Building Bridges: Street Artist Keto Links West Africa and Iran

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By Sean Nevins


Among the bustle of afternoon traffic outside Public School #7 (PS7) in East Harlem, street artist Alexandre Keto from Sao Paulo, Brazil sat with his feet dangling from the railing where he was perched, having just triumphantly finished a mural on the school’s facade. The painting stands over two stories high and features a woman in a rural setting submerged up to her waist in water while her three children play next to her.

“If you have no water, you have no life. You have no education,” said Keto, 28, to a group of seventh graders who came outside the school to admire his work.

The artist works with the Not A Crime street art campaign to raise awareness about education inequality in Iran — where Baha’is are denied access to university, and are systematically persecuted and disenfranchised in other ways as well. Currently, there are 80 Baha’is in prison in the Islamic Republic, and more than 800 have been arrested since 2005, according to the Baha’i International Community (BIC). The United Nations reports that Baha’is are subject to “violence with impunity” by assault, murder, arson, and a wide range of other brutal acts often sanctioned by the government.

The Baha’i community responded to the government’s refusal to honor their right to higher education by creating a secret underground university in 1987, the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE). The university is the subject of the 2014 film To Light a Candle by Maziar Bahari, the founder of the Not a Crime campaign and IranWire’s founding editor-in-chief. Educators and students at the informal university – classes take place in the living rooms and kitchens of peoples’ homes, and through online distance learning led by instructors outside Iran – are often subjected to harassment and arrest.

“This project began after Maziar’s documentary was screened around the world,” said Saleem Vaillancourt, the coordinator for the project. “Maziar later had the idea to paint murals around the world, especially in New York, to tell the story of the situation of Baha’is in Iran to a new audience and through a new medium.”

West Africa and the Diaspora

Educating the world about the role of West Africa and its diaspora in the Americas, particularly Brazil, is the impetus behind Alexandre Keto’s mural work. “It was the West Africans who built my country, [and art] is a way I can connect with West Africa and also value our African heritage,” he told the dozen or so middle school students that had gathered around him to hear about his mural. He explained that his painting on the side of PS7 is about education related to the preservation of water, the right to life and to learn, and the need for all members of society to take care of each other.

Last year, Keto produced a piece for the Not A Crime campaign on the side of the Amsterdam News building in West Harlem. The prominent feature in that mural was a baobab tree. It depicted a father teaching his children under its branches, symbolizing that education does not need to be confined to school buildings.

Keto told IranWire he thinks it’s important for Brazilians to take stock of their African heritage because of the way race is used to divide people in his country, and how popular media grossly mischaracterizes the ancestry of its own people. He noted that the situation is similar in the United States. But he thinks it’s worse in Brazil because people of African descent represent a majority. “We are the largest black population outside of Africa,” he said. “We have more black people than Senegal or Togo. Nigeria is the only country that has more black people than Brazil. But, if you watch TV, all you see is white people.”

To counter this trend, Keto is trying to build a bridge between Africa and the diaspora through his art work. “So I’ve been in 15 countries in Africa and Europe and America doing… murals related to African culture. I’ve been giving graffiti classes in Senegal, Mauritania, Ghana, [and] Benin,” he said.

His work is about repairing history, he said. “When we try to support black and brown people it doesn’t mean we don’t care about white people. It’s not that. It’s just that we need to repair … the history to make things equal. Once we have things equal, then we can build a better world together.”

But what do Africa, Brazil, and access to water have to do with Baha’is being denied education in Iran?

“When an artist responds to an injustice by talking about a different injustice or something that we ought to have our awareness raised about, then it creates a campaign of solidarity and dialogue. It’s as much a campaign of dialogue between different groups and different perspectives on injustices as it is about this one issue,” Vaillancourt told IranWire.

Keto’s theme of creating an Afro-Brazilian bridge between different peoples of color around the world was attractive to the organizers of the campaign precisely for its ability to link different communities of struggle. “We were trying to figure out how to be a part of this community [Harlem] when we paint murals and to do it in a genuine way. The idea that has been spelled out by some of our new friends here is that there’s this idea of intersecting communities of struggle. There’s a capacity for one community that knows what it’s like to strive to overcome inequality or injustice to relate to the story of another community having a similar experience,” Vaillancourt said.

Vaillancourt also said the campaign is about creating  beautiful pieces of art that contribute to the local community. To do that, Not a Crime partnered up with New York-based street art non-profit organization Street Art Anarchy. The groups worked together to identify artists and venues.

Andrew Laubie, the co-founder of Street Art Anarchy, told IranWire he discovered Keto through friends in the art world. “I met up with him, and told him, ‘Listen.’ I was interested in his story, what he had to say, having painted in the favelas in Brazil, and painting not just to get famous but painting for the local people, painting with heart, to really try to do something for others, and not just for himself,” Laubie said. “I like to work with artists that understand the balance. It’s not just about them. It’s about others. Because at the end, others will be the ones who get to see their work and appreciate it.”

“I think it’s really well done,” said a student from PS7 who came outside to see Keto’s work. “The woman looks relaxed and she’s in the water like there’s no tomorrow,” said Jakai, aged 12. “She doesn’t need to worry about anything at the moment.”

Jakai’s friend Weiping, also 12, said he could understand the frustration of being denied education. “I would be mad [if I wasn’t allowed to attend university] because I’m not getting the opportunity.”

Commenting on the intersection of the mural and what he had learned about the situation for Baha’is in Iran, Jakai added, “I feel like us seventh graders take this [school] for granted like, ‘Oh, school is boring, we don’t need it.’ But the people who do not go to school, they really want to go to school and learn something — because not everyone gets to go to school every day like us.”



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