On a recent summer day in East Harlem, Alexander Keto stood on a ladder above a group of sixth graders playing basketball, aerosol can in hand.
Keto is spray-painting turquoise blue paint on P.S. 7’s brick exterior. The wall turns into an image of a West African woman up to her waist in water, her three children playing beside her. It’s a striking visual that stands over two stories tall next to the busy intersection of Lexington Avenue and 120th Street.
The inspiration behind the piece is Keto’s desire to forge a connection between Brazilians and their African heritage, as he saw the racial divides growing up in Sao Paolo. Most of his work is rooted in his Afro-Brazilian culture, and he wanted to show that education goes beyond the classroom.
“I wanted to show that before we talk about equality among people, we have to talk about making a connection with Mother Nature,” says Keto, 28. “Without water, there is no life. Without mother, there is no life. When we’re talking about education, we’re talking about life first.”
Keto’s mural is part of one of the largest single-issue mural projects the city has ever seen. Fifteen of them are being created across Harlem this summer to raise awareness for journalist Maziar Bahari’s Not A Crime campaign for educational access and press freedom around the world.
Bahari partnered with Street Art Anarchy, a New York-based art production group, to assemble a prominent collective of international artists, including Ricky Lee Gordon (South Africa), Keto (Brazil) and Harlem native, Franco the Great.
A central focus of the project is on the thousands of Baha’is, a religious minority in Iran, banned from school by authorities in the country simply because of their faith.
Bahari has experienced the Iranian government’s denial of the rights of its own citizens firsthand: He was featured in the film “Rosewater” directed by Jon Stewart, which documented his four-month imprisonment in Iran while working as a reporter for Newsweek. Now Bahari is focused on human rights.
“I’m not a Baha’i myself, but I was really moved by the peaceful resistance of Baha’is against the regime that is trying it’s best to get rid of the community by any means possible—through harassment, propaganda, torture, solitary confinement, you name it,” Bahari tells the Voice. “This is not something many people know about so it needed something different in terms of approach and permanence in order to gather public attention and spark conversation, and what is more permanent and public than street art?”
The discrimination against the Baha’is began following the Iranian revolution in 1979. While Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians are generally unopposed in Iran, those of the monotheistic Baha’i faith have seen their businesses and places of worship shuttered, and have been banned from access to higher education, says Bahari.
Though the mural project began last year, the new additions this summer are geared toward the right to education. Saleem Vaillancourt, a Baha’i and the campaign coordinator for Not A Crime, says the artists have free reign to implement their visions.
“The artists have a great degree of latitude in what they paint so each mural doesn’t directly have to be about the denial of education, but they respond to the issue as they want,” says Vaillancourt. “Some are directly about the denial of education, and some of them are a lot more indirect.”
Another mural painted by prominent Australian artist Rone shows an Iranian Baha’i student, Nasim Biglari, reading a book. Biglari was banned from an Iranian university because of her beliefs. Her black and white portrait sits next to Storefront Academy, a tuition-free private in Harlem.
Current events shaped the content of South African artist Ricky Lee Gordon’s mural on the side of the legendary Faison Firehouse Theater on Hancock Place—one of the first murals unveiled in this year’s campaign.
“See the dove? The purple colors? Prince had died while the mural was being painted,” says George Faison, Tony Award-winner and founder of the theater. “It’s cemented in time on this wall, along with the message for peace, inclusion, and compassion. And the feedback I’ve heard about the mural has been overwhelming.”
Faison added, “It’s about identifying with each other’s shared struggles, hope for equality, and years of historical oppression—and there’s no better place to do this than in Harlem.”