“Wherever there is injustice, we need to talk about it,” Alireza Shojaian said.
The Paykan was the first car manufactured in Iran. Produced from 1967 to 2015, it started life as a licensed copy of an outmoded British vehicle, the Hillman Hunter, but it nevertheless became a symbol of national pride, priced for middle-class Iranians.
Paykans eventually became ubiquitous on the streets of Tehran, serving as sedans, wagons, pickups and taxis. In 1974, as a token of connection (or collusion) between two regimes, the shah of Iran gave a Paykan limousine to Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator.
That very car made news again this May among Iranians, at home and in the expatriate community, when it appeared for sale at a Bucharest auction house. Though it had an expected hammer price of 10,000 euros, it ended up selling for €95,000. It has resurfaced, colorfully painted by the Iranian artist Alireza Shojaian, who identifies as queer, and was displayed recently at a human rights conference held in Miami.
“I am from Iran, but to be able to continue my art, I had to leave my country,” Mr. Shojaian said in a call from Paris, where he was granted asylum in 2019 after three years in exile in Beirut, citing the Iranian government’s brutal repression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.
The painting style that Mr. Shojaian used on the Paykan recalls the Shahnameh, a 10th century Persian epic poem. It is inspired specifically by the tale of Rostam, a father who kills his own son. Some panels depict the Iranian athlete Navid Afkari, who was arrested in 2018 during anti-government protests and executed by the state two years later. Others are inspired by Ali Fazeli Monfared, a 20-year-old gay man who was reportedly beheaded by family members when his sexuality was discovered.
“The sympathy we get for the story of the athlete is much bigger than the sympathy for Ali the gay young man,” Mr. Shojaian said. “This is the result of what the government did. With the lack of the knowledge in the society, they dehumanized him.”
“So I am putting both of them next to each other, saying, ‘they both are human beings; they both are children of this country,’” Mr. Shojaian continued. “And, wherever there is injustice, we need to talk about it.”
A sound installation plays inside the car. The first track is a reading of a note sent by Mr. Monfared to his boyfriend, who had fled to Turkey to seek asylum on the basis of his sexuality. “Ali also had the plan to go there, after three days, to join his boyfriend. He had the ticket,” Mr. Shojaian said.
Mr. Shojaian relished the opportunity to bring attention to his community’s plight, but had to shift media to create an art car. “Usually, I use colored pencils, which is a very light material that I had to carry with me, because I always had to be an exile,” he said.
The car was acquired and the project funded by an organization called PaykanArtCar, which plans to choose an activist artist to repaint it annually to call attention to other repressed communities in Iran. A nonprofit based in Florida, it is run by Mark Wallace, an ambassador-level representative to the United Nations under President George W. Bush. Mr. Wallace, a longtime figure in Republican politics, is also the head of a group called United Against Nuclear Iran.
The car was unveiled on Oct. 4 at the Human Rights Foundation’s Oslo Freedom Forum in Miami. The foundation was founded by Thor Halvorssen, who approaches human rights from an individual rights perspective but aims to unite people across the political spectrum, he said. Donors to the foundation reflect this: they have included conservative organizations such the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the National Christian Foundation and the Donors Capital Fund; along with more liberal individuals like the Google co-founder Sergey Brin, the eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and the former Democratic National Committee treasurer Andrew Tobias.
Still, these affiliations can raise suspicion in the Iranian diasporic community.
“Advocating for L.G.B.T.Q. rights in Iran is a noble thing,” said Nahid Siamdoust, assistant professor of media and Middle East studies at the University of Texas, Austin. “But neocon and right-wing organizations have used human rights reasonings and justifications in order to propel their own conservative policies — not just in the Middle East, but also at home.” Unfortunately, she continued, “those artists and spokespeople end up being the ones who lose their legitimacy with the wider population.”
Indeed, the backgrounds of the project’s sponsors have brought a backlash. The vehicle was set to be exhibited for the second time in late October at the Asia Now art fair in Paris, but the invitation was rescinded just days before the opening.
A public statement from the Asia Now founder and director, Alexandra Fain, offered an explanation. “This decision is in no way taken against the artist Ali Reza or his artistic practice,” Ms. Fain said, “and least of all against his commitment to the L.G.B.T.Q.+ cause, which Asia Now has always actively endorsed.” She went on, “The problem is neither the artist nor the project, but the organization supporting this project, which uses the L.G.B.T.Q.+ cause for priority reasons that are other than purely artistic, and which endanger the safety of the people working with us on our Iranian platform.” (Mr. Wallace, when asked for a comment, said, “I consider those statements defamatory.”)
Mr. Wallace defended both the art car project and his advocacy against the Iranian government. “Do I think that the regime should change or should be changed? Yeah. I do,” he said. “But I also think that the L.G.B.T.Q. community shouldn’t be killed by hanging from cranes inside of Iran, too. And I think it’s OK to think that.”
Mr. Halvorssen, too, offered a stern defense of the effort. “Trying to tar us by claiming that anyone who has conservative positions is instantly disqualified for having them is some kind of distortion of cancel culture that frankly is really quite reprehensible,” he said. “You should judge us for what we are doing. We should be criticized for having a car that stands for advocating against the mistreatment of gay people in Iran? And that’s a conservative principle? That’s absurd.”
Regardless of the controversy, Mr. Shojaian sees great merit in bringing attention to the issue. “Whoever is doing anything for the L.G.B.T. rights in Iran, I really appreciate that, because I totally understand how difficult that is,” he said, mentioning activists and organizations working, from exile, in Iran, such as 6rang. “We need to work to educate the society.”