, attached to the risers of a staircase.

Aphrodite Désirée Navab, “Uproot the Roots, Rise up: Woman/Zan/زن 2022.” The critic calls some of the works “heartbreakingly quiet.”Credit…Austin Paz/for Freedoms
Shirin Neshat, “Offered Eyes,” a large reproduction of a 1993 photograph of a woman’s eye at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park.Credit…Austin Paz/For Freedoms

The effect of all this is strangely double. Taken in the context of the day’s news and the park’s dramatic river and skyline views, the show as a whole reads as a simple, and singular, cry for attention. As protest art, in other words, it’s extremely effective — the message is clear, and details like those in Soleimani’s photograph, along with the staging, lend an undeniable mood of urgency.

Considered separately, though, most of the pieces leave an impression not of anger but of subtle and surprisingly memorable grief. A panel of bricks stamped with the names of arrested protesters, by Saman and Sasan Oskouei, Brooklyn-based brothers who work under the name Icy & Sot, is heartbreakingly quiet, as are Navab’s bandannas; even Towfiq’s flying carpets, because of the fairy-tale fantasies they evoke, suggest something like dreamy resignation.

Icy & Sot, “Bricks of a revolution” (2022), incised with names of protesters.Credit…Austin Paz/For Freedoms

The U.N. Economic and Social Council is expected to vote on whether or not to remove Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women by Dec. 14; “Eyes on Iran” will remain on view till the end of the year.

Eyes on Iran

Through Jan. 1, 2023 at Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms State Park, Roosevelt Island, N.Y.;

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