On July 4th, 1776 the Second Continental Congress that represented the thirteen American colonies declared its independence from British rule. Colonial America was comprised of French, Dutch, Spanish, Russian, and English immigrants, along with African slaves. These people practiced a variety of religions from various Christian sects, Judaism, and African traditions that also included Islam. Each of these cultures became the foundation of the United States of America that we know today.
America is known as the Land of the Free, and when instituting a constitution to unite the colonies the Founding Fathers drew from other cultures that had already set examples of freedom, unity, peace, and democracy, such as the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy and its Great Law of Peace. The Founding Fathers transcended time and space, searching through history from cultures domestic and foreign to develop the principles and philosophy of this new nation.
Thomas Jefferson studied multiple languages, including Arabic. One of the great Middle Eastern works of literature that he was fond of was the Cyropaedia. This classic work describes the life of the ancient Persian ruler Cyrus the Great. This is the same Cyrus that is praised in the Bible for rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem and returning the Jews to Israel. Jefferson was not the only Founding Father to have religiously studied the Cyropaedia. The Founding Fathers, who identified with the struggle of the Jews in exile under an oppressive government, were inspired by the statesmanship of Cyrus.
The Cyrus Cylinder, which dates back 2,600 years ago, is often referred to as “the first declaration of human rights,” and its symbol of diversity and freedom echoes thousands of years later worldwide.
On July 4th 2017, the Freedom Sculpture, an interpretation of the Cyrus Cylinder by Cecil Balmond, was unveiled at the L.A. Freedom Festival. The festival and monument was produced by the Iranian-American cultural organization, the Farhang Foundation, with the support of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilman Paul Koretz.
The last public monument gifted to America was the Statue of Liberty in 1886. Over one hundred years later Iranian-Americans led this project to gift America with another monument of freedom, with the support of crowd-funding that raised over $2.2 million dollars from over fifty countries. When the Farhang Foundation conceived of this project they did not foresee the events that would be occurring today, but what better a time for this symbol of Freedom to be unveiled?
Executive Order 13769 signed by the President January 27, 2017 suspended entry from people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen under the notion that these states harbored terrorists and that the United States needed to protect its borders.
The art world was among many people and institutions affected by the travel ban. Earlier this year at Standford University the exhibition Requiem for Syria by Syrian artist Khaled Akil opened January 31. The artist, now based in Istanbul, could not make it to his own gallery opening due to the strict visa regulations.
The Photography Show presented by AIPAD, hosted in New York City earlier this year in March, included participating galleries from around the world. One of such galleries was Ag Galerie from Tehran, Iran. The visa regulations and risks involved with customs also prevented Ag Gallerie from participating in the show, although their booth was left vacant as a sign of solidarity.
Ag Galerie is a contemporary art gallery, one of many contemporary art channels that compose the network of contemporary art in Iran, which also includes Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCa). The works of Khaled Akil are not terrorist works or threats against America. This travel ban as an effort to protect Americans from terrorists is burning a cultural bridge with the Middle East, and the art world is trying to put out the flames.
In New York MoMA removed Western artists from their famed fifth floor and installed works of art by Middle Eastern artists. Sudanese Ibrahim el-Salahi replaced Picasso. In Wellesley, Massachusetts the Davis Museum removed all works of art contributed by immigrant artists and collectors to show the impact that immigrants contribute to America’s art culture. The Metropolitan Museum of Art conducted talks about their works of art and objects that come from several of the countries on the ban, with the intention of educating the public about these countries.
The American art world welcomes the Middle East with open arms. On view until July 16th at Los Angeles County Museum of Art is the exhibition Pause by Abdulnasser Gharem, who is a lieutenant colonel in the Saudi Army. This exhibition is a response to the events of 9/11. The relations between America and the Middle East is complex, involving many departments of society, and art institutions have a significant factor in establishing, maintaining, and progressing cultural relationships with the Middle East.
And so the Freedom Sculpture gifted to America by over a million people around the world could not have come at a better time as a reminder that America is a nation where diversity, equality, and freedom should be a birthright for every human being as envisioned by the Founding Fathers. The DNA of America is so interconnected with the entire world that taking steps toward isolating America would be denying it of its complete identity. If we want to make this country great again, we have to ask ourselves, who are we? Because a part of who we collectively are includes Middle Eastern heritages. Without a complete awareness of identity there cannot be a complete sense of freedom. What Iranian-Americans, and people from around the world, showed through the Farhang Foundation’s gift is that the freedom to unite and celebrate diversity is in the power of the people.
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