26 May 2022 The Iranian-American artist and professor Sheida Soleimani (b. 1990) has distinguished herself on the international art scene for her unconventional photographs. As the daughter of political refugees, Soleimani has developed an elaborate visual vocabulary with which she explores and denounces the social, economic and environmental issues facing communities in the Middle East. In her compositions, nothing is left to chance, every element, be it a piece of chewing gum, a ball or a glass full of milk, has a meaning. Soleimani juxtaposes these three-dimensional objects with archive photographs, political subjects in irreverent poses and wild animals. The result is a surreal image with which Soleimani pushes the viewer to reflect on uncomfortable truths that we often prefer to ignore.
Your photographs are the result of elaborate sets made in your studio, built with archival images and objects of various types. How do you choose the different compositional elements?
The objects in my tableaux are symbols that serve as vehicles for inducing greater discussion around my subject matter, which is usually a catastrophic event—whether geopolitical, autobiographical, or somewhere in between. During the month or so it takes me to construct a set, I begin with an idea, conduct research around it, and gather source images based on this research. As I’m building a set, I cut up and collage these source images in ways that respond to the posthuman media systems that fragment, decontextualize, narrativize, and disseminate these events as stories, clickbait, sound bytes, and so on. No matter whether my set is small (a tabletop) or large (a stage), I flypaper these heavily mediated images onto the background and onto three-dimensional symbols in the foreground. Thereby collapsing norms of pictorial representation and visual recognition that render images — and particularly photography — as transparent windows on reality. After a lot trial and error, when everything is “ready”, I light the composition and begin photographing it, usually by drawing upon the flattening techniques of advertising or by adding strobes to create exaggerated theatrical effects.
Indeed, although your photographs are born from three-dimensional sets, the images are flattened. Why do you adopt this escamotage?
I use flattening to confuse the spectator and make them question what is and isn’t “real”, whether in the photo itself or beyond it. It’s comparable to the daily media that we consume. I’m also interested in critiquing the act of flattening, which I believe is not simply violent in and of itself, but is representative of the violent legacy of photography as a penetrative, nonconsensual medium.
For some sets you also use people and animals.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how animals are forced to serve as symbols for humans. For example, a dove is a traditional metaphor for peace, a hawk a metaphor for war. In the process, however, the existence of the actual animal is evacuated and turned into a screen for human projection. This is a process that exemplifies how humans appropriate nature to serve their own means that is based on the presumption of species superiority. I’ve also been thinking a lot about body language and in particular gesture, which is sometimes taken to be a paradigmatically human act (or at least an act that is taken as a boundary marker between primates and other animals). Within this understanding, the gesture is a choreographed habit, the expression of the historical unconscious, and when people are said to lose their gestures, all sorts of involuntary behaviors are supposed to arise in their place—tics, for example. In bringing together these two discourses, I’ve started pairing human gestures with symbolic animals, both to estrange viewers from making meaning of animals and to consider human gesture within a world not built on human exceptionalism but (integrated with) the animal kingdom.
You were born in the United States but your family is Iranian. How do these two cultural identities coexist in your works?
I grew up in an all-white rural suburb with two political refugee parents. Not having learned how to speak English until elementary school, I didn’t see my Iranian identity as separate until I was introduced to other kids and the Anglo-American culture around me. I grew up in a place that was extremely ignorant about SWANA (South West Asian/ North African) culture and history, and that’s what encouraged me to begin making the work that I do. Being the only brown kid at an all-white school was really what pushed me to start thinking about how the American education system teaches only what is relevant to the West. Growing up and thinking about how education still operates in this way pushes me to create work that begs people to consider their societal conditioning.
Sheida Soleimani, GDP, Taranto (3), 2022, archival pigment print, 61 x 45.7 cm (24 x 18 in). Courtesy the artist and Castello San Basilio.
Would you like to tell us how the Medium of Exchange series (2017 – 2018) was born and its meaning?
In the series, Medium of Exchange, I investigated the struggle for human rights in the Middle East and other members of OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) by examining the relationship between illegitimately elected officials and the petroleum industry. Oil in the hands of dictators has gone hand-in-hand with corruption, and many oil-producing countries have funneled profits not to the population at large, but to the ruling class. This inevitably means the elite of these countries flourish while the citizens suffer. Within these constructed photographic scenes, I explore the relationship between OPEC leaders as well as Western military leaders, and governments that have been involved in warfare as a result of oil interests. Each photograph tackles a different event relating to the colonial history of OPEC countries—all non-western countries that have been under western rule. In both the photographs Minister of Mineral Resources and Petroleum, Angola & Former Secretary of State, United States (2017) and Minister of Petroleum & Hydrocarbons, Gabon (2017), I am elaborating upon histories rarely discussed by Europeans and Americans. For example, in 1977, there was a failed coup in Angola. Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state of the United States, was interested in gaining control of the FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola), an Angolan governmental faction that was leaning towards Soviet influence. Angola’s largest economic assets, petroleum, and diamonds, would have strengthened Soviet rule and thereby were seen as a threat to the West. In this image, Kissinger is proposing to the Angolan oil minister a gesture of union precisely to avoid Soviet control; throughout the history of OPEC countries, we have seen that People of the Global Majority (PGM) often are trapped between a rock and a hard place, as Western unions promise economic stability whilst simultaneously compromising rights and freedoms.
The protagonists of the series are distinguished by a certain humor and irreverent poses. Aren’t you afraid that this aesthetic can create misunderstandings in the message you want to convey?
I find it strange that you ask about potential misunderstandings. If homophobic people find these images offensive, then they need to do some self-examining. And if you are asking whether a PGM posed in a “humorous” way might be seen as insulting to individuals of color, then I simply find that equation naive and off-base. Is a corrupt state official in the same boat as working-class Angolans? Regardless of race and background, every culture has dictators and rulers that turn their backs on their peoples and their societies. Using these rulers’ faces and images, I aim to bring attention to the backhanded deals and violence that these politicians cause in their home countries. Using the techniques of camp, the grotesque, the surreal, and other theatrical modes, I aim to seduce my viewers to explore histories other than the ones they might imagine.
You recently started a series dedicated to the story of your parents, political refugees during the Revolution in Iran in 1979. How did the idea for this project come about and why right now?
I’ve been sitting on this project for over a decade because of my fear of the lack of ability and responsibility of both institutions and writers to give it the respect that it deserves. As the daughter of political refugees, the stories of my parents have often been embellished and exotified in interviews I have given- so much so that I began not mentioning their struggles for the fear that they would be co-opted to create interest in my work. The traumas of victims—especially people of color—are copted by institutions in a bid to seem up to speed and relevant- but they often do not give humanity to the individuals represented- they just make them “visible”—just enough to say that they are committed to difficult issues by presenting them. At this point in my career, I think I finally have enough experience to know who should be showing this work, and how it will be shown. On the other hand, I also think it is time for me to finally embark on making this work. It’s also taken a lot of emotional maturity for me to be able to represent my maman’s and baba’s stories in an ethical manner – especially through a medium that is so historically unethical. Bringing attention to their story is just a part of it – the other is to finally record the stories they have been wanting to write themselves for so long and never got the chance to.
The reality of political refugees and the oppression of totalitarian governments are, unfortunately, a visible phenomenon especially recently in Europe. Do you think these are themes that receive the right recognition within traditional institutions?
The “phenomenon” has been visible far longer than the recent news from Ukraine. These topics have never been given the right attention or place within the art world (or any economy, at that!).
Your next exhibition, Pillars of Industry at Castello San Basilio, is dedicated to ILVA. Could you give us an introduction to the project?
In my work, I’ve always been interested in discussing governmental and industrial systems that abuse their citizens—most recently, I’ve also been focusing on how these systems exploit the environment around them. In Pillars of Industry I’m specifically looking at the long and complicated history of the ILVA steel factory in Taranto, and the harm it has caused both the citizens of the city, as well as the environment in the surrounding area. Each of the three photographs includes images of the factory and the city of Taranto that I took while visiting this past summer, and steel tools or props that are the “pillars’” that hold up both the economy and injustice in Taranto. Each image also includes an agricultural product/export from the Taranto region being harmed by the ongoing pollution from the ILVA steel factory.