The effect is arresting, if not a little disturbing. But Soleimani is eager to downplay the shock value. While her confrontational approach attracts a growing number of fans, so too does her meticulous research in contacting these women's family members and the human rights lawyers working to bring them justice. Based in Providence, Rhode Island, where she teaches in the faculty of History, Philosophy and Social Sciences at the state’s School for Design, Soleimani applies the same standards of accuracy and ethical rigour as the very best journalist; leading her students by example.
We spoke earlier this week, at a strange point in the history of US foreign policy. The previous week, President Trump saw fit to reverse the efforts of his predecessor and stoke US-Iranian tensions, all via Twitter. A few weeks before that, he signed legislature inhibiting women’s access to family-planning assistance in developing and conflict-affected countries around the world. I begin with what seems like the most obvious question.
In critiquing aspects of Iranian society, are you worried about stoking the racism and xenophobia that is so rabid in parts of US society at the moment?
I’m also challenging the impression people have of others based on their image. For instance, we tend to recognise a Muslim woman as someone who wears a head covering, or vice versa. We also view it through the prism of free will. Yet while many women obviously do choose to wear hijab, it’s important to know that it isn’t always a choice. In Iran, for example, it isn’t a choice. You don’t have the rights to your own body. A lot of the women you see in my work were executed or tortured because wearing a head covering wasn’t their choice and didn’t reflect their religious, or secular, views.
One of the most unexpected things in your work is how glitchy it looks. Why did you choose this aesthetic?
As for the pixellated element, that is actually a reference to the origins of the work. I receive a lot of images of women who have been erased, via the web and when I blow them up they naturally become pixellated. Rather than gloss over that, I thought it was interesting to consider how these images of women, who were meant to disappear, might permeate and be replicated online.
How do you source your images – are they freely available online or do you have to draw on other sources?
Do you fear any consequences from your work?
Do you think that greater interrogation of western countries’ colonial past might be one consequence of this current political upheaval?
Do you identify as a feminist?
How have your students responded to your work?