The Murals of “Education is Not a Crime”

14 May, 2021

HARLEM, NY—American jazz trum­peter, band­leader, com­pos­er, edu­ca­tor and singer John Birks “Dizzy” Gille­spie was an out­spo­ken Baha’i. The dou­ble mur­al by artists Bran­dan “B Mike” Odums from New Orleans and Marthali­cia Matar­ri­ta from Harlem, cel­e­brates Gille­spie’s hun­dredth anniver­sary of his birth­day, in 2017. It was paint­ed above Gille­spie’s plaque on the Harlem Walk of Fame on 135th St.

Saleem Vaillancourt

In Sao Paulo a young girl reach­es up for books swirling in the sky. A snake coils round her leg on the ground. Women across New York stand read­ing or gaz­ing into their own futures; though in Brook­lyn, one woman wears a head­scarf, her mouth erased, remind­ing us that oppres­sion can some­times win. A boy in Del­hi is half-buried with­in the mason­ry of a build­ing — his arms strug­gling from the brick­work to grasp at books and papers just out of reach. The eyes of the first black Unit­ed States poet lau­re­ate, Robert Hay­den, peer through thick glass­es at a line of his own verse past­ed on the side of a cin­e­ma in Detroit: “Undis­cov­ered suns release their light.”

And in Harlem the most direct mes­sage of all stands paint­ed across two chim­ney columns on a wall over a gar­den: the columns are bright yel­low and have become the two halves of a bro­ken ruler. The words “Made in Iran” stand high at the top. 

Each of these murals was pro­duced by the Edu­ca­tion Is Not A Crime cam­paign to tell the world of a 40-year sto­ry of injustice.

ken­nard­phillipps raise aware­ness of the per­se­cu­tion of the Baha’is in Iran. South African street artist Faith47 paint­ed Ate­na Farghadani in a head­scarf with­out a mouth. In 2016, Iran­ian artist and polit­i­cal activist Farghadani was sen­tenced to 12 years in prison for draw­ing a car­toon. She was released after 18 months. The mur­al was removed after being defaced by local reac­tionar­ies and lat­er fea­tured in the New York Times.

The Islam­ic Repub­lic of Iran has per­se­cut­ed the Baha’is, the coun­try’s largest reli­gious minor­i­ty, since the 1979 Islam­ic Rev­o­lu­tion. More than 200 Baha’is were exe­cut­ed in the ear­ly days of the new regime. Baha’is have been barred from pub­lic sec­tor jobs, arbi­trar­i­ly detained and jailed, defamed in the media and denounced as “unclean” and “apos­tates” from the pul­pit. And just as Baha’i ceme­ter­ies were des­e­crat­ed with bull­doz­ers, so too were Baha’i chil­dren harassed by their teach­ers at school; the entire life­times of thou­sands of peo­ple have been shaped by state-spon­sored reli­gious persecution. 

One of the most vio­lent acts the Baha’is have faced has been the denial of their right to attend uni­ver­si­ty. The move was a con­scious pol­i­cy, cap­tured in a 1991 mem­o­ran­dum signed by Iran’s Supreme Leader, to “block the progress” of the Baha’i com­mu­ni­ty and to try to stran­gle their existence.

The Baha’i com­mu­ni­ty in Iran found a unique and pos­i­tive way to over­come this dis­crim­i­na­tion. In 1987 they cre­at­ed the Baha’i Insti­tute for High­er Edu­ca­tion: an “under­ground” uni­ver­si­ty that held class­es in peo­ple’s liv­ing rooms so that young Baha’is could study. Today thou­sands of its grad­u­ates have attend­ed some of the best uni­ver­si­ties in the world for post­grad­u­ate work and the BIHE still serves a com­mu­ni­ty ded­i­cat­ed to edu­ca­tion regard­less of the ban.

The con­struc­tive resilience of the Baha’is in Iran inspired Edu­ca­tion Is Not A Crime. The cam­paign was start­ed by Maziar Bahari, an Iran­ian-Cana­di­an jour­nal­ist and doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er, him­self not a Baha’i, who was look­ing for an uplift­ing yet effec­tive way to defend the rights of the Baha’is in his native Iran. Between 2015 and 2017 the cam­paign pro­duced more than 40 murals in New York, Detroit, Atlanta, Los Ange­les, Lon­don, Sao Paulo, Cape Town, Del­hi and Syd­ney, cel­e­brat­ing edu­ca­tion and draw­ing atten­tion to the denial of this right to the Baha’is.

For years the Baha’i com­mu­ni­ty and orga­ni­za­tions like Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al, Human Rights Watch, as well as Unit­ed Nations spe­cial rap­por­teurs and an array of diplo­mats, human rights experts and pub­lic fig­ures, have used every tool avail­able to raise aware­ness of the sit­u­a­tion fac­ing the Baha’is. Reports were issued and UN res­o­lu­tions passed — all of it help­ing to mit­i­gate the worst of the Iran­ian gov­ern­men­t’s actions. But with our cam­paign we also want­ed to involve the pub­lic in these calls for justice. 

Pub­lic art was the solu­tion offered by Edu­ca­tion Is Not A Crime. My col­league Rachel Wolfe and I moved to New York to help our cura­tor, Andrew Laubie at Street Art Anar­chy, and our com­mu­ni­ty lead, Ayana Hosten, to pro­duce more than 20 murals across Harlem in just a few months. Dozens of street artists from across the US and around the world joined us. And in the course of our work in Harlem we befriend­ed local pas­tors, anti-gang moth­ers of sons lost to gun vio­lence, the NYPD, cul­tur­al ambas­sadors and artists. 

Harlem became the spir­i­tu­al home of Edu­ca­tion Is Not A Crime. Many African Amer­i­cans relat­ed to the sit­u­a­tion of the Baha’is; after all, here was one com­mu­ni­ty of strug­gle rec­og­niz­ing the efforts of anoth­er, to achieve jus­tice, to live in equal­i­ty, and to be free.

Our film about the cam­paign, Chang­ing the World, One Wall at a Time, was broad­cast on satel­lite inside Iran. Mil­lions of peo­ple saw it dur­ing its repeat­ed air­ings. The sub­ject of one of our murals, a woman named Nasim, now liv­ing in Cal­i­for­nia but orig­i­nal­ly a Baha’i from Tehran, says she received many mes­sages of sup­port from her fel­low Iranians.

I do won­der some­times: what did we achieve? The Baha’is in Iran are still denied the right to study. No amount of media atten­tion has changed that so far. But then I remem­ber the words of George Fai­son, the first African Amer­i­can win­ner of the Tony Award, who wel­comed our mur­al on his Fire­house The­atre in Harlem. “We are all in the same bat­tle,” George said. “And any time you can give inspi­ra­tion, even just sub­lim­i­nal­ly … it will come back to you. That’s what art does.”

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