It is a typically roasting day in Century City, and I’m standing in a sea of what has to be the most Iranians I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ve been outside the barrier for an hour with a press pass I can see won’t do me a lot of good, waiting for the launch of the inaugural Freedom Festival. Organized by non-political, non-religious, non-profit, Farhang Foundation, the event promises dancing, comedy, food, culminating in the unveiling of the Freedom Sculpture.
The week before, I chat with the foundation’s executive director, Alireza Ardekani, who tells me that the idea was conceived after seeing how popular the Cyrus exhibition was at the Getty which was extended by several weeks to accommodate the demand. The community decided it needed something permanent as a representative of tolerance and Iranian culture, and broached the idea of a sculpture with L.A. officials, who were extremely enthusiastic.
Over the last 3 years, they’ve crowdfunded the funds necessary (over $2.5 million) to build the sculpture from people, largely Iranian, living in over 50 countries. The foundation also reviewed over 300 applications from artists, eventually deciding on a design idea by Cecil Balmond, who Alireza tells me spent time living in Iran, and as a result feels an affinity with the culture and people.
The Freedom Sculpture serves as a gift from the Iranian community to a city that boasts one of the largest, most prosperous Iranian diaspora communities in the world. Personally, I’m quite divided on the idea of grand public art, but I do love art generally and the images on the website look amazing.
My anticipation for the unveiling wanes just a tiny bit when the entry scheduled unveiling time comes and goes with no sign of the thickening crowd being allowed in, but, as an older woman squashed next to me wryly remarks, this event is run by Iranians so running late is practically mandatory. She then tells me to make my hair extra nice I should steam garlic and rub the juice into my hair. I don’t know what to say, so I promise I’ll do that when I get home.
Eventually, we’re let in and I grab a bottle of water, check out the menus on the numerous classy food trucks and take in the smells and sights. There are thousands of Iranians; elderly couples, young, hip families with their toddlers in tow, teenagers, beautiful young women, alternative, tattooed men – it’s truly incredible. I notice the grass and just as quickly kilim rugs, beach towels and deck chairs are quickly becoming populated with families, so I grab a bottle of water and wedge myself into a spot where I can see the stage. A quirky, informative animation explains the origins of Cyrus, the Cylinder and the Cyropaedia.
To get some background and a perspective from the community as a whole, The Iranian spoke to Ahmad Shams, an L.A. based NIAC Board Member who tells us: ‘This sculpture represents the enduring symbol of our Iranian-American community’s commitment to freedom, human rights, dignity and good citizenship. These are the unequivocal ideals expressed in the “constitution” of the founders of the Persian empire, emulated by the civilized world and enshrined in this country’s constitution. No better day, no better way to celebrate what unites us all.’
Soon after, comedian Max Amini takes the stage amid a ripple of applause with a funny, succinct introduction. Right after, Swedish-Iranian pop star Arash kicks the festivities off with his hit ‘Temptation’. Despite not having set foot in a club for the last 3 years and being alone, I jump in and move with the crowd.
Between sets, Max Amini provides more comic relief and impossibly, the sectioned-off festival area becomes even more packed with a ton more locals of all ethnicities. Later, I discover a massive 70,000 people turned out. I sidle closer to a mother and son who have lost their Dad after he went to get a snack but seem cheerful nevertheless. We chat, and as the animation is played again she snatches the tablet off her young son and makes him watch so he learns about why we’re all here. When I get up to stretch my legs I come across a couple dancing and they strike up a conversation. They stumbled in here after hearing the music, the woman tells me, they liked how offbeat it sounded but didn’t know what the language was. I explained the event, the history behind the sculpture and she grabs her girlfriend to explain excitedly. ‘Oh wow’, her girl exclaims, and ‘I just came in here because I really liked the music and the food smelled good’. I leave them to enjoy their dancing, and their very pure enjoyment of the event is a delight to behold.
Mercifully, the beating sun begins to sink behind the Los Angeles skyline, and Ebi starts to sing. Near the stage, older couples dance and around me, families on the grass sway their arms languidly in the fading sunlight. As the time for the unveiling nears, I push my way closer and in a flurry of smoke and music, the giant curtain is dropped to reveal the enormous, shining, cylinder. Cheering erupts and something quite strange happens – deep in the leathery recesses of my cynical heart I feel very emotional. The event is strictly non-political, but given some of the decisions made by certain members of the government this year, (Trump, I’m looking at you and your illegal travel ban) in a way it can’t help but feel political. I suppose it’s never good to generalize, but Iranians have to be one of the most hospitable, eager to assimilate people in the world, and this gift to the place where tens of thousands have come to make it their home, including me, is something quite beautiful. I look around at my fellow Iranians, and I think about my own father back home. Tears of pride start to prick my eyes. It’s time to go.
I retreat to the exit, wanting to avoid the inevitable crush of traffic from everyone leaving at once and hop in a ride back home. I’ll be back in a few days to get up close to the sculpture and quietly enjoy it, but for now I feel quite content, something I hadn’t expected. I’m excited for the next Freedom Festival, too. Bring on 2018!