30 January 2017 Brought up with the stories of her parents’ dramatic escapes as political refugees from Iran, Sheida Soleimani (b. 1990) only discovered that this was not the norm, at the age of six, when she began school and learned English. Having been in hiding for three years, her father made his escape on horseback over the mountains. Her mother was captured and held prisoner, tortured and raped, for a long time thereafter. Finally having been released, she and her young daughter (Sheida’s older sister) were reunited with her husband in Ohio, where Sheida was born and brought up. At art school, Soleimani wanted to make work about her parents’ experiences, but, on the advice of her tutor, realised she needed to contextualise her stories. Her first major success, National Anthem (2016), exploring Iran’s turbulent past and present through still life and self-portrait, lost her the right to Iranian citizenship. Her latest work, some of which is on show in the solo exhibition, To Oblivion, at Edel Assanti, continues in the same vein, speaking out about the disappearances, rapes and murders of women in Iran today.
Each year, Amnesty International reports maybe five to ten such killings, but, in reality, there are nearer to 150. Working with both Amnesty and international human rights lawyers, Soleimani has been sent photographs and information – largely via the dark web – about women who have been victims of Sharia law. Often framed for acts they have not committed – Sakineh, whose image is included in the exhibition, was, for example, framed for killing her husband when it was actually her brother who killed him, for money – these women are assumed guilty from the get go, not provided with lawyers or a fair trial, and often executed publically. Over the past 10 years, not a single woman has been found not guilty under Sharia law in Iran.
Soleimani prints the women’s images on to cloth and stitches them to form large “sculptures”, referencing Albert Badura’s 1961 “Bobo Doll” experiment, which proved that children exposed to violence are more likely to repeat the actions they take to be acceptable. The dolls are made with significant components, such as terry towelling, to reference the American slang term “towelhead”, used for Muslims, and paracords, as both preservers of life, but also something often used to tie victims down during torture. In her studio, Soleimani then creates elaborate sets, placing these dolls against backdrops of the same photograph – blown up large and pixelated, emphasising the ubiquity of the digital image, again, as something which we have become accustomed to and unaffected by – along with objects and imagery relating to the circumstances and detention of each subject. She then photographs this set and these resulting images are also on display, on bright orange Perspex ledges, angled unsettlingly like tombstones. The seductively bright palette is deliberately chosen to allure the oblivious audience, desensitised to imagery of violence and death in the news.
Soleimani seeks to tell the stories of those who have been silenced, and the story that so easily could have been her mother’s. Her works, at first apparently playful and beguiling, are, on closer inspection, sinister and chilling – but their voices need to be heard. This is a powerful, hard-hitting exhibition by a brave and revolutionary young artist.
Sheida Soleimani: To Oblivion continues at Edel Assanti, London, until 18 February 2017