When Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman, died in custody after being brutally beaten by Iran’s notorious morality police in September 2022, it sparked a grassroots uprising that eventually spread throughout the region.
“I had lots of discontent even before what happened to Mahsa,” Iranian protester Elahe Tavakolian on the one-year anniversary of Amini’s death in September. “The corruption, the compulsory hijab, the dictatorship. There are a lot of problems in Iran. I personally was always a dissident.”
As the uprising unfolded overseas, Illya Mousavijad, an Iran-born artist and assistant professor at Ohio State, began to consider how he could contribute to the movement while living in exile.
“I’ve been here [in Ohio] for about 12 years, and I haven’t been to Iran in seven years, but I am seeing all of these currents and this horrific news. And to me, the question was, ‘What can I bring to this? In what way can I address this?’” Mousavijad said in an early November interview at Urban Art Space, where, as part of an answer to these questions, he curated the art exhibit “Iran: Deciphering Violence and Resistance,” which will remain on display at the downtown gallery through Saturday, Nov. 18. “This exhibit includes really incredible artists, but also very specific viewpoints and very specific perspectives. In no means is the exhibit the beginning, the middle and the end of the story. It is more of a collective piece to the revolution, to the movement, to this pro-justice cry that has really been going on for decades but has recently been amplified and needs to be more amplified.”
“Deciphering Violence” includes works by 10 contemporary Iranian artists living both in Iran and abroad, and which stretch from experimental films to a series of street photographs taken in Iran by Mehran Najafi that offer a revealing glimpse into the daily realities experienced by those living in the country.
Mousavijad said curating the exhibit required him to walk a line, presenting artwork critical of both Islamic fascism and the country’s current regime while not providing ammunition for American nationalists content to lazily fall back on “Axis of Evil” talking points directed at Iran. “The hard thing was to make an exhibition that addresses violence under the Islamic Republic in Iran and not serve the white supremacist, American exceptionalist, nationalist agendas that we face here in the U.S.,” he said.
Mousavijad said he negotiated these complexities, in part, by leaning into a sense of shared humanity, featuring works born of those intimate moments that unfold both in solitude (a collection of journal entries by Jinoos Taghizadeh) and in public (Barbad Golshiri’s “The Tomb of Ali Roozbahani” which addresses the idea of communal grief, among other concepts). Then there’s “Portraits,” by Parastou Forouhar, a series of works that obliterate the line between these two poles and explore the ways that personal and communal grief commingle.
These intimate pieces rest alongside more explicitly political works such as “Irreproducible,” by Omid Shekari, which features a number of shattered and cracked plaster casts strewn beneath silicon rubber molds of former king Mohammad Reza Shah and current Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
“The actual casts of their faces falling down on the ground and breaking is talking about the reproducibility of violence. And then it’s such a deep work metaphorically, talking about the heaviness and the weight of [these forces] but also their fragility,” Mousavijad said of the piece, one of a handful in the gallery that could not be displayed in Iran. “It’s very brave to cast the face of the leader so directly. And to have it broken here takes extra courage on Omid’s part.”
Indeed, there are clear distinctions that can be observed between those works created in Iran (Najafi's cell phone photos) and those created by the exiled artists.
Mousavijad, for one, said his own artistic practice has evolved greatly in the years he has lived in exile, a state he described as “liminal,” in that he is forever without a home but also without a destination. “There are freeing aspects of it, in objective ways, in that I can make this show, for example, which I couldn’t do in Iran,” he said. “But there are also tremendous challenges of exile. … The implication of it is that you lose that immediate connection, and then the work you create can become much more associative, much more metaphoric.”
This is true of “This Is Not a Poem,” a collaborative piece between Mousavijad and poet Fatemeh Shams on display in “Deciphering Violence,” which features hand-carved wooden letters taken from text of the poem, broken apart and then strung from the ceiling and scattered on the floor.
“What I wanted to do was subvert what is supposed to be a fluid gesture on the paper into this very solid form that is also extremely fragile in its displacement and dislocation,” said Mousavijad of the text, which he carved in an elevated form of handwriting akin to calligraphy.
The installation reflects Mousavijad’s experience living in exile, taking something that was once fluid, breaking it apart and setting it adrift. It also captures the way one can begin to lose the mother tongue while living in a new country, and the reality that a new language never fully solidifies in its absence.
“The mother tongue might fade last, but that second or third language never fully emerges either,” Mousavijad said. “It’s all about displacement, and how you embrace displacement and make sense of it. Because that’s what you’re left with, essentially, when you're in exile.”