June 26, 2019

Iranian-Americans celebrate new ‘Freedom Sculpture’ in Century City

Massive fireworks blazed through the Century City sky on July 4, not only to celebrate Independence Day but also to honor the unveiling of a $2.5 million sculpture that brought nearly 75,000 local Iranian Americans and other Angelenos together for a festival of freedom.

Organized by the Farhang Foundation, a Los Angeles nonprofit established in 2008 to promote Iranian culture and art, the “Freedom Sculpture” is a modern interpretation of the ancient clay Cyrus Cylinder, an artifact recognized by archeologists as one of the world’s first declarations of human rights and freedom for all individuals as set forth by the Persian king Cyrus the Great.

The 20-foot-long stainless steel sculpture, weighing more than 20,000 pounds, features a series of curved pieces with zig-zag patterns. The original cylinder concerns the conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C.E., and it has special meaning for modern Iranian Jews because Cyrus has been identified as the liberator of the captive Jews in Babylon.

“Honoring and commemorating Cyrus and his declaration of human rights is really honoring and remembering the special bond Jewish and Iranian people have had for over 2,500 years,” said George Haroonian, a board member at Nessah Synagogue, an Iranian congregation in Beverly Hills. “We, the Iranian Jewish community, the children of this bond, are conscious of our special position here.”

The Freedom Sculpture’s unveiling at Santa Monica Boulevard and Century Park East resonated with many attendees who fled Iran during the past four decades, seeking freedoms and better lives in the U.S.

“This event taking place on July Fourth was very special for us as Iranians living here because it was a gift from us to this city and country that welcomed us to resettle here, gave us opportunities to prosper here — and now we are showing our appreciation to this great country with this sculpture,” said Joe Shooshani, an Iranian Jewish businessman and current Beverly Hills planning commissioner.

Alireza Ardekani, the Farhang Foundation’s executive director, said reaction has been tremendously positive.

“The night of the event there was so much love, peace and positive energy from everyone who came — Iranians and non-Iranians alike in the city,” Ardekani said.

The event’s attendees enjoyed traditional Persian cuisine at booths set up by local restaurants and live performances from popular Iranian singers and musicians.

Ardekani said the idea for the sculpture project came about after an exhibition of the original Cyrus Cylinder visited the Getty Villa in 2013. That exhibition was sponsored by the Farhang Foundation.

The design for L.A.’s new sculpture, created by British artist Cecil Balmond, was selected out of 300 submissions.

“The judges who were curators from the different museums here in L.A. and a few of our board members chose Cecil’s design because of the aesthetics, the concept and the message of freedom and coexistence proclaimed by Cyrus from the original cylinder,” Ardekani said.

The majority of the money raised for the Freedom Sculpture project came from crowdfunding, with individuals and community groups donating from $1 to $250,000, Ardekani said.

Farhang Foundation board members credited Shooshani; Alex Helmi, a local Iranian-Muslim businessman who organizes the annual Persian New Year celebrations in Westwood; and former L.A. Convention Center General Manager Pouria Abbassi with connecting them to key L.A. city officials and City Council committees needed to help greenlight the project. Helmi specifically thanked City Councilman Paul Koretz for his help in making the sculpture a reality.

Koretz, whose Fifth District is now home to the sculpture, was among those who spoke at the unveiling. He called on L.A. residents to embrace one another in a spirit of brotherhood despite their many differences.

“This piece of artwork encompasses the ideals that make humanity a species unlike any other,” Koretz said in his address. “It serves as a reminder to each of us that difference does not mean separation. It asks us to extend our hands rather than raise our fists, to open our hearts rather than close our minds.”

Official figures are hard to come by, but community leaders estimate that 500,000 Iranians live in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties today, many of whom maintain close ties with the Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Baha’i and Zoroastrian faiths.

Those leaders said they hope the Freedom Sculpture will serve as a symbol of harmony amid that diversity.

“We as Iranians are a people who come from an ancient heritage of human rights, freedom and respect for all people,” Helmi said. “This sculpture represents the ideals of democracy set forth by Cyrus 2,500 years ago, which we hold dear as Iranian Americans. And I hope people will see us in that light, instead of judging us based on the current political situation in Iran.”