All revolutions require aesthetic means for representing changes in consciousness. The French Revolution saw itself as something new and universal, and generated a rich elaboration of aesthetic categories of the sublime (storms of nature, volcanoes, earthquakes), the beautiful (island of calm, meadow after a storm) and the grotesque (metamorphoses) as vehicles for thinking about social change and the future. Most revolutions since then have seen themselves in relation to predecessor revolutions, from which they borrow tactics, organizational forms, strategies, rhetoric, symbols and graphics.
The “small media” of the Iranian revolution — jokes, songs, tapes, leaflets, graffiti, repartee, cartoons and posters — reveal important changes of consciousness and sociological positioning. Iran's revolutionary posters demonstrate a confluence, as William Hanaway has suggested, of world-historical and local Iranian traditions. There are those done in an international style that stems primarily from the Russian Revolution with contributions from the Cuban Revolution: simply done in red, white and black, expressing a single idea or event, depersonalized and symbolic in form, and humanistic in ideology (i.e. human beings are in control of their destiny). An abstract “constructivist” style example has a red arrow inscribed “revolution” moving from right to left (like the Arabic script) breaking a black block (a crown falling off its upper surface), and beginning to destroy a second block, inscribed “internal reactionaries”; a third block awaiting its turn is labeled “imperialism” and is capped with Uncle Sam’ hat; on the far side is a red sun, for victory.
The other graphic tradition is that of traditional Iranian painting styles, in Persian miniatures and the murals used in coffeehouses to prompt epic reciters. These posters are done with a broader palate, including prominently Islamic green; there is much more detail, and multiple events portrayed; individuals, rather than roles, are shown, although some, such as the family of the Prophet, are represented by standardized, traditional iconography; there are many and rich references to Iranian tradition and to Islam; and the ideology is God-centered rather than human-centered. A classic example of the Persian miniature style is a poster of Khomeini in the role of Moses with a dragon/serpent at his feet, victorious over Pharaoh, pointing towards the depiction of tortures in hell that await the shah who cowers lower left with broken crown and sword and clings to the coattails of Uncle Sam with British and Israeli insignia. In one version, the Khomeini regime has added Ali Shariati and S. Mahmud Taleqani to assert a claim to their legacies.
Graphic design is among the most long-standing contributions of Iran and Islamic civilization; it remains vibrant in the arts of the Islamic Republic. Among such designs, calligraphy has played a central role, mediating the visual and the linguistic, subordinating the pictoral to the graphic, balancing the abstract and the particular, meaning and form. Interlaced arabesque, geometric as well as curvolinear, is another such design feature. Both are integrative, open to incorporation of new elements, simple yet encompassing of intricacy and multiple allusions, vehicles for harmonizing the old and the new, modernity and tradition(s).
Most interesting are those posters that fuse the two graphic traditions into a kind of condensation (in which two cultural traditions remain in creative tension). Thus, for instance, there is a Mojahedin May Day poster done essentially in the international style: a worker in overalls holds a rifle aloft, a broken chain flying from his wrist, a mallet in his other hand; he is set against a red background and a white anvil. Diagonally across the top left of the poster is written the verse of Iron: “We sent our messengers with revelations, the book, and scales, that the people may rise for justice” (57:25).
The Islamic Republican Party issued a poster with similar imagery, inscribed in Arabic, “He who earns his bread is like a man fighting in the way of God,” and in Persian, “The committed laborers (kargaran-e mota'ahhed) are holy warriors.” In a kind of socialist realist style it shows working class men kneeling in prayer, the man in front with a wrench in his pocket and a mor (clay from Karbala) before him, against a background of industrial scales (justice).
There are many images of fighting imperialism. A series of posters about the oil industry inscribed with the slogan “Continuation of the Revolution until Termination of Looting” includes one of a hand flicking away an American flag beach ball; another has a hand choking an American flag serpent above an oil derrick on the beach by the Gulf; another shows a set of gasoline pump nozzles marked “US,” “USSR,” “Israel,” and “England,” against an abstract background of oil derrick, refinery cracking tower and pipes, and a flare chimney that ends in a fist. A powerful poster put out by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance shows the UN as a foot with five toes (the five powers with a veto in the Security Council) stomping on justice; the big toe is shaped like an ear with a hole in it, a visual allusion to the idiom “gush-esh bad gir-e” (“in one ear, out the other”).
Fists and victory signs merge with Islamic symbols and also with photos of demonstrating crowds. A poster commemorating the death of Zeinab, and honoring revolutionary women, shows Zeinab in white silhouette with raised fist cracking apart an orange crown and green entrance pillars (the “green palace” of the tyrant Yezid in Damascus); the bottom of her chador is a picture of veiled women with their fists raised; to the right is a line of camels each with mother and child moving towards an arched and pillared building with palms (the tomb of Zeinab?).
Images of martyrdom abound: the hatchet of the US cutting down one red flower growing from a mosque, with three spots spurting forth; a white silhouette of a man holding out his hands has, where the face would be (and where a veil appears on the icons of Muhammad and ‘Ali), a red tulip inscribed with the emblem of the Islamic Republic; its stem red pours blood into the hands, which frame pictures of a crowd holding Khomeini’s portrait and a skyline of the seminary town of Qom with a red flag with the Islamic credo. On another poster, a white dove against a red background rips a hole through the army green and black bars framed by the letters “USA,” and the legend reads: “We value the blood of martyrs of the way of truth, and we hurry toward the Islamic Republic.” Another image of time or process through revolutionary sacrifice is one of red footprints over a broken crown. Calligraphic posters themselves can be very dramatic, conveying a sense of movement: among the best are a line of revolutionary fists that spell out the Islamic credo in reds and black, and an olympic-style torch, the flame of which is the Islamic credo.
Among our favorite posters are Khomeini’s icy stare melting US guns; a wounded woman with child on an asphalt imperial highway (built with petroleum literally and with its profits) through desert desolation at the end of which great tulips rise, leading to the image of Khomeini looming over the horizon; and a stamp portraying the merged images of Bilal (the first Muslim muezzin, or caller to prayer, a Black Ethiopian) and Malcolm X calling people to the Islamic revolution. A poster in Persian and English shows a cameraman with the camera pointed toward the viewer, the lens reflecting a demonstration; the inscription pleads with journalists to show the Islamic revolution as it really is.
Apart from the counterpoint between graphic and symbolic traditions, allusions and allegories, the posters also dramatize the competition over legitimacy and the use of symbols by the different factions within the revolution. A handsome black, red and white Mojahedin poster well illustrates the competition for meaning: four Mojahedin martyrs are portrayed in black T-shirts, a prison bar behind each, and a red splotch on each chest pouring blood down into a red flood below.
The Mojahedin in particular, but also other marginalized factions, invoke photographs of martyrs to remind people of sacrifices and efforts ignored by the government: photography is a localizing, personalizing device. Among the most artistic of these are a series of posters the Mojahedin issued to commemorate the legacy of “Ayatollah” Sayyid Mahmud Taleqani, who defended the Islamic left and whose last Friday sermon warned of tyranny by the mullahs: one poster shows Taleqani characteristically seated, head in hand, on the floor away from the seats of honor claimed by other clerics; another has Taleqani in the sky looking down on portraits of Mojahedin in the jails of the Islamic Republic; the most potent is a poster of Taleqani’s head superimposed on the cover of Samad Behrangi’s famous children’s book, “The Little Black Fish,” a protest parable about the oppressiveness of conformity to government rules.
This essay is adapted from the final chapter of the book Debating Muslims: Cultural Dialogues Between Tradition and Postmodernity (Univeristy of Wisconsin Press, March 1990).