Mahsa Amini mural in Washington is about ‘action’ not suffering, artist says

Between two roaring lions, surrounded by the swirling colours of the Iranian flag, an image of Mahsa Amini peers down on to Washington’s bustling U Street.

Written below the slightly smiling symbol of Iran’s protests movement is “Woman, Life, Freedom” – words that have come to encapsulate the campaign for human rights in the country.

Chilean-American artist Rodrigo Pradel painted the mural back in January, in collaboration with Yasi Farazad, his Iranian-American friend.

“Although I’m not from Iran, I’ve always wanted to work on projects that are bigger than me and that have a great purpose,” Mr Pradel, a full-time muralist, tells The National.

“This is my way of helping.”

Ms Amini was a 22-year-old Kurdish woman whose death in Iranian police custody last year sparked months of nationwide protests that rocked the regime to its core. She had been detained for wearing her hijab “improperly”, in breach of Iran’s strict dress code for women.

“We wanted to capture that energy, that strength, that roar of women, these human rights that should be there,” Mr Pradel, who grew up in Canada, says.

“We didn’t want it to just be about suffering, we wanted it to be about action.”

After picking a suitable location, Mr Pradel and Ms Farazad got to work on the design of the mural.

“In Iranian culture, the Iranian woman is typically referred to as the lioness,” Ms Farazad tells The National.

“And so it only felt right to have the lioness represented in the mural somehow, because we knew that we wanted Mahsa to be in the centre.”

But while Iranian women have been at the forefront of the national protest movement – which generated a swift and brutal crackdown by the government – men have been marching alongside them, Ms Farazad says.

More than 500 protesters have been killed in rallies and about 20,000 have been detained. Seven men have been executed after being accused of violence against security forces during rallies.

Human rights groups have slammed the death sentences as unfair and said they were a government tool to quell dissent.

“It only felt appropriate to not just have the lioness, but also the lion in there as well,” Ms Farazad says.

Despite the uplifting message of the mural, part of it has been painted over twice by a competing graffiti artist, Mr Pradel says. But he adds that he intends on fixing it up again soon.

Muralist Rodrigo Pradel painted the mural in January. Joshua Longmore / The National.

In Washington, home to the second-largest Iranian community in the US, support for Ms Amini and the protesters has been unequivocal.

In late July, senators introduced the Mahsa Act following unanimous approval on the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee in April.

“Iranian protesters have demonstrated tremendous courage in voicing their outrage toward the Iranian regime after the brutal murder of Mahsa Amini,” said Alex Padilla, the Democratic senator from California who introduced the bill alongside Republican senator from Florida Marco Rubio.

“We must do our part to hold Iranian leaders accountable for their violent crackdown of these protests and the regime’s ongoing repression, censorship, and abuse against its people,” Mr Padilla said in a statement.

The bill requires the President to annually determine whether to apply sanctions on Iranian entities and people who are believed to be responsible for human rights abuses in Iran, including Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Muralist Rodrigo Pradel says he intends on restoring the mural after it has been painted over twice. Joshua Longmore / The National.

On U Street, home of historic “Black Broadway” and more recently a trendy nightlife scene, pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles pass by the mural at all hours of the day.

Ms Farazad, who spent months taking part in the weekly protests in Washington, says the events in Iran and those surrounding Ms Amini’s death have deep personal significance to her.

She and her family left Iran for the US when she was a child a week after Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s Islamic revolution, overthrew the government in 1979. She has not been back since.

While she senses a gradual change taking place in her ancestral homeland, she worries about the government’s continued insistence on violently cracking down on protesters.

“Mahsa is really the representation of the Iranian woman,” she says.

“I think that’s one thing that we’ve realised here. This is the fight of the people, so the people just got to continue to fight.”

Mr Pradel, meanwhile says murals, which are large, expressive and available for all to see, are a powerful and empowering form of art.

“I think it quiets the mind, or it allows you to reflect,” Mr Pradel says.

“You feel smaller, but not in a negative way, and I think it allows you to listen to it more, that’s the strength of murals.

“It’s more than just a pretty picture – murals, to me, are bigger than life.”

Updated: August 07, 2023, 7:55 PM

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