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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.