Icy and Sot are not the ‘Banksy of Iran’

“Wet Paint,” a 23-second video by Iranian street artists Icy and Sot, begins with an anonymous pair of hands stenciling the words “wet paint” onto a black sweatshirt. It then cuts to a subway station, where a young man wearing a dark cap and sunglasses walks nonchalantly to a wall plastered with advertisements, looks around, and slides his body along them, smearing black paint across a poster for the movie Jason Bourne before wandering back out of the frame.  The movie’s tagline, “you know his name,” registers ironically here.  Street art is a largely anonymous and ephemeral enterprise, particularly in places—like Iran, and some metropolitan areas of the United States—where it is heavily criminalized.  And even when artists do take credit for their work, it is often under a pseudonym, like Banksy, JR, or Icy and Sot.  This pseudonymity often persists even when the artist achieves enough renown to warrant museum or gallery shows.  And although Icy and Sot have begun to establish precisely such a presence, they nonetheless remain relatively obscure.  The playful mark-making featured in “Wet Paint” strikes me as a visual metaphor for their position in the world of street art: undeniably present yet incompletely visible.  Journalists and curators often refer to them as the “Banksy of Iran,” a comparison clearly meant as a compliment.  Yet even as this designation offers the brothers a certain visibility and legitimacy, it also obscures the unique significance of their work.

In their art, Icy and Sot regularly make self-referential gestures to art in general and street art in particular.  Their piece “Crime Sense,” which appeared on a heavily tagged wall in Brooklyn, is a stencil-pained line of police tape that runs crookedly over the tags already present on the wall.  This comment on the criminalization of street art mockingly dramatizes the repressive force of the state, while also vindicating the presence of these marks on this wall with the application of their own imprimatur.  By their palimpsestic engagement with the work of other artists, Icy and Sot locate themselves actively in a creative community and artistic resistance.

I first encountered their work at the Moco museum in Amsterdam in June 2018.  Located on Amsterdam’s touristy Museumplein, the Moco is a short walk from both the better-known Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh museum.  At the time of my visit, the Moco had two exhibitions up: its marquee collection of pieces by Banksy and another featuring Icy and Sot.  Moco’s English-language promotional materials for the show contend that “the fact that the young Iranian brothers Icy (34) and Sot (29) are called the ‘Banksy of Iran’ is not without reason.”  Indeed, the layout of the space channels visitors through Banksy’s work first, and then downward to pieces by Icy and Sot, an arrangement that suggests both a line of descent and a derivative relationship between the artists.  Even if this correctly marks a generational difference between them, or patterns of influence, it also risks marginalizing Icy and Sot via a maneuver that traffics in a deeply problematic, even imperialist, set of assumptions about creativity and the capacity to make art.  Unlike the implicitly conversational stance that they take in “Crime Sense,” the ‘Banksy of Iran’ interpretive framework suggests a unidirectional relationship that renders Icy and Sot’s creativity incidental and denies their capacities for innovation reflexivity.

Icy and Sot were born in Tabriz, Iran, in 1985 and 1991, respectively.  The joint bio on their website describes them as “transcend[ing] their histories of artistic and political censorship by using public art to envision a world freed from borders, war and violence.”  Overall, their work is marked by sharp political commentary on a wide range of urgent global issues and a continual experimentation with medium and form.  They  address issues like migration, gender, capitalism and its predations, censorship and control of information, police brutality, militarization, and climate change, along with the politics of everyday life under authoritarian regimes (as in their “beer is not a crime” graffiti in Tehran).  The brothers began their work with stencils in 2006, but they now create for both gallery and public settings, and their work has appeared across the United States and Iran, as well as Germany, China, Turkey, Norway, Switzerland, France, Germany, among other countries.  In 2012, they applied for asylum in the United States, and currently reside in Brooklyn.

Icy and Sot’s work often reflects on the destabilizing power of art.  For example, “Art Molotov” is a glass bottle filled with miniature instruments, paints, pencils, and works of literature, capped with a rag already on fire.  Similarly, “Make Art Not War” is an animated piece that features a tank lurching creakily around a dilapidated, depopulated urban landscape.  Instead of weaponry, the tank shoots multi-colored paint bombs, which resolve, apparently by magic, into graphics on the sides of buildings, as if Icy and Sot had managed not only to mechanize their production process but also to do this by repurposing military equipment and so fashioning their work as an antidote to militarization.

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In general, their approach to questions of war, violence, and weaponry is playful but incisive. For example, “No More Yellowcake”—a reference to the oxide produced as an intermediate step in the process of enriching uranium—unfolds in a parched landscape evocative of the American desert southwest, a region that the U.S. government frequently employed as a test site for weapons, including nuclear weapons.  The scrubland stretches to the horizon, while the center of the frame is occupied by a folding table covered with an American flag that flutters gently in the breeze.  A bright yellow cake, topped with candles, sits inert on the table until a man wearing a gas mask, white protective jumpsuit, and gloves walks purposely into the frame, turns the cake over and smashes it onto the flag, and then walks out.  “Nuclear Plant”—a piece in which they affixed a flurry of radiation warning signs to a tree at the Grand Canyon to draw attention to ongoing contamination of the land and its threat to the Navajo communities that live there—operates in a similar register.  To confront militarism with this comic sensibility requires a certain brazenness, but ultimately it is this cleverness that separates them from their more didactic counterparts, Banksy included.

Many of their recent works on migration reveal a similar approach, as they use media like mirrors and chain-link fencing in efforts to compel spectators to reckon more humanely with the circumstances of migrants and refugees.  A 2017 installation called “Migration Crisis” features a green boat carrying a bombed-out building—evocative of the residential landscapes decimated by the ongoing war in Syria—“floating” on an ocean made of IKEA’s iconic blue tote bags.  Unlike other depictions of this ongoing crisis (including some of their own work) that rely on sympathetic images of refugees themselves, there are no people here, only traces of human habitation in the ruined buildings: a satellite dish on the roof, railings marking the edges of balconies, wallpaper in a lovely floral pattern, graffiti on a garage door.  Using the building as a symbol of the suffering of refugees, and the absolute necessity of their departure from home, the piece shifts the story of the refugee crisis off of individuals and onto larger structural issues.  This type of nuanced political commentary cannot be reduced to a ‘Banksy of Iran’-style explanation.  Banksy’s own work on migrants tends to decontextualize or individualize them (perhaps most notably in his “The Son of a Migrant from Syria,” a portrait of Steve Jobs as a migrant himself), which invites a primarily emotional or sentimental spectatorial response; by contrast, work like “Migration Crisis” refuses to play on sympathies and instead demands a more substantive ethical reckoning.

I do not wish to belabor the significance of Icy and Sot’s own biography or make an essentialist claim that they might automatically understand this crisis because of their own exile, but it is worth noting that Icy and Sot create this work as asylees themselves.  This type of compulsory mobility and attendant forms of hiding and displacement stand in sharp contrast to the rather more volitional anonymity, itinerancy, and secrecy that Banksy has pursued.

Many critics who write about Icy and Sot’s work seem to deploy their identity or place of origin as something of a gimmick or way to sensationalize their art; this is the Orientalist dimension of the ‘Banksy of Iran’ comparison.  This comparison also undersells their work, which strikes me as far more varied and multifaceted in terms of its aesthetics, technique, media, and focus.  Of course, this is not to undermine the significance of Banksy’s work; I simply think that the formulation is too reductive.  Moreover, the invocation of Banksy recenters the Western artist, and the West more generally, in the supposed appreciation of Icy and Sot’s work.  It deprives them of the specificities of their context and their stories (indeed, another Iranian street artist known as Black Hand has elicited the same ‘Banksy of Iran’ comparison).  These comparative practices make a fetish of the brothers’ Iranian identity by treating them as both novel and exotic.  After all, it is virtually impossible to imagine anyone describing Banksy as the ‘Icy or Sot of the UK.’

Overall, Banksy’s work may be more palatable; it has certainly become more mainstream.  Perhaps his most iconic piece is “There is Always Hope” or “Girl With Balloon.”  This image depicts a girl, in profile, just a moment after letting go of a heart-shaped red balloon that is already floating away from her, carried by the same wind that is mussing her hair and her dress.  Although there is, perhaps, something melancholic in the image, the girl’s body position and the faint smile on her lips suggest wonderment more than sadness, so that the overall tone of the piece is optimistic, which may explain its considerable popularity (in October 2018, Banksy engineered a print of this piece to mechanically self-destruct after it was sold at auction for $1.4 million).  Indeed, Icy and Sot made direct reference to this work with two pieces, “Broken Heart” (2012) and “Lorn Life” (2012).  (As far as I can tell, this is the only obvious homage to Banksy in their work.)  In “Broken Heart,” the heart-shaped balloon lies heavily on the ground, the girl still holding its string, her shoulders slumped and her eyes downcast.  “Lorn Life” also features the red heart, this time broken into two pieces separated by a jagged crack and borne on a stretcher by an emaciated, weary-looking pair of children.  These pieces signal a clear departure from the artist to which the brothers are supposedly indebted.  The cartoonish symbol of the heart keeps the work from feeling overly didactic, but the commentary is clear, and relative to the original, this darker vision seems far more apposite for a world in which so much is amiss.

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