Posters and History of the Iranian Revolution


by Elizabeth Rauh

For over one hundred years, posters have acted as effective tools to disseminate various ideological messages during periods of revolution and war. Designed for mass distribution and aimed towards a large public audience, they embed social, political, and religious concerns that frequently are articulated through both text and image. Perhaps more so than at any other moment in recent history, posters served as powerful modalities for mobilization and communication during the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88).

Visualizing a Revolution

The 1979 Iranian Revolution was in many respects the culmination of repeated attempts throughout the twentieth century to install a democratic government in Iran. However, the definitive overthrow of the monarchy began in earnest in October 1977 with the death of Ayatollah Khomeini’s son, Mostafa, rumored to have been assassinated by security services. The first round of anti-government protests began in the religious city of Qom and slowly spread throughout Iran. From the uprising’s earliest days, Iran’s Pahlavi monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah, attempted to stifle public dissent, which resulted in several civilian deaths.

Following the Shi’ite custom of commemorating the deceased forty days after their death, activists organized mourning ceremonies across the country in honor of the slain protesters. These public ceremonies became the loci from which further protests developed. Growing exponentially, the cycle of violence and lamentation threw Iran deeper into chaos, which, eventually, turned into a nationwide civilian uprising. Public sentiment continued to grow against the Pahlavi regime in August of 1978, when a fire was set that burned down the Cinema Rex in Tehran, killing over four hundred people trapped inside.

Only a few weeks after this catastrophic event, the tide turned definitively against the government when, on September 8, 1978, government tanks and helicopters opened fire against thousands of protesters in Tehran, killing dozens. Known as Black Friday, the event was consecrated in revolutionary posters that depicted the bloody aftermath in the streets of Tehran while claiming the deceased as victims, martyrs, and pioneers of a just Islamic state. Black Friday was the pivotal event during the revolution and marked the beginning of the end of the Shah’s rule.

On January 16, 1979, Mohammad Reza Shah fled Iran, and on February 1, Khomeini returned from his exile in Iraq and Paris to be greeted by millions of cheering Iranians. Emerging as the clear leader within a power vacuum, Khomeini and his supporters worked quickly to consolidate power. Results from a referendum the next month declared the formal dissolution of the monarchy and the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. These swift changes were immediately celebrated in posters and other graphic media, as Iran’s printing presses were no longer controlled by the Pahlavi regime.

During the climactic period of civil unrest lasting from October 1977 to January 1979, protesters produced posters and pasted them on graffiti-scribbled walls. The resultant display of public dissent echoed the violence in the streets of revolutionary Iran. Several artists chose to recreate the chaotic urban landscape in their posters, which thus record the anti-imperial slogans and chants that were scribbled on walls, while also praising the chief ideologues of the revolution, including Ayatollah Khomeini and Ali Shariati.

Posters produced by the Islamic regime after 1979 reimagined the revolution as an ideologically Islamic one, even though it was a pluralistic uprising composed of both secular and religious groups.1 Shi‘ite Muslim rituals and symbolism, however, were key in sustaining revolutionary fervor. As a result, the artistic program of the newly formed Islamic Republic emphasized the Shi’ite aspects of the protests above all others in order to legitimize the newly formed government’s claims to spiritual authority and supremacy.


Graffiti Wall with Ayatollah Khomeini and ‘Ali Shariati, 1981

Middle Eastern Posters Collection

Black Friday Massacre, ca. 1980

Middle Eastern Posters Collection

Montage of Children’s Drawings, ca. 1980

Middle Eastern Posters Collection

A Great Day, 1984 by Kazim Chalipa

Kazim Chalipa was born in 1957. The son of Hasan Isma’ilzadeh, Kazim Chalipa received his M.F.A. in painting from Tehran University. Chalipa is one of the most prominent artists of the Iranian Revolution. Post-revolutionary organizations and institutions reproduced many of his paintings as posters during the Iran-Iraq War. Since his father’s death in 2007, Chalipa has established a foundation in his honor to maintain his father’s legacy and the tradition of Iranian coffee-house painting. Chalipa is currently working towards his PhD at the Shahed Faculty of the Arts, while also offering painting courses at several universities in Tehran.

Photograph of Crowd Around a Toppled Statue of the Shah, 1980 by ‘Abbas ‘Attar

An Iranian born photojournalist, ‘Abbas ‘Attar has covered major social and political events around the world, including in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Chile, Cuba, South Africa, and throughout the Middle East. ‘Abbas joined the prestigious photographic agency Magnum in 1981, and served as President of Magnum from 1998 to 2001. From 1978 to 1980, he took to the streets of Iran to photograph and document the popular uprisings. His photographs are some of the most iconic images of the Iranian Revolution. Some of his revolutionary photographs were published in his Iran: la Révolution Confiscée and in Balaghi, “Writing with Light.” The first retrospective of his work, Abbas, 45 years in Photography, was held in the summer of 2011 at the National Museum of Singapore.

Cry Out: The First Night of Muharram, 1979

Middle Eastern Posters Collection

The Shah’s Exile and Khomeini’s Return, 1979 by Hasan Isma’ilzadah

Isma’ilzadeh was a student of one of the pioneers of the Iranian coffee-house painting genre, Mohammad Modabber (d. 1967) and Hossein Gholar Aghassi. Developed as a visual aid for storytelling in traditional Iranian teahouses, “coffee-house” painting is a genre of painting devoted to Iranian religious, national, and mythological tales. Imaginative, colorful, and highly detailed, this specifically Iranian painting style is exemplified in the poster “The Shah’s Exile and Khomeini’s Return,” painted by Isma’ilzadeh.

Wounded Protestor under Khomeini Breaking Through US Flag, ca. 1980

Middle Eastern Posters Collection

Silhouette of Crowd with Shahada

ca. 1970s–1980s
Middle Eastern Posters Collection

“The U.S. Can Do Nothing” ca. 1980

Middle Eastern Posters Collection

“One-Year Anniversary of the Iranian Revolution” 1980

Middle Eastern Posters Collection


Demonizing the Enemy

Another driving force during the revolutionary period was the demonization of both real and perceived enemies. The Pahlavi monarch was the main target of antagonistic protest chants, graffiti slogans, and leaflets distributed during the revolution. After the U.S. Embassy was stormed by a group of young Islamist radicals on November 4, 1979, however, attention also turned towards the United States (nicknamed “the Great Satan” in Iran). Together with the United Kingdom, the U.S. was seen as the real power behind the Pahlavi monarchy and was still resented by Iranians for the 1953 CIA-led coup d’état that overthrew the democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq.
The U.S. was characterized in Khomeini’s speeches and the Islamic Republic’s propaganda as a decadent and corrupt imperialist nation. By depicting the U.S. as the moral antithesis of the Islamic Republic, Khomeini and his supporters aimed to capitalize on the Iranians’ approval of the U.S. hostage crisis, while simultaneously galvanizing the populace to identify with the Islamic Republic and its mission.

Images produced at the height of anti-U.S. sentiment include, for example, postcards of a corrupt and grotesque President Carter, with ears locked shut and money shoved into his head and mouth. Such images served to vilify the American government and to underscore the moral decadence of capitalism.

An Iranian Fist Punches Saddam Hussein, The Growling Mutt, ca. 1980

Middle Eastern Posters Collection

Uncle Sam Skull Strangulated by a Collective Fist, 1979

Middle Eastern Posters Collection

Scarecrow!, ca. 1980 by Kourosh Shishegaran

Kourosh Shishegaran was born in 1945. Shishegaran is well known in Iran for his popular revolutionary posters. He began printing posters as early as 1976 for the Civil War in Lebanon, before the uprising against the Pahlavi regime in Iran began. Shishegaran produced posters that he called “motto art,” that is, bearing Persian slogans. Despite his initial support of the Revolution, from 1981 to 1986 Shishegaran was accused of anti-regime activities and imprisoned in Evin prison. In more recent years, Shishegaran has focused his energies on painting and drawing. His posters and canvas works have been exhibited in Iran and around the world.

The Corrupt Carter, 1979

Middle Eastern Posters Collection

Advertisement for Gathering of World Liberation Movements, Tehran

January, 1980
Middle Eastern Posters Collection

Portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini with Speech Excerpt, 1979

Middle Eastern Posters Collection

The other recipient of post-revolutionary animosity was Saddam Hussein. Khomeini hoped to inspire other Islamic revolutions across the Middle East, including in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime ruled over the largely Shi’a population of Iraq with an iron fist. One poster of Saddam Hussein produced in Iran around 1980 shows him as a growling bulldog leashed in by the Soviet Union, the U.S., and Israel, to be defeated by the collective punch of the Iranian people’s striking fist. By depicting Saddam as merely an attack dog of foreign world powers, the poster insults him and diminishes the danger posed by the Iraqi leadership, while predicting its eventual destruction by the Islamic Republic.

In September 1980, Saddam Hussein, feeling threatened by the Islamic Republic’s attempts to incite the Iraqi Shi‘a majority to overthrow his leadership and seeking to take advantage of the revolutionary chaos in Iran, ordered the invasion of Iran. Thus began the eight-year Iran-Iraq War.

Five Soldiers with Khomeini, ca. 1980s, by Kazim Chalipa

Kazim Chalipa was born in 1957. The son of Hasan Isma’ilzadeh, Kazim Chalipa received his M.F.A. in painting from Tehran University. Chalipa is one of the most prominent artists of the Iranian Revolution. Post-revolutionary organizations and institutions reproduced many of his paintings as posters during the Iran-Iraq War. Since his father’s death in 2007, Chalipa has established a foundation in his honor to maintain his father’s legacy and the tradition of Iranian coffee-house painting. Chalipa is currently working towards his PhD at the Shahed Faculty of the Arts, while also offering painting courses at several universities in Tehran.

A Funeral for Hearts, ca. 1980, by Habib Sadeqi

Habib Sadeqi, born 1957. Sadeqi received his M.F.A. degrees in painting from the University of Tehran in 1993, before going on to earn his Ph.D in 2009, in Research on Arts at Tarbiat Modarres University in Tehran. He was Director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art from 2004-2009, and has exhibited his work in galleries in France, Germany, England, China, Hungary, Japan, Poland, Korea, Canada, Syria, Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, Russia, and Lebanon. He teaches painting at several different universities in Tehran.

Young Boy Cradling Dead Soldier, 1980

Middle Eastern Posters Collection

Mullah, Mother, and Soldiers, 1981, by Husayn Khusrawjirdi

Husayn Khusrawjirdi was born in 1957. Khusrawjirdi graduated from Tehran University in 1985, with a focus in painting, sculpture, graphic design, and set design. His work has been shown in Denmark, Syria, France, Russia, Pakistan, India, Azerbaijan, China, the Netherlands, the United States, and recently at the Venice Biennale. He has lived in London since 2010.

Fist Crushing Iraqi Jet, ca. 1980s

Middle Eastern Posters Collection

A Mission for Saddam, ca. 1980

Middle Eastern Posters Collection

Iranian Oil Facilities Under Khomeini

ca. 1980s
Middle Eastern Posters Collection

A New Battle of Karbala

Marked by chemical weapons and human-wave assaults, the Iran-Iraq War was one of the deadliest wars of the twentieth century. Facing the existential threat of the Iraqi invasion, the struggling and militarily weak Islamic Republic deployed an immense propaganda campaign in order to convince Iranians to fight on the war front. Young men enlisted in the army and paramilitary forces, resulting in an estimated million casualties on the Iranian side alone. The war was devastating, and hence it needed to be given greater symbolic meaning.
At this time, fighting for the Islamic Republic was conceived as a righteous reenactment of the Battle of Karbala. In 680 CE the Battle of Karbala resulted in the definitive sectarian split between Sunni and Shi’a Islam. In the wake of the succession crisis following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the Umayyad ruler Yazid I sought to assassinate Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Accompanied by his family and followers, Husayn fought Yazid on the plain of Karbala, where he was brutally murdered. For the Shi’ite community, Husayn’s death stands as the seminal act of martyrdom and the promise of salvation. As a prototype for self-sacrifice, Imam Husayn was the model to which Iranians aspired in their own modern-day Battle of Karbala.

Posters and other graphic media conflated the historical past with the present, as soldiers were repeatedly depicted as martyrs on the battlefield of Karbala. For instance, one poster entitled The Martyr depicts a blindfolded Iranian soldier being executed and thrust from this world into the next, where Imam Husayn and decapitated martyrs await him. The Islamic Republic thus successfully tapped into a larger Shi’a framework of salvation by verbally and visually presenting the Iran-Iraq War as a consecrated extension of the Battle of Karbala.2

Belief in the salvific reward of a martyrial death is deeply entrenched in Shi’ite culture, and Khomeini employed this religious worldview as a means of urging all Iranian men to fight—and die—for both their religion and their nation. The pictorial arts visualized and consecrated official rhetoric by providing images of the heavenly consummation of martyrs as they are venerated for their sacrifice on earth. The poster Certitude of Belief metaphorically depicts the threshold between a soldier’s death on the battlefield and a redemptive Shi‘a paradise. By encouraging Iranian citizens to die for their country, and by promising individuals spiritual salvation through martyrdom, the Islamic Republic successfully secured its own survival during the war years.

Every Day is ‘Ashura and Every Soil is Karbala, ca. 1981

Middle Eastern Posters Collection

Blindfolded Soldier Shot at Gunpoint, ca. 1981

Middle Eastern Posters Collection

Certitude of Belief (Yaqin), ca. 1981, by Kazim Chalipa

‘Ashura: Victory of Blood Over the Sword, 1978

Middle Eastern Posters Collection

Muharram: Victory of Blood Over the Sword, ca. 1970–1980s

Middle Eastern Posters Collection,

Red Supplication Calligraphy Ascending into Flag Banners, 1982, by Jalil Rasuli

Jalil Rasuli was born in 1947. Mohammad Jalil Rasuli moved to Tehran in 1960, eventually becoming a professional calligrapher in 1968. Rasuli is known for being one of the pioneers of modernist Persian calligraphic painting.

Women and Children

As the fighting raged on, all of Iranian society was urged to take part in the war effort. Posters played a vital role in mobilizing and consoling the Iranian people, including women and children. Iranian boys as young as twelve were recruited to join the Basij, volunteer paramilitary forces that fought alongside the national army. The Basij are most remembered for their human-wave assaults, in which young boys walked across the mine-ridden battlefields to clear them for military maneuvering. Within this deadly act of independence, defiance, and salvific frenzy was the very real desire of young Iranians to protect their homeland and families by any means necessary— including the sacrifice of both limbs and lives.

Artists commemorated the bravery of children in the war while also lamenting their tragic and untimely deaths. For instance, one poster, These Are Our Heroes, depicts a young boy preparing to join the battle; the grenades attached to his waist signal his eventual self- destruction in a human-wave assault, as his crying sister clutches the Qur’an. Graffiti writing on the wall behind the two figures exalts other boys as “leaders” who have already sacrificed themselves for the cause. The poster symbolizes a loss of innocence for the young generation, as well as for the nascent Islamic Republic itself.
Women also were targets of wartime propaganda. The Islamic Republic encouraged women to follow Islamic models of femininity and humility. One archetype of Shi‘a female virtue is Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Venerated as a symbol of righteousness, patience, piety, and as the mother of the foremost Shi‘a martyr, Imam Husayn, Fatimah is exalted as a mother to all martyrs. For these reasons, cemeteries created for Iranian soldiers killed during the Iran-Iraq War are named in her honor.

Another woman exalted by the Islamic Republic is Zaynab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad and sister of Imam Husayn. She is remembered as courageous and resilient due to her legendary defiance of Yazid I after the massacre of her family at the Battle of Karbala. As an active and even combative female, her example inspired Iranian women during the Revolution. During the war, too, the Islamic Republic’s artistic programs broadcast the image of Zaynab as a woman in support of Shi’a male soldiers.

Warfront artist Nasser Palangi produced sketches of Iranian women during the early Iraqi invasion of the Iranian city of Khorramshahr. Titling one of his drawings The Heirs of Zaynab, Palangi makes clear the connection between the seventh-century heroine and the women of Khorramshahr, who fought in defense of the Iranian city. The Battle of Karbala was once again turned into a living paradigm through which female combatants likewise could emulate the heroes of Shi’ite sacred history.

Boy Going to War with Crying Girl, 1980 by Mohammad Taraqijah

Mohammad Taraqijah was born in 1943 and died in 2010. Mohammad Ali Taraqijah began his career as an engineer, but eventually pursued art as his true passion and made it his life’s work. His paintings are known for their inclusion of distinctive and highly stylized horse figures. Taraqijah’s work has been shown in Berlin, Chicago, Florence, Geneva, Lisbon, London, Los Angeles, New York, Tehran, Paris, Beijing, Tokyo, Washington D.C., Vienna, and Zurich.

Young Girl Carrying Rifle, 1979

Middle Eastern Posters Collection

White Silhouette of Fatimah, 1979

Middle Eastern Posters Collection

A Woman Holding a Rifle, ca. 1980, by Nasser Palangi

Nasser Palangi was born in 1957. Palangi spent the first two years of the Iran-Iraq War producing sketches near the frontlines. Palangi also completed a mural series titled “My Memory of the War” (1981) for the congregational mosque of Khorramshahr, one of the hardest hit cities during the war. Palangi later graduated from Tehran University in 1984 with a degree in Visual Arts. His work (drawings, paintings, and photography) can be found in museums and galleries around the world. Palangi is currently working on a Ph.D. in Photo Media at the University of Sydney, Australia.

Daughters of the South, 1980, by Nasser Palangi

A Graphic Reminder

The 1979 Iranian Revolution and the ensuing Iran- Iraq War produced an enormous amount of visual material, much of which still remains unexamined. Works produced during this period—which forever altered the balance of power, both regionally and globally—provide a glimpse into these indelible events and their impact on Iranians and recent history. Visual materials were an important tool of dissemination for a largely illiterate audience, and today they stand as a collective graphic memory of those traumatic years. One such graphic caveat, the highly evocative A Funeral for Hearts, survives as a visual reminder of the physical and emotional pain Iranians endured for over a decade, as a group of dying men carry their own hearts to the grave.

Visualizing these experiences of human trauma and suffering allows individuals to collectively remember, mourn, and safeguard their experiences within a shared historical memory. Iranian posters thus historicized events as they unfolded by commemorating the recent past, preserving the ever-changing present, and charting the unknown future.


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Texts by:

Elizabeth Rauh
Ph.D. student
History of Art
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
[email protected]


Maria Papaefstathiou

VISUAL DESIGNER since 1996 and blogger since 2010. Living in Athens, Greece. She has been focusing her research on poster design and particularly on social poster design and portrait design. Her main poster project is a series of posters celebrating great personalities of traditional and popular culture in Greece and Jamaica. These include actors, singers, musicians, poets etc. This is an ongoing project. “I believe that design is a powerful tool that we designers can use to spark enthusiasm, change mindsets and bring positive actions to our world and our culture”. FOUNDER AND EDITOR OF GRAPHICART-NEWS.COM BLOG. She carefully curates high-quality designs, illustrations, and art, from all over the world that will teach and provoke other designers. Many consider her blog to be an exceptional educational tool. CO-FOUNDER OF THE INTERNATIONAL REGGAE POSTER CONTEST which was launched on December 2011, partnering, the creative activist Michael Thompson aka Freestylee. (

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