Simorgh: The art of apartheid walls

From Syria and Palestine to Egypt and the US, artists are defiantly transforming the walls that divide us into virtual galleries of resistance.

Syrian artists Aziz Asmar and Anis Hamdoun finish a mural depicting George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man who died while while being arrested and pinned to the ground by the knee of a Minneapo
Syrian artists Aziz Asmar and Anis Hamdoun finish a mural depicting George Floyd in the town of Binnish in Syria's northwestern Idlib province on June 1, 2020 [Omar Haj Kadour/ AFP]

Earlier this month, BBC Culture published an excellent article by Arwa Haidar exploring the global reach and universal language of the art of protest through the murals painted across the world to honour George Floyd – the Black American man whose killing at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May triggered a massive uprising for racial justice in the United States and beyond.

In an equally insightful article for AFAR, Maya Kroth has also drawn our attention to how artists around the globe are able to turn border walls that symbolise division and oppression into powerful protests.

Indeed, from Syria and Palestine to Egypt and the US, artists defiantly transform the walls that divide us into virtual galleries of resistance against injustice, cruelty and violence, reminding the tyrants and mass murderers ruling over them that they are being watched and will one day be held to account.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall

This year’s Black Lives Matter uprising in the US and the way it resonated with people in different corners of the world drew renewed attention to the art of protest. However, the distinctive art forms that express and help shape social movements and revolutions exist in a much larger frame of reference that certainly includes the Black Lives Matter movement but is not limited to it.

From Asia and Africa to Latin America, murals and graffiti calling for justice, honouring the fallen, and shaming the oppressors act as mirrors to a broken and fragmented human soul yearning for a unified liberation made impossible by the very walls on which they are drawn and painted.

Together, these artworks draw a different map of the world than the one shaped by fictitious colonial borders that divide nations and their collective dreams. From the murals and graffitis painted and drawn in the last century during national liberation movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America, to the ones created during the ongoing struggles for freedom and justice in Kashmir, Palestine, Hong Kong and most recently in the US, these artworks reveal the overcoming of false borders and the mapping of global defiance.

From the heavens down to earth and back

In renowned Persian poet Farid al-Din Attar’s 1177 masterpiece, The Conference of the Birds, we read the story of a flock of birds that embarked on a journey towards Mount Qaf to find their “king”, the mythical bird Simorgh. In the poem, Attar tells us how this divine bird once dropped a single feather from its wing upon China and cast the entire world into commotion:

That feather is now in a museum in China –
That’s what the Prophet meant by “Seek knowledge even in China!”
If the colour of its feather had not been revealed
So much commotion would not have happened around the world …

Attar’s sublime mystical allegory has found renewed meaning in our troubled time. It is as if scores of selfless, mostly nameless, artists around the world have seen a vision of Simorgh’s solitary feather and been inspired to inscribe the humanity’s collective cry for freedom on walls around them.

The feather of Simorgh has always been a symbol of beauty and truth, inspiring poets and philosophers to do and say the beautiful and the just. These anonymous artists, the mystics of our time, depicting the cruelties of our age on those fearsome walls are the offspring of Simorgh.

Murals as mirrors

Revolutions and social movements, however successful they may appear in the moment, often face the risk of being squashed by blunt military force or paving the way for a different type of oppression with the passage of time. But the artworks they inspire keep alive the dreams and aspirations of the brave souls who initially brought them to fruition.

Let me share an example: Soon after the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979, my colleague Peter Chelkowski and I collected an entire archive of revolutionary art that included murals, posters, graffiti, and other related material and published the first book on the visual memories of that historic event. Our book, Staging a Revolution: The Art of Persuasion in the Islamic Republic of Iran (1995), came to be seen as a close examination of the whole iconography of revolutionary uprising and placed the Iranian revolution next to similar landmark events, such as the French, Cuban and Russian revolutions, and the monumental body of public and political art they had produced.

Decades later, I chanced upon a precious collection of pre-revolutionary posters from 1950s and 1960s anticipating the 1979 revolution. I used this collection to help curate an art exhibition in Ashville, North Carolina, and later published a book on these posters, In Search of Lost Causes:  Fragmented Allegories of an Iranian Revolution (2014).  During that period, I was also working to archive Palestinian cinema in an effort to preserve a precious body of art documenting the struggle and dreams of the Palestinian people.

Simultaneous to my efforts, thousands of others across the world, from Iran and Syria to Egypt and the US were working to produce, preserve and promote political art that helped and continues to help regular people defeat armies, end occupations, topple dictators and claim their most basic rights and freedoms.

The Iranian revolution degenerated into a theocracy. The Egyptian revolution that followed decades later was brutalised by a military coup. The Syrian revolution was murderously maligned by the combined forces of Bashar al-Assad, reactionary Arab leaders and their Western benefactors. The Palestinian national liberation is facing the gargantuan US/Israeli military machinery. The Black Lives Matter uprising in the US is combatting a racist and militarised police force that the first Black president says we must not call to defund. But what remains constant in the ebb and flow of all these dreams and struggles is the visual and performing arts they have inspired.

Mirrors as walls

Let me now turn to another example: In February 2004, I visited Palestine alongside a number of renowned Palestinian filmmakers to participate in a film festival I helped organise. As we were crossing a checkpoint near the apartheid wall between Jerusalem and Ramallah, legendary Chilean-Palestinian filmmaker Miguel Littin began speculating on how he could project his feature film on to the apartheid wall. Our hosts living on both sides of that wall swiftly persuaded Littin to abandon the idea by expressing their fear that trigger-happy Israeli snipers would shoot and kill anyone who came near the wall to watch his film.

On that occasion, we could not project a Palestinian filmmaker’s vision of freedom on the Israeli apartheid wall.  But soon countless, mostly nameless, Palestinian artists turned those very walls into a mirroring gallery of their struggles.

Walls are not just artificial political boundaries dangerous fascists like Trump or Netanyahu erect to try and preserve their crumbling empires and colonies. Walls are also invitations to paint, to dream, to defy, to dismantle what they represent.

At end of Attar’s Conference of the Birds – in a play on the word “Simorgh” which literally means “30 birds” – just 30 birds survive the arduous journey to Mount Oaf. As they reach their destination, these birds come face to face with not the legendary bird, but a mirror in which they see nothing but their own reflections. They come to the realisation that “Simorgh” was none other than their own 30 brave and defiant souls who, against all odds, had dared to see they were the agents of their own destinies. They did not need any king, they were all kings.

The artists who defiantly use the walls that divide us to deliver a message of hope and unity are like these birds – kings seeing the visions of their freedom on the mirror of the walls they had beautifully painted and boldly faced.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.