On Saturday, the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan was bustling as usual, with tourists and locals winding up and down the building’s iconic spiral ramp. Then, from the top of that spiral, 12 red banners unfurled, spanning the length of four floors.
Each banner was covered with black stencils depicting Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old who died last month in the custody of Iran’s “morality police,” who had detained her for not wearing her hijab properly. Alongside the image were the words “Woman, Life, Freedom” in both English and Kurdish, which have become a rallying cry for the young women leading protests over Amini’s death.
While the banners made their way down the museum’s rotunda, onlookers began to cheer and clap, as seen in various videos posted to social media.
An activist group called the Anonymous Artist Collective for Iran has taken responsibility for the act. “This homage is a call for action to support the current revolution in Iran, led by brave Iranian women risking their lives to stand up against oppression to overthrow a longtime authoritarian regime,” says the group in a statement.
In the eyes of many Iranians, Western institutions have not done enough to support the protesters. Iranian filmmaker and photographer Shirin Neshat, who lives in New York, posted a video of the protest to her Instagram, where it garnered over 121,000 likes as of this writing. “[Mahsa] Amini emerged at the Guggenheim museum today!” she wrote. “Proud of a few brave Iranian artists [who made] a surprise protest by hanging this beautiful display today, they are the conscience of the sleepy art world who cares little for Iranian women fighting for basic human rights and freedom.”
Maryam Eisler, an Iranian-born, London-based artist, responded to Neshat’s caption in the comments. “Sleepy is an understatement” she wrote. “It’s a disgrace.”
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral design of the Guggenheim allows most people in the building to see the museum’s atrium, a layout that protesters have taken advantage of before. Earlier this year, soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, activists flew paper planes through the main space to call for a no-fly zone over the country.
In Iran, making protest art is far riskier. Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has long exercised a heavy hand over what artists are allowed to say in their work. Since September, Iranian authorities have killed more than 200 people, including 29 children, according to the nonprofit Iran Human Rights. They have also imposed severe restrictions on internet access.
Despite the risks, artists in Iran are still protesting. Earlier this month, an anonymous artist dyed the water in Tehran fountains bright red. About a week before that, two anonymous women hung red nooses from the branches of trees in a Tehran park.
“The people of Iran are subjected to horrific violence and brutality on a daily basis,” writes the Anonymous Artist Collective for Iran. “... Dismantling women’s rights is a global challenge, an issue we unfortunately face whether here in the west or in the Middle East. Mahsa will never be forgotten and the cruel injustice done to the women of Iran can no longer be ignored. Their fight for freedom is all of our fight.”