10 November 2022 A few locks of hair swirling from a hijab led to the death of Mahsa Amini in Iran. For Iranian-American artist, activist and wildlife rehabilitator Sheida Soleimani, it echoes the stories her parents used to put her to sleep with, and she permeates her rebellious and caring artistic practice today.
'Making work seems so trivial today,' Iranian-American artist and activist Sheida Soleimani confided on her Instagram on 4 October, 'but it's about the only thing I can do... and that's why I made this. For Jina, who should still have been among us.' The accompanying image, which will be part of Sheida Soleimani's exhibition Credible Threats at Harlan Levey Projects 1050, reads like a pagan altar in these troubled times, a living memory that will forever be on tilt towards the known past or a new future. A photograph plucked from the internet shows the right arm of Mahsa 'Jina' Amini. Over her hand, extending into lacquered fingernails, hangs a veil. Flames burn holes in the fabric. The fire that rings out from thousands of throats today? Or the fire that brutally tries to stifle those voices? Around it pink CT scans of a smashed-up skull ('in defiance of official reports the reason for Mahsa Amini's death') and prints of what look like ultrasounds of children in bud.
'I like looking at a beautiful portrait or a picture of a sunset,' Sheida Soleimani tells me from behind her computer in Providence, Rhode Island, 'but those are not the images that spark the greatest interest in me. In the end, they remain just photographs, stylised versions of something I already know exists.' Sheida Soleimani reaches far beyond the photograph as a 'so-so image of reality with her work, which unwinds in photography, film, sculpture and performance.' Much further, much deeper. Her "portraits", "still lifes" and "tableaux" are visual registrations of sets based on thoughtful research, which she designs and assembles in her studio from meaning-laden, emptied and reloaded objects, props, cut-up archive images from press and social media, and sometimes real, masked bodies.
They are images that spring like grotesque memories from the violent history of photography and the subversive soul of collage, and are thematically anchored in the murky geopolitical powerplay between the West and the oil-rich Middle East, between power and care, between ruthless regimes and their ecological and human fallout. And which, in all its fragmentary complexity, layering and recalcitrance, may come closer to the soul that churns beneath the surface of things than what a 'mere photograph' can reveal.
Where she got this fascination with art and urge to tinker with the medium itself is a mystery to Sheida Soleimani. 'I've thought about it a lot, but I don't have a real answer,' she says. 'My mother did teach me a lot of creative skills. I always saw her making art. She painted, drew on paper tablecloths in restaurants. We collected stones and feathers, dried flowers. And because I did not get the popular American Girl doll that all my classmates had, we dug up clay together from the backyard to make our own dolls, which she then baked off in the oven. But art was never a career option. At most, being creative was something that gave your life colour. Until as a teenager, no idea why, I grabbed a camera and became intrigued by what I saw when I looked at the world through the lens. I haven't let go of that camera since.'
'At first I went out into the world, started taking pictures of dilapidated spaces in abandoned factory buildings. Until I realised that while those images might look cool, in essence I was just making ruin porn. That I was doing nothing with the realisation that a photograph is not a depiction of reality, but a stylised image, depending on how you frame or where you focus your lens. And that I just went along with the language around photography, of focusing, pointing the camera, shooting images, taking pictures.' Of that lens dick that penetrates the world non-consensually, as she once called photography.
'And I wanted to build a consensual practice, get commentary into my images. As a result, I started building sets and dioramas and still lifes, constructing pictures with images and objects that were charged with meaning, like the Dutch vanitas paintings, where a skull means death, a pomegranate means fertility and an orange means success. I was going to use all that to create and tell layered stories.'
'What photography can do, and what it doesn't do often enough, is change perspective, turn it on its head. By switching codes, by changing the auras of certain objects, adjusting how they are and act, are we taking away the context or are we just providing them with an alternative way of life? Art only becomes interesting to me when it transforms objects and the world in which they exist. That's the work that really pulls at me and forces me to interact with it, to ask myself: why do I recognise this object as I do? How am I conditioned? And how can I recalibrate how I see something?'
To complicate the image is to implicate the viewer for Sheida Soleimani. As she does with Mahsa, the composite image she made about and dedicated to the 22-year-old Iranian, who lost her life on 16 September after being brutally arrested by the vice police in Tehran three days earlier. Her death - 'say murder,' stresses Sheida Soleimani, after her opinion piece submitted to The Boston Globe 'was censored, polished into something more polite than I wanted to be' - sparked worldwide street protests that persist until today. A few strands of hair that swirled from her hijab have been uniting death and hope, rigid control and boundless anger, fear and sadness, oppression and resistance, youth and future for weeks now. Sheida Soleimani's images tell those whole, hybrid, splintered stories.
And so beds it into a practice of care. 'That makes up the core of my work, yes, in so many ways,' she explains. 'Care then does not just refer to the human rights violations, the environmental impact by corrupt regimes around which I thematically circle. By making this work, perhaps I am also caring for those people who have been silenced. In that sense, a gesture of care is also an act of resistance.'
'Can you see the shack over there?' asks Sheida Soleimani, pointing her camera at the ground just next to her desk. 'In it, a bird has been sitting since this morning, stranded on a highway bridge. I parked my car on the side of the road, crossed over, threw a towel over him and took him home. After our conversation, I give him medicine.'
This is not the first time Sheida Soleimani has taken care of an animal caught up in the layer of the world that humans put over nature. A federally licensed wildlife rehabilitator, one of the few in the city, she has transformed her basement into a veritable wildlife clinic where animals, especially birds, incessantly land - last summer she once counted 29 in a single day.
'It is by our doing that they end up here,' she explains. 'They fly into a building, get tangled in fishing line, get hit by a car, all things that would not have happened in pure nature, whatever it might look like. Facing those injured, hurt animals, I am in a position of responsibility and of power. A position that I do not want but must occupy. I become their guardian, their caregiver, and must make decisions in that capacity. Am I taking good care of them? Am I leading them to the right path on the road to recovery? And if I feel I have no choice but to euthanise them, am I taking sufficient account of their quality of life? Wouldn't they have preferred to have lived on themselves? These are crazy choices and questions, but they are essential. Just as we, from a position of power, should care for those animals who suffer at our hands, with all the ethical questions that entails, a government also has to care for its people.'
And that is not happening in today's Iran. 'We catch bits and pieces of the situation there,' Sheida Soleimani tells me when I ask her about what is an inescapable topic today, almost two months after Mahsa Amini's death. 'The internet is closed, but very occasionally people manage to break through the filters. I get most of my news from Iranian news stations and live leak videos that somehow still get into circulation. And they are terrible. (Gets quiet for a moment) They are terrible images. People are being attacked, shot at, killed in the streets. There are car parks where students are herded together like sheep and simply slaughtered. Their bodies are just left there. It is a massacre, a slaughter. There is a total lack of respect for life. It's insane.'
'And honestly, I don't know what will happen next. That's the biggest fear today. Most Iranians share the belief that the regime has to go, but is that at all possible? And what will take its place? Who will dive into that power vacuum? And these are questions quite apart from the fear of what might happen to yourself if you go to the protests. What if you have a family to feed and don't return. Protesting is not a luxury.'
Today, it is young women who are on the front line, says Sheida Soleimani, with men taking on the support role. 'It flows almost naturally from the care roles they are expected to take on. Mothering and raising children, taking care of your family, expands into the wider community and society. That burden falls on the shoulders of these young women and they bear it incredibly beautifully and with dignity.'
'The murder of Mahsa Amini was the straw that broke the camel's back,' she says of the protests now filling the streets and even spreading to the world outside Iran. 'This event mobilises people, they are fed up. Iran has a long history of protests, you had the Green Revolution in 2009 after the rigged elections, the uprising in 2019, especially in the working class, when food prices skyrocketed... Each time, these lasted for a few weeks to a month and then extinguished. Change is slow, and this is a slow build. But this time it is different because social media, which came into play back in 2009, is now even more of a factor, and because the target is a good 50 per cent of the population: women, and especially young women, who know what is going on in Western societies, who see other Middle Eastern countries becoming more progressive in terms of women's rights, and who themselves see nothing in their future. And now they have to try to engage older and other voices, and you notice that there is division there. That people who have already gone through that trauma are now reluctant to participate. And at the same time, there are parents and grandparents who came to the streets back in 1979 and are now showing solidarity.'
That solidarity also surfaces in Sheida Soleimani's parents, who fled to the United States in the 1980s, after the Iranian Revolution and traumatic episodes of persecution, imprisonment and torture. 'They met in the hospital. My father was a doctor, my mother a nurse, both of whom were very much into this idea that the ruler, whether the shah or the ayatollah, did not care for everyone in society. Like the Kurds, for example. Very early after their marriage, they went to volunteer in a field hospital in Kurdistan run by a group of Marxist guerrillas. Elsewhere, as a Kurd you could not go for medical care in Iran. My mother worked with a lot of people, who had various mental and physical ailments. She even worked in a leprosy asylum for a while. She told me a lot about that when I was growing up. I even used to think that it wasn't the boogeyman or the devil hiding under my bed, but leprosy. Little did I know.' (Laughs)
'My first bedtime stories were about their lives and what they had been through. In a way, it was therapy for them. And they wanted me to know where they came from, where I come from, and how I will never be able to visit 'our' country as they once experienced it. So it was also passing on oral history. Which I am now trying to put into new work. In December 2021, I made the first picture of that series about my parents. It's a slow project, I've only made ten pictures in the meantime, but maybe this is a project I'll fill the rest of my life with. Chapter by chapter.'
'My parents react very differently to the situation in Iran,' Sheida Soleimani explains. 'My mother, due to her imprisonment and torture, reacts traumatically. She wants to be informed and hopes things will change, but cynicism sometimes takes over. That is the terrible thing, that this has happened so many times that it undermines one's optimism, that a brutal government can crush the spirit and soul of its people. My father, on the other hand, well, he is still very much the Marxist revolutionary he once was. (Laughs) By the way, the opinion piece for The Boston Globe was his idea. Every day he forwards videos and articles, he thinks about the movement and the right way to tackle things. In a way, it is almost as if he too has not aged since 1979. Though he does acknowledge that he is a 70-year-old man today and that this is not his movement.'
Aladdin and Halloween
'Growing up as their child in Ohio, in a Christian suburb in the Bible Belt, where people associated the Middle East with Aladdin and puff-pants and I realised very early on that I was different from the other kids, made me think very much about language, visual or literal, about otherness, and about the bridges I could build.'
'When my father came to the States, in 1985, he had no money, no one to help him acclimatise, except for another Iranian who happened to live in the same city. He ended up there in a flat in a rough neighbourhood. He remembers well that at one point he heard a machine gun firing and hid under the bed, thinking the government was coming to kill him. That was the 4th of July fireworks, the bank holidays.'
'Those are fractures in an identity. But it never prompted my parents to assimilate. They did not subscribe to American ideas and ideals. While everyone was celebrating Christmas, in our house the Halloween decorations were still hanging up, that celebration in honour of the devil. (Yawns) And I continue that tradition. These were small things for my father to resist, which admittedly did not make life easier. But I don't blame him. Because it made me realise at a young age that I was different, another. That instead of deploying assimilation as a tactic, as camouflage, which is what my sister did after 9/11, rebelliousness is also a possibility.'
'And so, on the advice of my father, I told him at school that he played backgammon with Saddam Hussein, while our house was bombarded with toilet paper, people pissed against our door and threw eggs at our car. It was comic relief, it was coping mechanisms, ways to celebrate your otherness and to push back.'
In that resistance also lies the strength of Sheida Soleimani's artistic practice. In the whimsical, multi-layered hybridity, she erects a dam against what imposes itself in a unified, pure and rigid way. Like the tradition of collage. 'You're spot on! Collage creates the possibility of changing things as they are supposed to exist in the real, modifying them. In that sense, it can be an activist practice. Look at Hannah Höch's dada collages, how she cut up Weimar politicians, decapitated them and hung them from broken machines, to show them in all their uselessness. As commentary.' A voice of protest capable of changing reality. 'Or at least some minds, maybe...'