"Their audacity leaves me speechless"

Every year the Iranian artist Parastou Forouhar holds a ceremony in Tehran to commemorate her parents′ murder by the regime. Accused of propaganda against the system, she′s now on trial herself – for artwork that the regime considers "insults the sacred". Interview by Catrin Lorch

By Catrin Lorch

Ms Forouhar, you fly to Tehran every autumn to hold a memorial ceremony for your murdered parents. This year, your passport was confiscated as soon as you landed. Were you surprised?

Parastou Forouhar: I might have expected it; I′m being tried in Tehran this year. In the past, I have always had to attend a hearing on entering Iran. Usually at the intelligence ministry, sometimes with other organs that are also part of the security apparatus. They′d try to influence me – I′d be threatened, confronted with allegations I was stirring up counter-revolution.

Yet that was always related to the memorial event for your parents, who were murdered by the regime nearly twenty years ago.

Forouhar: Indeed. My parents were prominent opposition politicians, Dariush and Parvaneh Forouhar. They were dissidents, secular democrats who campaigned for democratic structures in the Shah′s times and then later in the Islamic Republic. They were attacked on 22 November 1998 by 18 officers from the Islamic Republic′s ministry of intelligence, who brutally murdered them. And they were not the only ones: two wonderful writers, two activists, a poet and his son were also murdered at the same time. These crimes became known as the "chain murders". The public felt deeply violated; thousands of people attended my parents′ funeral – the figure reported by the BBC was 25,000. The funeral march turned into a protest for dissident rights.

Parastou Forouhar's "Countdown" series, here on display in Vienna's Belvedere (source: parastou-forouhar.de)
Iranian artist Parastou Forouhar is accustomed to repressive measures – but this year, she′s facing trial over a photo circulating on Instagram and Facebook, showing an artwork from her series "Countdown": a brightly coloured beanbag with a religious banner sewn onto it. A collector took a photo of herself sitting on it, without the artist′s knowledge

In reaction, the reformist government of the time set up an inquiry commission, which actually conceded the murders had taken place. And in January 1999, the intelligence ministry admitted its involvement in the killings in an official statement. Yet it took almost two years of campaigning for a trial to follow on from that declaration. Unfortunately, it was a show trial; only low-ranking officers were sentenced – as lambs to the slaughter. The men who gave the orders, the ideological structures and also the bureaucracy behind the crimes remained unexposed.

Since then, you′ve marked the date of their murders every year – what form does the memorial take?

Forouhar: The event itself has been banned many times. Usually, the police take up position outside my parents′ house and prevent visitors from entering; there have even been blockades. On that day, I′m always inside, basically under temporary house arrest. Last year, for example, no one got through the police lines and I was alone with my uncle and two aunts, who had arrived the previous evening.This year′s legal challenge has nothing to do with the memorial, though; it′s related to your art.

Forouhar: Yes, I′m facing trial for two new charges: the intelligence ministry has instigated proceedings against me during the past year. It′s about a series of works in which I use traditional fabrics, known as Ashura banners. I appliqued these religious banners onto beanbags. The form of the sculptures is derived from hippie-type beanbags; the "Countdown" series from 2008 is a visual analogy for comfort and complacency, if you like.

But the sculptures have never been queried, even though I showed them in 2008 in Berlin′s Haus der Kulturen der Welt, then later in the Belvedere in Vienna and other art spaces, most recently at Kunsthalle Lingen. Nothing ever happened. It was only when a woman took photos of herself on one of the beanbags and then put her selfies on Instagram and Facebook – without my knowledge – that the malicious campaign began, which the intelligence ministry took as an opportunity to take me to court.

Are people allowed to sit on your sculptures?

Forouhar: My art is certainly concerned with the sense of touch – I work with balls, balloons, patterned fabrics. I′m interested in turning everyday life upside down, breaking it down through a different kind of perception. But I didn′t make "Countdown" as usable objects or items of furniture and I′m not responsible for what other people or collectors do with my art. On my last trip to Iran, I had to visit the public prosecutor′s office because of the photos, but I′d hoped the situation had abated.

Now I′m due in court on 25 November on charges of "insulting the sacred" and "propaganda against the system" – which is a rather intangible accusation; any criticism can be interpreted as propaganda.

And what′s the penalty for propaganda?

Forouhar: Both my charges can lead to prison sentences. The minimum sentence for propaganda against the system is a year′s imprisonment, but it can easily add up to more. Of course, I hope the trial will go my way and there is, of course, the option of appealing the verdict. Yesterday, my lawyer and I examined the prosecution′s files – their audacity leaves me speechless.

So now you′re dealing with the same authorities responsible for your parents′ murder?

Forouhar: That′s the perverse reality. That I′ll be on trial myself three days after the anniversary I wanted to commemorate. I don′t know if I can continue my journey as planned; I ought to be going from here to Athens, where I′ve been invited to work on a commissioned piece.

Why do you insist on returning to Iran? You′ve been living and working in Germany since the early 1990s.

Forouhar: It′s the country where I grew up. I associate most of my childhood memories and a great deal of formative experiences with Iran. My work as an artist is intensely related to memory. And I also feel a connection with the dogged perseverance of those many Iranians working towards a better and more democratic system. I′m part of that movement, which wants to claim back its rights with tenacity and determination. I′m also very invested in keeping the memory of my parents′ murder alive; their house is a place of remembrance that I want to maintain. I am not about to let the system take that away from me, having already taken my parents.

Interview conducted by Catrin Lorch

© Sueddeutsche Zeitung 2017

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire