Visualizing a Revolution
The 1979 Iranian Revolution was in many respects the culmination of repeated attempts throughout the twentieth century to install a democratic government in Iran. However, the definitive overthrow of the monarchy began in earnest in October 1977 with the death of Ayatollah Khomeini’s son, Mostafa, rumored to have been assassinated by security services. The first round of anti-government protests began in the religious city of Qom and slowly spread throughout Iran. From the uprising’s earliest days, Iran’s Pahlavi monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah, attempted to stifle public dissent, which resulted in several civilian deaths.
Following the Shi’ite custom of commemorating the deceased forty days after their death, activists organized mourning ceremonies across the country in honor of the slain protesters. These public ceremonies became the loci from which further protests developed. Growing exponentially, the cycle of violence and lamentation threw Iran deeper into chaos, which, eventually, turned into a nationwide civilian uprising. Public sentiment continued to grow against the Pahlavi regime in August of 1978, when a fire was set that burned down the Cinema Rex in Tehran, killing over four hundred people trapped inside.
Only a few weeks after this catastrophic event, the tide turned definitively against the government when, on September 8, 1978, government tanks and helicopters opened fire against thousands of protesters in Tehran, killing dozens. Known as Black Friday, the event was consecrated in revolutionary posters that depicted the bloody aftermath in the streets of Tehran while claiming the deceased as victims, martyrs, and pioneers of a just Islamic state. Black Friday was the pivotal event during the revolution and marked the beginning of the end of the Shah’s rule.
On January 16, 1979, Mohammad Reza Shah fled Iran, and on February 1, Khomeini returned from his exile in Iraq and Paris to be greeted by millions of cheering Iranians. Emerging as the clear leader within a power vacuum, Khomeini and his supporters worked quickly to consolidate power. Results from a referendum the next month declared the formal dissolution of the monarchy and the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. These swift changes were immediately celebrated in posters and other graphic media, as Iran’s printing presses were no longer controlled by the Pahlavi regime.
During the climactic period of civil unrest lasting from October 1977 to January 1979, protesters produced posters and pasted them on graffiti-scribbled walls. The resultant display of public dissent echoed the violence in the streets of revolutionary Iran. Several artists chose to recreate the chaotic urban landscape in their posters, which thus record the anti-imperial slogans and chants that were scribbled on walls, while also praising the chief ideologues of the revolution, including Ayatollah Khomeini and Ali Shariati.
Posters produced by the Islamic regime after 1979 reimagined the revolution as an ideologically Islamic one, even though it was a pluralistic uprising composed of both secular and religious groups. Shi‘ite Muslim rituals and symbolism, however, were key in sustaining revolutionary fervor. As a result, the artistic program of the newly formed Islamic Republic emphasized the Shi’ite aspects of the protests above all others in order to legitimize the newly formed government’s claims to spiritual authority and supremacy.