Alaa Elassar, CNN
Chants of “Woman, Life, Freedom” echoed Sunday around Roosevelt Island in New York City as hundreds gathered to bring to life an art installation symbolizing solidarity with the women leading the uprising in Iran.
At the center of Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms State Park, a massive portrait of an Iranian teenager’s face, printed on a cotton canvas, lay on the ground. More than 300 demonstrators lined up behind it, standing in waves to mimic her long, flowing hair.
Depicted in the portrait is 16-year-old Iranian Nika Shahkarami, who went missing in September after she was filmed standing on an overturned garbage bin, waving her headscarf as it was engulfed by flames. More than a week later, her family learned that she was dead.
Iranian authorities have not responded to requests from CNN for information about Nika’s death, but her mother has said she believes her daughter was killed by Iranian security forces at a protest.
Nika was among the Iranian women and girls fighting on the front lines of a revolutionary movement, putting their lives at risk to participate in protests ignited by the death earlier in September of Mahsa Jina Amini. Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman, died after being detained by Iran’s morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab incorrectly.
Public anger over her death has combined with a range of grievances against the Islamic Republic’s oppressive regime to fuel the demonstrations. The protests continue despite some protesters being sentenced to death, hundreds killed and more than 14,000 men, women and children arrested.
Looking down on the New York installation from above, one sees the image of a woman with long, black locks of hair dancing in the wind. Back on the ground, chants from the crowd reverberate through the park and echo across the river.
The mission to use art as a tool for demanding positive change is part of what inspired the #EyesOnIran project, a series of Iran-centric multimedia art installations located in Four Freedoms State Park. By placing the art to face the United Nations building in Manhattan, the series calls for “direct accountability required from the UN and respective global leaders,” according to the park’s website.
The installations play into 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, an annual international UN Women campaign aimed at eliminating violence against women. The series, which runs until Human Rights Day on Saturday, was created in collaboration with artist collective For Freedoms, a coalition of Iranian women leaders and the nonprofit Vital Voices Global Partnership.
“Zan, Zendegi, Azadi,” a woman shouts in Farsi, and the crowd repeats her chant — “Woman, Life, Freedom” — a slogan taken from the Kurdish slogan Jin Jiyan Azadi and chanted during anti-regime demonstrations as women remove their compulsory headscarves and cut their hair.
Some women in the crowd are carrying babies, their strollers lined up nearby. Many have painted their faces, some with flags, some with lines that mimic prison bars. A trio of women wave Iranian flags in the air, one of them smiling through tears.
“It was just phenomenal,” Iranian American Lemor Balter, 36, told CNN after participating in the art activation. “Using art as a medium to protest and grab people’s attention is a beautiful way to draw attention to the brutal murders happening in Iran. It has meaning, it has a voice — and it gives us a voice we desperately need. We are very thankful for that.”
The artwork was created by French street artist JR, especially known for his larger-than-life photographic installations that took over Rio de Janeiro during the 2016 Olympics.
Three weeks ago in Brazil, JR created the same artwork using a portrait of Nika and demonstrators to illustrate her hair — and he hopes to bring the same idea to other cities around the world.
“Those three words — Woman, Life, Freedom — say it all,” JR told CNN, standing beside his portrait. “Everything I’m trying to do with my work is to summarize those words as an image, to bring photos of Nika alive, to make her hair longer and longer every city we go to.”
While many in the crowd were Iranian, draped in red, green and white, and carrying photos of the battered faces of Iranian women and children injured during protests, others participating included diverse New Yorkers and visitors from all over the world.
Many of those who trace their heritage to Iran, including Balter, have never been to the country. Balter’s family fled decades ago, in fear of being persecuted for being Jewish. Today, she yearns to be there — but for now, at least, her dream is simply impossible.
“It’s painful. It feels like there’s a part of me I can’t connect with, I can’t explore, I can’t understand and I would give anything to be able to do that,” she told CNN, the Iranian flag painted on both her cheeks.
“More than anything, I want to give my people the same freedom I was fortunate enough to have because my family left. If they had been unable to escape, what would my life be like?”
‘Never give up’
David Valazzi is another Iranian American who hasn’t been able to visit his homeland since the Islamic Revolution overthrew the Shah in 1979. He constantly imagines what it would feel like to see his country free — with its art, film, music and beauty on full display.
“We have a culture that is truly beautiful and people who just want to erupt and show the whole world who they are,” Valazzi, 46, told CNN, his daughter standing by his side. “I think they’re really beginning to do just that.”
Valazzi believes art can be a crucial pathway to freedom — not only by raising awareness but by putting pressure on world leaders who can enact policies to force real change in Iran, and most importantly, save people’s lives.
Along with JR’s art activation on Sunday, the #EyesOnIran project features works by Iranian artists, including Shirin Neshat’s “Offered Eyes, 1993,” a black and white photograph of an eye, inscribed with her calligraphy, printed along steps in the park.
“When we say that we must keep our ‘eyes on Iran,’ we mean that what is happening deserves not only our attention but our vision,” Neshat said in a statement. “In solidarity with the courageous Iranians who are risking their lives to express their human rights, many artists throughout the diaspora and beyond are bringing our vision to bear to ensure international audiences and institutions remain aware of what is happening in Iran, in their eyes and in their hearts, and feel moved to respond.”
“Baraye,” which in English translates to “For,” is a viral song composed by Iranian singer Shervin Hajipour that has become an anthem for worldwide protests, as well as an art installation spelled out on the side of the park facing the United Nations building. The words in “Baraye” are comprised of names of people who have died in the protest in Iran since the death of Amini.
Iranian artists, activists and lawyers were among the group gathered at Roosevelt Island last week to unveil the series. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke at the event, and Grammy-winning musical virtuoso Jon Batiste performed a stirring rendition of Hajipour’s song “Baraye” on piano accompanied by Mehrnam Rastegari on vocals.
The series “reminds Iranians in Iran they are not forgotten,” said Valazzi. But until politicians take the message of these artworks to heart, he said, it’s not enough. “You can have all these artists extending people’s voices, but unless politicians and people who can put the pressure take action and show solidarity, we can’t have real change.”
His daughter, 10-year-old Katya Valazzi, agrees with her dad. Although she is one of the youngest in the crowd, her dreams for her country are larger than life.
“For my people in Iran,” she said, “keep hope and never give up.”
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.
CNN’s Artemis Moshtaghian contributed to this report.