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Drawing Paradise on the 'Axis of Evil'

Images from an art exhibition by Emily Johns

This exhibition originated Emily Johns' participation in a peace delegation to Iran in 2007. You can read Emily's letter from Iran here, and see some of her sketches here. The pdf of the catalogue for the exhibition is here.

You can hire/borrow this exhibition from Justice Not Vengeance. It comes either as a framed exhibition for gallery spaces, as large paper posters for more informal spaces or as small laminated posters for outdoor events.

bam earthquake - underground poetryBam Earthquake - Underground Poetry
43,000 people were killed in the earthquake that destroyed the ancient city of Bam on Boxing Day 2003. Some of the survivors (including Shahrbanou Mazandarani, a woman of 97 rescued alive after eight days in ruins) had sustained themselves underground by reciting poetry from memory.

The human race is a single being
Created from one jewel
If one member is struck
All must feel the blow
Only someone who cares for the pain of others
Can truly be called human

- Saadi, circa 1200-1291


souls in cabinetsSouls in Cabinets
An artifact in a museum case contains the soul of a society, of a people. It holds the human imprint of the person who made it, who can survive over thousands of years in that pot or in that fragment of writing. In Iraq, over the past few decades of war and sanctions, hundreds of thousands of people have died and an enormous number of antiquities have been destroyed. We mourn the people who have been lost, and we mourn the ancient history that has been lost. We mourn the souls embedded in those artifacts that have been destroyed, and their awe-inspiring creativity, now snuffed out. This museum cabinet is a mixture of Persian artifacts from the British Museum and the Tehran National Museum.





the blind censorThe Blind Censor
In Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, Azar Nafisi writes that until 1994, the chief film censor in Iran was a blind cleric. He required assistants to describe to him the contents of the films he was examining. Since the 1979 Revolution, Iran has had a world-famous film industry, producing poetic and striking films working within - and sometimes outside - the censorship system.





major gerald talbot and the tobacco fatwaMajor Gerald Talbot and the Tobacco Fatwa
In 1890, the Qajar Shah of Iran, Nasir al-Din Shah granted a tobacco concession to a British company headed by Major Gerald Talbot. In exchange for a large loan to the Shah, the firm was granted a monopoly on producing, selling, and exporting tobacco crop in exchange for a loan. Tobacco was popular in Iran, and the tobacco industry employed large numbers of people. The concession provoked a mass movement of protest, and led Grand Ayatollah Mirza Shirazi to issue his famous fatwa against using tobacco. Tobacco merchants ceased trading, and the two-month boycott was observed universally - even by the Shah’s harem. The Shah was forced to rescind the concession. Major Talbot and the forces he represented were squeezed back into the bottle that the Shah had opened.






gateway of all nations - persepolis
Gateway of All Nations - Persepolis

The ‘Gateway of All Nations’ is the entrance into the ancient city of Persepolis, built 2,500 years ago. All the subject nations of the Persian Empire, from the Greeks to the Ethiopians, would come to Persepolis to offer tribute to the King of Kings at the New Year celebrations at Spring equinox. In the nineteenth century, representatives of Western nations chiselled their names into the gateway, as if claiming territory. Western nations exported nuclear technology to Iran, and now threaten Iran with nuclear attack for developing this nuclear technology. Physicians for Social Responsibility have estimated that nuclear attacks on the Esfahan nuclear reprocessing facility and on the Natanz nuclear enrichment plant would lead to the deaths of 2.6 million people within 48 hours. Behind the Gateway, a nuclear mushroom cloud is rising - a possible future for our civilizations.





26 may 190826 May 1908
On this date oil was struck at Masjid-i-Sulaiman (‘The Mosque of Solomon’), in western Iran, by the fore-runner to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, later to become ‘British Petroleum’ or BP. This was the first oil well to be established in Iran. Oil is bursting from the well at the Mosque of Solomon, piercing the flying carpet of King Solomon, puncturing the fabric of Iranian society.







oil nationalisationOil Nationalisation
Mohammed Mossadeq was elected Prime Minister of Iran by the Majlis or Parliament on 28 April 1951. Attempts to improve the Iranian Government’s share of oil revenues - to bring them up to the 50-50 profit-sharing enjoyed by Venezuela, for example - had failed, and the Majlis voted to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The British Labour Government, which had just undertaken sweeping nationalisations of its own, was outraged, and established a naval blockade of Iran, blocking all oil exports, and seriously damaging the economy. Britain also began plotting the overthrow of Iranian democracy. With the help of the CIA, MI6 managed to bring about a coup that deposed Mossadeq in August 1953, and imposed a military dictatorship headed by the Shah of Iran. If oil is a natural force, accompanied by spirits, Mossadeq was one such nature spirit or genie - forced into a bottle by the US-UK intervention.





The Rose and The Nightingale
The image of the rose and the nightingale, the lover and the beloved, is a theme of Persian poetry and art. In Sufi Islam, it is a mystical image representing the search for the divine. The oil of Iran is the desired, the sought-after, poisoning the seekers.








samples of the oil spiritSamples of the Oil Spirit
Rivers, woods and seas have their own spirits. Oil has its own spirit, that has been pent up underground, leaking sometimes through the surface of the earth. As with the genies of The One Thousand and One Nights, the spirit of oil can be liberated and controlled by the human will, but its restless force threatens to break free of human intentions with devastating consequences. The danger runs alongside the melancholy waste of this mighty spirit, producing throwaway products and burning oil with reckless abandon. Oil companies store samples of crude oil from different wells in collecting tubes, for analysis.






chemical weapons in paradiseChemical Weapons in Paradise
The word ‘paradise’ comes from the Old Persian word pairidaeza meaning ‘a walled-in compound’ or garden. The classic ‘paradise garden’ contains a rectangular pool of water, with strictly-aligned rows of trees and flowerbeds, and a grid of canals. Thousands of such gardens exist today in Iran, full of pomegranate trees, birdsong and butterflies. This picture was inspired by a meeting with survivors of chemical weapons attacks during the Iran-Iraq War, who had had their eyes destroyed by mustard gas. Some of them must have been gardeners, who now can no longer gaze on paradise. One survivor I met now organizes solidarity events with Hiroshima survivors, who plunged into the river to cool their burns on 6 August 1945. In this picture, the gardener stands in a canal to cool his chemical burns.





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