25 January 2017 At first glance, Iranian-American artist Sheida Soleimani’s artworks look like pop art for the digital age. But among her psychedelic photo-collages, and stitched into her soft sculptures, are images of the victims of human rights abuses in Iran.
Soleimani, who was born in Indiana in 1990, came to widespread attention for National Anthem (2015), a series of photographic works that uses the contrast between grave subject matter and garish style to startling effect. In Vitriolic Acid: An Eye for an Eye (2015), an image, broken up and repeated, of the acid-burned face of a woman punished for wearing her headscarf incorrectly is interspersed with stick-on googly eyes, and bunches of grapes that match the colour of her red-raw skin. Western audiences have grown immune to the sight of violence in the Middle East, and, in response, Soleimani has developed an unorthodox tactic. “I want to draw people in,” she tells me, before the opening of her exhibition To Oblivion at London gallery Edel Assanti. “And then, when they realise what the content is, they are forced to spend time with it.”
In 2015, works from National Anthem were included in After the Moment: Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe, at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in Cincinnati, Ohio. The exhibition marked the 25th anniversary of Mapplethorpe’s 1990 survey show The Perfect Moment, which famously resulted in the CAC being charged with obscenity for displaying homoerotic content. Soleimani is no stranger to the potential dangers of bigotry and populist backlash. After making National Anthem, she received death threats from those loyal to the Iranian government.
To Oblivion is Soleimani’s first solo exhibition in the UK. We meet in the gallery, and, surrounded by her neon memorials to the dead, discuss exile, the aesthetics of seduction, and the state-sanctioned misogyny of Iran’s sharia courts.
Rosanna Mclaughlin: Each work in this show is named after a woman who has been executed in Iran. For the benefit of anyone who is unaware, can you describe the political context and your relationship to it?
Sheida Soleimani: My parents are both political refugees from Iran. They escaped from the revolution at different times – my dad left in 1983 and my mum in 1986. My dad was a political activist, distributing anti-governmental material, and, because of this, the government was basically trying to kill him. He went into hiding for three years, and eventually escaped over the border on horseback. Subsequently, even though my mother wasn’t political at all, she was imprisoned, violated and tortured, as punishment for being with my father. She eventually got out of prison and escaped the country.
RM: When did this history begin to impact on the work that you make?
SS: I was born in the United States, and grew up with my parents telling me these stories very, very early on. My mum often talked about the lack of human rights in Iran, and her experience of what happened to her there. When I got to art school, their stories started motivating what I was producing.
The first series I made that focused on human rights violations was called National Anthem (2015). I sourced images of victims online, and created small, tabletop tableaux, which I then photographed. Because my mother went through what she did, after I finished National Anthem, I started to think about a series that focused specifically on women. In Iran, human rights abuses happen mostly to women, although homosexuality, adultery and not being religious are also grounds for some type of torture to be inflicted. Instead of telling a story just about my mother, I wanted to talk about all the women in the country who are undocumented and who don’t get their stories told, because the government tries to make them disappear, by not putting out news or information about their executions.
RM: The women who feature in your work are often referred to as “disappeared women”, as if they have become their own demographic. As a description of a person who has been executed, it is remarkably passive.
SS: “Disappeared women”, or “undocumented women”, is the easy way to put it. These women have all been convicted by sharia law, mostly for drug possession or adultery, but none of their trials is fair. There is a single sharia judge, a religious judge, who makes all the decisions. The women aren’t allowed to have lawyers, the process isn’t opened up to the media, and often the women have become the target of blame as a way to cover up the crime of a man. One of my first communications was with the mother of a woman whose daughter was executed for killing a man who was trying to rape her. As she lives in Iran I don’t want to name her, but that should give you some idea of how biased the system is.
RM: How did you the source the images used in To Oblivion, given how little publicity the trials are given? You have said before that you have used the dark web.
SS: I spoke to my friends in Iran, and they told me that, because the government completely regulates the internet, a lot of people there have dark-web servers as a way to get information to outside sources. I have a friend in the US who set up a server for me. I started to communicate with people through my family members or friends who knew what was going on, as well as through Amnesty International and various lawyers.
Some of the images I use in my work are sent by the victim’s family members. I have also used images I found on Google, but this only happens occasionally, when a trial has been covered by Amnesty International or other human rights groups. Amnesty covers maybe nine such cases each year, but after speaking with human rights lawyers in Iran, I know that, every year, at least 100 women are executed.
RM: At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking the works in To Oblivion are contemporary pop art, a type of psychedelic collage. The contrast between the origins of the images and the visual aesthetic is extremely stark.
SS: I think a lot about seduction, and how we learn about what’s happening in the world around us. Growing up in the west, the only time I ever heard about the east was during the Green Revolution [following the disputed 2009 presidential election victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad], when a woman was shot on the street and the mobile-phone footage of the killing was broadcast over the internet. It’s almost pornographic at this point how we view events in the Middle East on the news, how we have become addicted to ruin and disaster, how we have become enamoured with the violence of it. So I started to ask myself: “How do you get someone to pay attention to violence, without showing violence? Is there a way to turn this on its head?” I began looking at the language of product photography and food photography, and of visual seduction in art in general, and then applying those techniques to how I organise my compositions. I want to draw people in. And then, when they realise what the content is, they are forced to spend time with it.
RM: How do you produce your compositions? Are they made as physical scenes and then photographed, or do you also use digital editing programmes such as Photoshop?
SS: They are all fully constructed in my studio like tableaux, and then photographed. The source images begin as two-dimensional images on screen, which then become three dimensional. Following this, I use the camera to flatten the sculptural plane again. I think of photography in this context as another iteration of an aggressive act. What does it mean to take a flat body, give it dimension, and then flatten it again?
RM: There is also a rub between 2D and 3D in the way you present the works in To Oblivion. The photographs are backed with colourful plastic, and displayed on individual, neon-orange shelves, rather than hung on the wall or framed.
SS: The colours in this show are very specific. The orange of the Plexiglas is the same as the colour worn by the Basij, the volunteer militia of Iran. In Iran, as well as the police, you also have the Basij, a name that literally translates to “the revolutionary guard”. The Basij act as the tentacles of the government. They are paramilitaries stationed in neighbourhoods to basically spy on people, and let the government know if anyone is doing anything wrong. Often, the women who are executed have been taken in by the Basij.
RM: Your work has a visual affinity with post-internet art, a genre of art-making that typically expresses anxiety about living in a totally networked world, in which a subject is constantly visually available. To Oblivion shows how that anxiety belongs to a giant western filter bubble, by highlighting the opposite scenario: what happens when a person becomes invisible, when they are subject to physical and digital erasure.
SS: Often the only existing trace left of these women is web-based, and it is usually 72 pixels per inch. So when I blow the images up, you can really see the pixelation, which is a nod to their origin.
Have you seen the Thomas Hirschhorn video Touching Reality (2012)? It shows this very manicured, white, feminine hand scrolling through images of war on an iPad, and then it stops and zooms in on the bloodied faces of people who have been massacred. It is about monotony, but I think it also relates to that critique of how we use the internet, how we have become accustomed to glazing over images, thinking: “Oh, how terrible.”
RM: Do you find Hirschhorn’s mode of critique effective?
SS: It is tricky for me, because I think the intent is there. Hirschhorn is critiquing the fact that we are so enamoured with looking at images of horror that we don’t actually think about them. But then the very thing he is critiquing is also happening within that piece. It is critiquing a type of behaviour, which I appreciate, but it’s also reanimating that same behaviour. At least it is moving in the right direction. It is better than “zombie formalism”, painting with no content – that’s what kills me.
RM: What is your own relationship like with Iran?
SS: I’m exiled. They revoked my passport pretty recently. I was technically considered a dual citizen up until I started making this work, and then I started getting lots of death threats and letters, especially from paramilitary guards, who would say things like: “Why are you doing this? You’re spreading false information about the country, you’re lying, this isn’t true.”
RM: Do you know how your work came to the attention of paramilitary groups in Iran?
SS: There was an article published in a Los Angeles-based Iranian newspaper, which ended up also getting published on a popular, left-leaning website in Iran, and that’s when Iranian people starting seeing my work. If you have a dark-web server, you can also find my work on US websites.
When I started making the previous series of work, National Anthem, some articles were published about it, and I started getting lots of friend requests on Facebook. I got really excited, because I thought loads of Iranian people were interested in what I was doing, and so, naively, I accepted all of them. Then people started messaging me with threats –people who were pro-government or somehow affiliated with the Iranian government –saying things like: “If you come here, were going to track you, we’re going to kill you.” So I don’t think I’ll be going back anytime soon, unless the regime changes, and, unfortunately, I don’t think that is going to happen for quite some time.
RM: How have the families of the executed women responded when they see the final outcome of your work? Are they able to see them as a type of memorial, or do they struggle with the visual register?
SS: Through discussion, they see the work as a memorial. They are often confused at first, but when I describe my intent they usually understand. I haven’t had anyone oppose it. Family members are usually trying to get news out as much as possible because these are stories that western news agencies just don’t cover. I remember seeing Iran in the news for the first time when I was young. The Green Revolution was covered by CNN for two days, and then Michael Jackson died, and the celebrity death completely overshadowed the world event, which is so often how it happens.
RM: The soft sculptures in this exhibition – which also bear the heavily pixellated images of women who have subsequently been executed – are based on Bobo dolls, a type of toy that returns to a standing position when knocked down. The toys are perhaps best known for their use in psychologist Albert Bandura’s Bobo doll experiments of the early 1960s, in which children were exposed to adults behaving either violently or passively towards the dolls.
SS: Right, and then afterwards the children go into a room with a Bobo doll in it, and those who have seen the adults acting aggressively with the doll also interact with it in an aggressive way. Of course it’s a no-brainer that children are sponges. They are going to pick up on the behaviour that they see, and Bandura’s experiment is proof of that. But in Iran, executions are often public, and children and families are encouraged to come and watch them. It is a means of instilling fear in people, so that they do not to commit the same crimes. But because these executions are public, it also normalises that behaviour. Children grow up seeing violence towards female bodies being promoted: they grow up thinking that it is OK.
RM: The wall-based works in To Oblivion contain a range of other imagery, which act as visual keys to understanding certain elements of the women’s stories. Can you tell me about the stones in Maryam (2016)?
SS: Maryam Akbarii was stoned to death, so the pile of stones in that work references her death and the spectatorship that comes into stoning. There is actually a guide for how to stone someone correctly, which is issued by the republic for citizens to read. It contains diagrams of different sizes of rocks, explaining why you shouldn’t use a rock that is too big, because it means that the victim will die too fast, and why you shouldn’t use one that is too small, because it won’t hurt enough or cause enough injury.
RM: Given the gravity of the subject matter, do you have specific expectations of what you want viewers to take from To Oblivion, and how you want them to act on seeing the show?
SS: I don’t really think about my work as educational, but about bringing awareness to the fact that this is happening somewhere, and it is real. I think of it more like reconditioning. What are we in the west conditioned to be interested in? What events do we want to learn or read about?
RM: Has the art world provided a useful platform for the issues you want to raise?
SS: In the United States, the hardest thing for me is finding people who are interested in the art world who are willing to talk about politics. Often work is so aestheticised, and people just want to sell, and it is hard to think about how my work functions commercially. Does someone really want to buy an image of an executed woman and hang it in their home? Museums have been great, because they are much more willing to take risks – they don’t have to deal in the same way with the potential for commercial failure.
I think it is easy for people to talk about the work academically, in the sense that there is so much history that it points at and picks up on, so it generates content in that regard. Perhaps this also has something to do with the fact that there aren't that many Iranian artists who are as outwardly political as me, because they are afraid, and also because a lot of them still want to go back to Iran. I know I burned my bridges. Too bad, so sad, at this point. I just have to come to terms with it.