August 18, 2023

Down with the Ordinary: Thinking Through “Rebellion of the Slogans”

Niloufar Nematollahi

“Down with the ordinary” graffiti written on the wall of a girls school in Karaj, Iran, November 5, 2022. © Radio Zamaneh news media.

2022: Karaj, Iran

In one of the bathroom stalls at a high school located just outside of Iran’s capital of Tehran, the slogan “Marg bar revale aadi” (مرگ بر روال عادی) appears in black against the white of the stall’s partition—written in marker and interrupted only by the borders dividing the glazed tiles. Behind the slogan is the visible reflection of the photographer, the contours of her body now imprinted onto the shiny tiles’ floral pattern.

In the midst of a chain of events larger than her, she seizes the moment, taking a marker from the pocket of her navy uniform and writes “Down with the ordinary.” She takes a step away, reaches for the phone she smuggled into school, and takes a picture of a wall marked by her body and her presence, as manifested in those hasty letters.1 A wall marked, forever, no matter how many layers of shitty white paint would follow, covering her words and forcing her back into the illusion of the ordinary.

Prior to her now-visible intervention, this schoolgirl’s body, and the body of this wall, remained objects that reproduced the illusion of the ordinary as a mere fact of everyday life—an illusion whose construction and maintenance are crucial for the survival of power. This illusion of “the ordinary” remains intact insofar as revolutionary desires stay hidden under layers of white paint or unwanted clothes. But this schoolgirl’s body has long since refused the fabrics that were forced onto her by law and now this ordinary wall has been made to bear the signs of her refusal via graffiti that exposes the extraordinary, the simmering revolutionary. She has lost count of how long this revolution has been going on but knows its fire began simmering long before Jina’s murder at the hands of the state. She knows that bodies covered under mandatory veils and letters hidden under coats of the white paint of censorship are embers that continue to smolder beneath the ashes of repression.

Shirin Mohammad, “Rebellion of the Slogans,” 2023. Exhibition view. Künstlerhaus Bremen. Photo: Fred Dott.

2023: Bremen, Germany

Marg bar revale aadi”: these words, now spray-painted, remain visible underneath a thick coat of white paint. Paint of the poorest quality was carefully chosen. Paint unable to cover the slogan fully, just like the paint used by state officers all over Iran to hide any sign of revolution on the city’s body. But here, in this white cube in Bremen, Germany, the slogan has been removed from its original context—taken from schools, universities, factories, and streets from across the whole of Iran and translated onto the walls of a white cube. In this white cube, the protestors’ repertoire of slogans written on any wall whatsoever was recreated, just as the regime officer’s erasure of the slogan was subsequently performed, resulting in the emergence of an object that is a translation yet conveys the same message: “Down with the ordinary.”

The wall now marked by this slogan is exhibited alongside a selection of other objects that are also reproductions, and thus, translations of tools that emerged as protesters transformed ordinary objects into bodies formulating revolutionary desires during the “Woman, Life, Freedom” Revolution, as well as during the three nationwide protest movements that predate it as far back as 2017. This exhibition is part of an ongoing research project of the same name, “Rebellion of the Slogans,” initiated by Berlin-based visual artist Shirin Mohammad.2 Mohammad’s artistic practice is fueled by the desire to narrate and visualize marginalized aspects of Iran’s contemporary social history. Exhibited at Künstlerhaus Bremen and curated by Nadja Quante, “Rebellion of the Slogans” is Mohammad’s public showcase of this ongoing research project, manifested in the form of an exhibition and a publication presentation followed by a series of conversations with scholars, artists, and cultural workers. “Rebellion of the Slogans” attempts not only to gather, translate, and publish the slogans that have defined protest movements in contemporary Iran; it also invites researchers, writers, activists, and artists to draw on the slogans as a starting point to analyze the evolution of these movements, thus contributing themselves to the ongoing struggles. “Marg bar revale aadi is the only Farsi slogan that can be seen on the white cube’s walls. All of the other slogans were translated into English from Arabic, Azari, Baluchi, Kurdish, and Farsi and released as part of a series of publications.

On the wall, the Farsi slogan is written without an English translation. The call for the ordinary’s downfall is presented among a variety of objects that, at first, seem nothing but ordinary: pots sitting harmlessly on a window shelf, stones scattered on the edges of a plastic tablecloth on the floor, steel trays stacked on top of one another, and bricks assembled in the form of a street barricade. Revolution is materialized when the objects and infrastructures that shape and symbolize the ordinary are used to revolt against power’s persistent enforcement of this facade, exposing the truly extraordinary—the unveiled revolutionary.

Shirin Mohammad, Lunch Steel Plate, 2023. Stainless-steel lunch plate, metal square tube. Installation view. Künstlerhaus Bremen. Photo: Fred Dott.

The revolutionary was materialized, therefore, when pots were taken from kitchens into the streets of Mahabad, not only to protect one’s vital organs from bullets but also as a means for Kurdish protestors to show that, contrary to the regime’s narrative, they are not armed, they are not the dangerous ones: we are the ones with pots and stones, you are the ones with arms and tear gas. The revolutionary was similarly materialized when protesting students broke the gendered stratification that dominates public spaces in Iran by spreading a tablecloth that abolished the border dividing the cafeteria into two separate spaces, one for men and the other for women: we are the ones who will sit and eat together, you are the ones desperately exerting power by separating us.

The revolutionary was materialized when a similar tablecloth was spread by old-age pensioners chanting, “Enough with promises, our dining tables are empty”: we are the ones who have not received our pensions for months, while you are the ones whose accumulation of capital and mismanagement of resources has pushed us into poverty.

The revolutionary was materialized when workers in Asalouyeh and Haft Tapeh, in Khuzestan, refused to eat, leaving their trays empty to protest against the regime’s withholding of their wages and widespread arrest of workers: we are the ones who will put on our trays not food but slips of papers with slogans voicing our discontent with your structural failures, you are the ones who have not paid our wages for months and who arrest us for voicing our refusal to participate in your facade of business as usual, oppression as usual, capitalism as usual.

Protest against the closure of borders and increase in customs tariffs, Baneh, Kurdistan, Iran, April 2018. The banner says, “Our empty table craves bread.” Via social media.

The revolutionary is materialized when bricks and garbage bins are used to build barricades against the regime’s armed forces on the streets. It is materialized when revolutionaries dare to break with “ordinary livelihood” for an indeterminate period,3 exposing the ordinary as nothing but a construct embodied by everyday objects and infrastructures that are not only manifestations of power’s ability to maintain business and life as usual but also bodies in which which revolutionary desires become concrete.

Objects and Infrastructures of Revolution

The ordinary’s construction therefore depends on objects and infrastructures as much it does on narratives of the contemporary and historiographies of the past. Glazed tiles, pots, and tablecloths are the objects that make up the banality of the home today. They are the objects that sustain bodies by allowing them to take shelter, cook, and eat. The objects that allow for social reproduction are, however, simultaneously part of infrastructures that enable the continuation of capital and its flows.

Infrastructures, symbolized by objects, sustain the bodies and flows behind business as usual. The call for the downfall of the ordinary, formulated through the objects that sustain daily life and business as usual, not only voices the desire for the fall of the Islamic Republic but also aspires toward the abolition of capital, and its flows, as the foundation on which the illusion of the ordinary is built. The ordinary flow of capital is built on the extraordinary reality of workers, teachers, and pensioners whose wages have not been paid for months by the governmental agencies and regime-affiliated private contractors who employ them.

Contrary to the more well-known slogans that emerged from the “Woman, Life, Freedom” Revolution, “Marg bar revale aadi is not only directed at the regime but also addresses contractors, shopkeepers, and factory owners whose infrastructures are closely entangled with those of the regime. Capitalist infrastructures reinforced by individuals who are affiliated with the state to different degrees and through a variety of means sustain regime infrastructures and vice versa, keeping power and oppression intact. “Marg bar revaale aadi” addresses individual capitalists who might verbally condemn the Islamic Republic in the private realm of their homes and live lives that do not align with the regime’s ideologies, but refuse to disrupt their businesses, thus preventing the revolutionary from materializing. And as schoolgirls mark up walls to call for the downfall of the ordinary, the lips of these men become sealed as soon as they leave their homes for their factories and properties; as they continue business as usual, they enable the illusion of the ordinary to continue. “Down with the ordinary” points at the entanglements of capital and state power, exposing the regime’s reliance on the tools of capitalism to enforce and maintain its illusion of the ordinary, continue its oppression, and deny all that which can only be truly revolutionary if it refuses and disrupts the flow of capital.

The construction of the ordinary in the present relies on infrastructures that maintain the flow of capital as well as narratives of the present and the past. Narratives of the present, whose function is the reproduction of the power of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), declare the end of all crises through the re-creation of a glorious, indisputable past that justifies and upholds today’s illusion of an impenetrable ordinary. And so, today’s ordinary is constructed against the background of a history bound together by stories of so many resolved crises.4 And yet, with the crises of state murders, impoverishment as a surveillance mechanism, economic despair, class struggle, gender apartheid, the systematic oppression of LGBTQ+ people, the threat of genocide faced by marginalized religious and ethnic communities, and the arrest of anyone who protests—all of Iran’s fundamental sociopolitical crises demand resolution at the same time as they are simply erased by the contemporary discourse of the Iranian state.5

The backbone of the regime’s official historical narrative is an archive of objects that foreground, and sometimes even invent, struggles of the past that justify power’s construction of a “social order of the day” free from crisis. Slogans, anthems, sounds, images, and colors are appropriated, monopolized, and eventually institutionalized by the regime’s archive, which transforms them into vessels for carrying the Islamic Republic’s official historical narrative. These objects are turned into state symbols that narrate the regime’s glorious stories of the 1979 Revolution, which resulted in the establishment of the IRI. The Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) was eventually appropriated to construct the regime’s discourse of “resistance” against those who were painted as “enemies from within” and “enemies on the international stage.”

Revolution Can Be Said In Many Ways: On Translation

The objects that remain from the executions, massacres, and gendered violence of the 1980s—the years when the foundations of the newly established Islamic Republic were laid—are erased as a means to erase the collective memories of oppression they embody. This is because collective memory holds the power to disrupt the ordinary and to mobilize the revolutionary. In the following decades, the regime continued this erasure of collective memory, not simply with respect to the objects that testified to the regime’s oppression but also with respect to those that symbolized any form of resistance to the Islamic Republic.

The resistance of the past was, however, transmitted into the present through objects that were maintained despite this threat of erasure: stories passed on from one generation to the next, stories narrating arrests, acts of disobedience, and the various parallel lives people lived alongside the lives constructed for them by the state; anthems voicing struggles against the patriarchy; newspapers exposing the truth; slogans calling for the abolition of the regime; as well as stones thrown at tanks, fists raised against power, and veils burned in the street.

Such is the repertoire of resistance, which can neither be fully erased and forgotten nor contained by any archive because it consists of fleeting performances against power; for what is revolutionary is materialized in a particular moment in time and localized in a singular space.6 Thus, these objects have once again been recollected from the repertoires of the everyday, from spaces like homes, streets, schools, universities, prisons, and factories. These repertoires of the everyday are employed across the whole of Iran in service of a generalized resistance to a regime whose founding gesture is oppression—the means by which it ensures that political and economic power accumulates solely to its advantage.

The attempt to archive the objects that represent these repertoires is an attempt at translation. “Rebellion of the Slogans” translates and archives repertoires of disruption against the Islamic Republic’s oppression by relocating them within the space of an exhibition. This is a translation whose inherent impossibility exposes the distance between the repertoire and its remembrance, on the one hand, and the site of its first performance on the other. Translation is impossible because, in the space of the exhibition, these objects do not disrupt. Instead, they become signs that reference disruptions elsewhere—signs whose realization happens in some other space at some other time.

Old-age pensioners’ protest, Tehran, Iran, February 2021. © GEtehadbazneshastegan.

Other than the very message of revolution, what property inherent to a given object allows it to acquire revolutionary meaning when placed in a qualitatively different context?7 Perhaps attempting the impossible work of translation is the only way to convey and keep alive the messages these objects once embodied. Perhaps disruption is only revolutionary when it aims to convey a message. The failure of translation results in the emergence of objects that convey the original repertoire’s message but do not disrupt the ordinary in the way these tools of protest initially did. However, this impossibility of translation allows for other possibilities to emerge: the objects gathered in “Rebellion of the Slogans” become symbols against capital, against the illusion of the ordinary, and against the Islamic Republic.

This essay was written upon the invitation of Shirin Mohammad and in close conversation with the artist. The text was edited by Iman Ganji, Jose Rosales, and Anna Horan Murphy.


Inspired by a short fragment written by Farbod Mohajer for International Women’s Day 2023.


“Rebellion of the Slogans” is inspired by “A Study of the Slogans of the 1979 Uprising,” an essay written in 1979 by Iranian writer, poet, and leftist literary critic Mohammad Mokhtari (1942–98). The essay was published in the magazine Ketab-e Jome (Book of Friday), no. 20/24 (December/February 1979).


Inspired by Ali Rahnema, Call to Arms: Irans Marxist Revolutionaries: Formation and Evolution of the Fadais, 1964–1976 (Oneworld Academic, 2021).


The idea that power constructs narratives that push crises into the past was inspired by a conversation with Richard Salame.


Inspired by a presentation given by feminist scholar Yasmine Ansari on May 4, 2023 as part of the “Rebellion of the Slogans” talk series.


The term “repertoire” was introduced to me by Ashkan Sepahvand during a conversation I had with him and Shirin Mohammad. See Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Duke University Press, 2003).


See Walter Benjamin, “The Translator’s Task,” trans. Steven Rendall, TTR : traduction, terminologie, rédaction 10, no. 2 (1997): 152 .

Contemporary Art
Middle East, Revolution, Protests & Demonstrations

Niloufar Nematollahi (1998, Esfahan, Iran) is a writer, translator, artist, and activist currently based in Amsterdam. With a background in fine arts as well as Middle Eastern studies and international relations, she has conducted research on the literary genre of Farsi oil fiction and the politics of electronic dance music in Iran. Her current research revolves around feminist conceptualizations of contemporary labor politics in Iran.


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