To protest Iranian anti-gay abuse, an artist painted a dictator’s car

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The Paykan was the first car made in Iran. It was produced from 1967 to 2015 and started out as a licensed copy of an obsolete British vehicle, the Hillman Hunter, but has nonetheless become a symbol of national pride that is dear to middle-class Iranians.

Paykans eventually became ubiquitous on the streets of Tehran, serving as limousines, wagons, pickups, and taxis. In 1974, the Shah of Iran donated a Paykan limousine to Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator, as a token of the union (or collusion) between two regimes.

This very car made headlines again among Iranians, at home and in the expatriate community in May of this year, when it was put up for sale in a Bucharest auction house. Although it had an expected hammer price of 10,000 euros, it ended up being sold for 95,000 euros. It has reappeared, brightly painted by the Iranian artist Alireza Shojaianwho identified himself as queer and was recently shown at a human rights conference in Miami.

“I come from Iran, but in order to continue my art I had to leave my country,” said Shojaian in a call from Paris, where he was granted asylum in Beirut in 2019 after three years in exile The brutal suppression of lesbians and gays , Bisexual, transgender and queer people by the Iranian government.

The painting style that Mr. Shojaian used on the Paykan is reminiscent of the Shahnameh, a Persian epic from the 10th century. It’s specifically inspired by the story of Rostam, a father who kills his own son. Some panels show the Iranian athlete Navid Afkari, who was arrested during protests against the government in 2018 and executed by the state two years later. Others are inspired by Ali Fazeli Monfared, a 20-year-old gay man who was reportedly beheaded by family members when his sexuality was discovered.

“The sympathy we get for the athlete’s story is much greater than the sympathy for Ali, the gay young man,” said Shojaian. “That is the result of what the government did. With the lack of knowledge in society, they dehumanized him. “

“So I put both of them next to each other and say, ‘You are both human; they are both children of this country, ‘”Mr. Shojaian continued. “And where there is injustice, we have to talk about it.”

A sound installation plays inside the car. The first track is the reading of a message that Mr Monfared sent to his friend who fled to Turkey to seek asylum because of his sexuality. “Ali also had the plan to go to his friend after three days. He had the ticket, ”said Mr. Shojaian.

Mr. Shojaian enjoyed the opportunity to raise awareness of his community’s plight, but had to switch media to create an art car. “I usually use colored pencils, a very light material that I had to take with me because I always had to live in exile,” he says.

The car was purchased and the project was funded by an organization called PaykanArtCar, which plans to select an activist artist to repaint it annually to raise awareness of other oppressed communities in Iran. The Florida-based nonprofit is headed by Mark Wallace, an ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush. A longtime Republican political figure, Mr. Wallace is also the head of a group called United Against Nuclear Iran.

The car was unveiled on October 4th at the Human Rights Foundation’s Oslo Freedom Forum in Miami. The foundation was established by Thor Halvorssen, who approaches human rights from an individual rights perspective but wants to unite people from across the political spectrum, he said. The foundation’s donors reflect this: they included conservative organizations like the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the National Christian Foundation, and the Donors Capital Fund; along with more liberal individuals like Google co-founder Sergey Brin, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, and former Democratic National Committee treasurer Andrew Tobias.

Nevertheless, these affiliations can arouse suspicion in the Iranian diaspora community.

“Standing up for LGBTQ rights in Iran is a noble thing,” said Nahid Siamdoust, assistant professor of media and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas, Austin. “But neoconservative and right-wing organizations have used human rights considerations and justifications to advance their own conservative policies – not just in the Middle East but at home too.” Unfortunately, she continued, “these artists and spokesmen are ultimately the ones who defend their legitimacy lose in the broader population. “

Indeed, the background of the project’s sponsors has created a backlash. The vehicle was to be exhibited for the second time at the Asia Now art fair in Paris at the end of October, but the invitation was withdrawn a few days before the opening.

A public statement from Asia Now’s founder and director Alexandra Fain delivered a statement. “This decision is in no way directed against the artist Ali Reza or his artistic practice,” said Ms. Fain, “and certainly not against his commitment to the LGBTQ + cause, which Asia Now has always actively supported.” “The problem is neither the artist nor the project, but the organization supporting this project, which uses the LGBTQ + approach for reasons other than purely artistic, and which endangers the safety of the Iranian people who work with us Platform. ”(Mr. Wallace, when asked to comment, said,“ I consider these statements defamatory. ”)

Mr. Wallace defended both the art car project and his advocacy against the Iranian government. “Do I mean the regime should or should be changed? Yes. I do, ”he said. “But I also think that the LGBTQ community in Iran shouldn’t be killed by hanging on cranes. And I think it’s okay to think that. “

Mr. Halvorssen also sternly defended the efforts. “Trying to mislead us by saying that anyone who takes conservative positions will be disqualified immediately for having them is a kind of abandonment culture distortion that, quite frankly, is quite objectionable,” he said. “You should judge us for what we do. Should we be criticized for having a car that represents our campaign against gay abuse in Iran? And is that a conservative principle? That’s absurd.”

Regardless of the controversy, Mr. Shojaian sees great value in raising awareness. “Whoever does something for LGBT rights in Iran, I really appreciate that, because I totally understand how difficult it is,” he said, mentioning activists and organizations that work from exile in Iran, such as the example 6 rank. “We have to work to educate society.”


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