From Harlem to Iran: Street Art Against Injustice

A campaign of murals that raise awareness of human rights abuses against the Baha’i community

Rone typically paints portraits of women.

Rone typically paints portraits of women. (Photo: Sarah Ravani)

Rone, who’s real name is Tyrone Wright, arrived at the BP gas station on 129th Street and Park Ave. at 7 a.m., on Wednesday, paintbrushes in hand. A street artist from Melbourne, Rone is one of the number of artists who hope to use murals in Harlem to educate educate New Yorkers about human rights abuses far, far away— in Iran.

“I don’t think I can change the world with a mural at one gas station in Harlem. But it’s a medium. If it brings awareness to a lot more people,” he said, “then that’s one step.”

Rone uses stenciling and painting for his art. He usually uses the grey colors with an emphasis on shading.

Rone uses stenciling and painting for his art. He usually uses the grey colors with an emphasis on shading (Photo: Sarah Ravani).

For this week’s mural, Rone is painting the portrait of a Baha’i woman who moved to the U.S. from Iran in order to pursue higher education, an opportunity that was not available to her in Iran. The Baha’i faith is a monotheistic religion separate from Islam. And while Iran’s constitution recognizes Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism as religious minorities, it does not recognize Baha’i. Baha’is are not allowed to have public places of worship, their homes are regularly raided, their businesses are shut down routinely, and they are not permitted access to higher education in Iran. Baha’i discrimination is because they believe in the 19th century Prophet Bahá’u’lláh, who lived and died long after the Prophet Muhammed, who Muslims consider to be the final word.

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Nava Kavelin, the senior researcher at the Baha’i International Community, the UN representative of Baha’is, says that the ripple effects of Muslim repression against the Baha’is are being felt as far away as New York.

For his portraits, Rone likes to take a photograph of his subjects first and then use the photograph as a basis for a mural.

For his portraits, Rone likes to take a photograph of his subjects first and then use the photograph as a basis for a mural.

The Baha’i situation in Iran “is deeply wounding and it’s emotional,” said Saleem Vaillancourt, a Baha’i and the campaign coordinator for Not A Crime, an organization that uses art to educate people around the world about human rights abuses in Iran. “I know that there are Iranian Baha’is who have suffered in their lives, in their bodies, in their minds, and in their hearts.”

For this particular mural, the woman featured is located in California therefore, Rone was unable to take her photo. The subject is a professional photographer so she provided Rone with her photo after receiving instructions from him on what he envisioned for the mural.

For this mural, the woman featured is  a professional photographer from California who provided Rone with her photo. (Photo: Sarah Ravini)

The work that Vaillaincourt is doing with this campaign tries to express that suffering through Not A Crime’s collaboration with Street Art Anarchy, the campaign that has hired street artists from around the world to paint the murals. That includes Rone’s mural, which is painted on the side of Storefront Academy, a tuition-free private school in Harlem.

Rone started graffiti by painting in skate parks and on skateboards.

The artist got into graffiti by painting in skate parks and on skateboards. (Photo: Sarah Ravani)

The idea for putting the murals on the sides of schools is to highlight the lack of educational opportunities for Baha’is in Iran. This summer’s mural project in Harlem is slated to be completed in September just in time for a trip to New York by the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, for the UN General Assembly. The president’s visit and the location of the murals are all part of Not A Crime’s campaign plan.

“We really look for places to paint murals that have their own relevances to the story, their own experiences to the civil rights struggle of trying to fight for education equality,” said Vaillancourt. Places that can relate to what’s going on in Iran.”

As Rone completed his mural, many people at the gas station and passersby stopped to admire the mural and ask what the story behind the portrait of the woman Rone was painting.

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