I watch a lot of movies in my free time, and I love watching movies about artists. You can imagine my delight when I rented Desert Dancer over the weekend. Desert Dancer is based on the life of Afshin Ghaffarian, an Iranian-born dancer and choreographer. If you know anything about the state of the arts in Iran, you know that the phrase Iranian dancer is almost an oxymoron. Dance and many other forms of artistic expression have been forbidden in Iran since the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s. Under the theocratic government, dancing is an act of sinful defiance, punishable by attack, imprisonment, or even death.
Enter Afshin Ghaffarian.
Encouraged in the arts by a childhood mentor, Ghaffarian sought ways of expressing his artistic passions in the midst of Iran’s ultra-conservative culture. So he went underground, working with university friends to develop a secret dance troupe. They snuck like spies and danced in basement rooms to avoid detection, but no artist can hide their passions long before seeking expression. Ghaffarian and his troupe put on a secret dance show in the desert outside Tehran, performing for a handful of people and risking the wrath of cultural and moral police. Not long after, Ghaffarian was captured, beaten, and threatened with death if he continued. With help from friends, he was able sneak out of Iran and find political asylum in France. He went on to study dance in Paris, and has since developed his own dance/performance company, Reformancers.
While Ghaffarian’s story is inspiring, I also find myself convicted by it. The contrast between his artistic experience and mine are like night and day, and his story is all too common in many countries. The statistics on global art censorship and persecution are both sobering and stirring. According Artsfex, an arts advocacy group that maps instances of global art persecution, over 230 artists were abducted, detained, prosecuted, censored, threatened, attacked, imprisoned, or even killed during 2014 alone. These artists included visual artists, dancers, musicians, writers, actors, and filmmakers. Over two hundred people endangered and intimidated -- all because they wanted to express their creativity.
I am a dancer, an artist, a writer, and a designer. The arts are my life, and I practice them with a freedom that I often take for granted. I don’t fear for my life when I go to the dance studio, or dread recrimination when I publish a blog post. I am free to create and to express my ideas with very little censorship or interference. Yet how often do I impose limits on my creativity through petty insecurities and silly fears? I worry about being thought silly or foolish over my art, while many artists the world over are concerned with being harmed for their art. Stories like Afshin’s and others like him stir me not only to pursue my art with greater dedication, but to express myself with greater bravery. Creative expression is a luxury I’ve been blessed with, and I owe it myself and to the global arts community to never waste my freedom.
So, to the Afshin Ghaffarians of the world I say thank you. Thank you for expressing yourself, even when it’s dangerous. Thank you for disregarding your fears in order to pursue your passions. And thank you for stirring my heart to create with greater freedom. Thank you for being free in a world that wants bind you up.
Sarah is the co-founder of Bright Ideas, a designer by trade, and an artist by passionate choice. She was born and raised in South, and delights in sharing Southern culture with anyone who cares to learn. Sarah collects creative hobbies; when she isn’t making art, you can usually find her on the dance floor. Follow her creative adventures on Instagram and Twitter!