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Iranians in Charlotte continue to speak out against the regime through art

Artist holding painting
Mona Dougani
Behzad Riazi showing a painting that says “Azadi,” which translates to freedom in English. “Azadi” is painted over in black, but is still visible.

This story first appeared as part of WFAE's EQUALibrium newsletter, exploring race and equity in the Charlotte region. Get the latest news and analysis in your inbox first by signing up here.

More than a year after the death of Mahsa Amini (also known as Jina Amini) at the hands of morality police in Iran sparked outrage across the globe, Iranians in Charlotte continue to speak out against the regime and cope by creating art.

Behzad Riazi, a Charlotte-based Iranian artist and cartoonist, immigrated in 2017. After earning his Master of Fine Arts at Penn State, he returned to Charlotte in 2022 to pursue art full time.

The walls of his studio at the uptown VAPA center are covered with canvases of friendly cartoon-like people, cats and birds. One wall features smiling, cartoonish butterflies. Other canvases feature Persian calligraphy with statements (زن زندگی آزادی) that translate to “Women, Life, Freedom” — the slogan protesters in Iran adopted last year — and (من چه می خواهم), or “What do I Want.” There’s also English writing that says, “Love Will Keep Us Alive.”

Riazi said he’s been creating for as long as he can remember. Art was a pastime he started young, when he began using his grandfather’s office supplies to create things when he was bored at adult gatherings. It became a part of him.

“It’s me, I am nothing without my art,” Riazi said. “To me, it’s everything.”

He’s surpassed 50,000 followers on Instagram, and his art became increasingly popular within the last year after protests erupted against the Islamic Republic regime in Iran. He was asked to meet with prominent Iranian women such as Nobel Peace Prize Winner Shirin Ebadi, and actress and political activist Nazanin Boniadi.

“I think when the Woman, Life, Freedom movement happened, I didn't try to do something new or make something related to this movement. I was just doing my own stuff, but more people absorbed my work, maybe because it was a difficult time and they needed something soft and kind and generous.”

Troubles have continued. Another Iranian teen, Armita Geravand, died this weekend after a confrontation with the morality police. But Riazi’s art does not only reflect political themes or difficult times in Iran. His art also highlights themes of friendliness, joy, and wonder, encompassing a broader Iranian experience.

For Riazis's close friend, “D,” his art captures what it feels like to be a woman living in Iran. (We’re only using her initial for safety reasons; “D” has family in Iran and still returns to visit.) Like some other women in Iran, “D” has been arrested by the morality police for not covering her hair properly — the same offense that Masha Jina Amini was charged with. They met via Instagram.

“I had days staring at his art crying. So, finding out that he was in the same city. I was like, your art made me cry. Cry in a way that's great. Now, someone is just, like, putting [my experience] on paper. Now, I can look at it and realizing that there is someone else in this world who thinks this way. He is a man, he's not a woman, but he can portray whatever a woman experiences in his art. I feel like I resonated in so many different levels with his art, and it added a lot to my life.”

Images of women — and the Woman, Life, Freedom movement — are also showcased in Iranian-Danish artist Farshad Farzankia’s bright and bold art. His show “She Rose” just finished its run at SOCO Gallery, located off Providence Road in Myers Park.

Mona Dougani
Hilary Burt (right) admiring Farshad Farzankia's art at SOCO gallery

Hilary Burt, managing director of the woman-owned gallery, said she always looks for art that brings a different perspective or message, and hopes the art connects Charlotte to a broader, international lens.

“It's important to have all these different voices go and come to Charlotte,” Burt said. “I think that in the States, we can also become quite insular in the news that we read, or what we're thinking and talking about, or watching on TV, whereas there's a huge world out there. There's tons of stuff happening that we should be aware of and highlight.”

Burt hopes that bringing the international perspective to Charlotte and the SOCO Gallery will encourage more people from different backgrounds to visit the gallery.

“We're in a white, white, white neighborhood. I think it's important that a gallery that looks beautiful, in a beautiful neighborhood can show different ideas for the people that walk through the door,” she said. “I also hope that it encourages other people to come through the door that wouldn't necessarily naturally just come to this neighborhood to see art.”

Some images in both Riazi and Farzankia’s art reflect times of turmoil and difficult circumstances, but also express resiliency, joy and persistence. “D” — who has persisted through the joy and the difficulties — said she doesn’t want to be looked down on or pitied for her experiences.

I don't want us to be seen as, like, only victims, and, like, the people that had, like, that misery, and that was our life. No, life was way more than that.

“Life was not easy, and you had to deal with a lot. But I can say the breadth of experiences that I had there, and so many different levels, were way richer than the experiences that I see people, like my age, have in a country like the U.S.,” said “D”.

Riazi’s art is on display at the VAPA Center. You can also follow him on Instagram @behzadtales to see his work.

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Mona Dougani is a community engagment producer with WFAE. Previously, she was an investigative research and reporting fellow and prior to that reported on local issues as part of the Queens University News Service.
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