Sheida Soleimani’s understanding of the world has always been shaped by art and injustice. Both of the Iranian-American artist’s parents opposed the totalitarian Iranian government in the early '80s, and they instilled political consciousness in their daughter. As a child in Cincinnati, Soleimani’s mother would draw pictures depicting her experiences of imprisonment and torture under Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime, according to Fader. Iranian voices have been the basis of her work ever since, and her creations have been defined by her life experience and identity as a femme, first generation Iranian-American.
Professor Soleimani has used collage, photography, and sculpture to tell the stories of real women killed under the version of Sharia law enforced by the Iranian government. Researching human rights abuses led her to online forums and sites on the dark web where family members would post pictures of loved ones who had been killed or arrested. She turned these pictures into collages, giving voice to people who had been silenced by the government and bringing attention to an issue rarely discussed in Western media.
Soleimani’s most recent project confronts the power of oil around the world. Her large portraits put heads of state onto feminine bodies to satirize the lust for riches and power that drives the dominance of oil in the global economy. Ambassadors and ministers become the subject of grotesque pin-ups. The provocative images fetishize war and turn the obsession with oil into a kink. These portraits are at least four feet tall, and stand with the support of painted oilcans. Arranged on the ground next to each portrait is food-stuff from the country represented in the piece (Coffee for Venezuala, dates for Saudi Arabia, and Corn for America).
You get a lot of your image source material from the internet and social media. Has anyone ever reached out to you from Iran with images they’d like you to use? Do you know if any of the subjects of your work were ever impacted directly by the art you created?
Yes — many family members of the women I have worked to create awareness on have reached out to me with family photographs and documents about their loved ones to help with my research and image making practice. A few of the mothers whose daughters were executed (re: my previous work "To Oblivion") have expressed how the creation of the works have been helpful creating a dialogue about these atrocities which are not often covered by Western media.
You’ve spoken of your desire to create a lexicon of symbols so that movements can start conversations. Do you think this has any connection to your experience as an Iranian-American growing up speaking first Farsi and then English? Are there any symbols you use more than others?
Absolutely. Having to mediate my experiences between two languages has been a large part of how I view objects and images. A visual language is one that is accessible to almost everyone and can transcend barriers. Through using visual symbols and indicators in my works, I aim for the viewer to be able to understand the image via their own conditioning and background. And yes — one symbol that comes up quite often is the sugar cube. In Iran, before sacrificing a lamb, a sugar cube is placed in its mouth before its throat is slit; to pacify it before it’s impending death. I’ve always related this symbol to how revolution has functioned in Iran, alongside thinking about Gross Domestic Product reports and how agricultural exports are marred by the petroleum industry.
I read an interview where you talked about the increase of feminism in art, and how it can sometimes devalue “many of the important concerns that femme identifying bodies are fighting for.” How should artists who are interested in creating empowering work go about their processes to ensure intersectionality?
To be clear, I of course identify myself as a feminist — which I view as the basic value that femme-identifying bodies are equal to men. The term "feminism" has been co-opted by many movements, and in a sense has become more of an aesthetic and less about what the core values of this principle are. I think if we (as artists/cultural producers) are going to be including conversations that surround this topic, we should be aware of our own positionalities and backgrounds in relation to the audiences that we are speaking to, instead of making sweeping homogenizing generalizations about "what women want/need." That means we have to be constantly re-conditioning, and asking ourselves and others questions about what our needs are on a personal level vs. a societal one.
What would your advice be to the artist who wants to be an activist? Or the activist who wants to be an artist?
Activism and art are both very canned terms. Is it possible to create change through protest or visuals? Western culture expects this change to happen quickly, and people give up easily when direct action doesn’t create immediate results. Change takes time, and commitment. I think more than anything, "activism" is about creating awareness on issues that are forgotten or glossed over in our media saturated economy. If one is interested in participating in either of these things, my suggestion is that they find something that they are deeply invested in, instead of picking a broad topic to create discussion around. Research is a big part of both "art" and "activism" — to represent an issue completely, one must view all sides of an issue, and be ready to discuss the totality of something from multiple positions. Only then can one begin to even create an image or retaliation that can challenge a range of ideologies.
You talk about challenging the relationship between the elite and leaders and those they govern or control. Do you see any similarities with what some people might call “fine art”? Is that an inaccessible distance that leaves some people out? If so, how can we breach it?
Absolutely! Art and the "fine art" that we see is almost always just accessible to the "intelligensia": those who have had access to a specific type of education, which almost always comes with socio-economic privilege. And, to top that, a majority of art museums in the States cost money! Talk about leaving out a whole demographic of people that art/work should be able to reach. If we want art to be more accessible, we need to think more about the spaces in which it is shown and the methods by which is distributed.
You use your art to speak for those who cannot. You are legitimately elevating marginalized voices. Do you feel comfortable only doing that for people who share some part of your identity? Would you ever tackle issues that impact people who don’t share an aspect of your identity? Or would that be co-opting?
I love this question, and thank you for asking it. I feel comfortable speaking about human rights issues within a variety of Middle Eastern countries, as I have built relationships with many others besides my own mother that have experienced these atrocities —the most important thing that one must realize in speaking with a range of victims is to take note that not all of their experiences are the same. Not all of the people I speak with from are Iran, and by homogenizing their experiences into just a "Middle Eastern" one, we can’t begin to build a complex story about how specific governmental systems function and how they neglect their citizens. I think “co-opting” is when one uses the trauma of others to gain attention for themselves, without giving context to a range of details and neglecting ones own background in relation to the topic. In my most recent work, I have expanded my conversation to speaking about counties outside of the Middle East, and it has been extremely important for me to not interject my own opinions, but rather, to speak with a range of citizens from each place to gather a range of information and research to create a complex narrative from.
Top Image: People's Minister of Petroleum, Venezuela by Sheida Soleimani, 2017, Archival pigment print, 60 x 40 in. Courtesy Edel Assanti, Copyright Sheida Soleimani
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Anna Greer was an editorial intern spring 2018 and is a senior at the University of Tennessee, where she studies comics and human rights. When she is not engaged in feminist activism, she usually can be found wearing Doc Martens and looking at Star Wars prequel memes. Follow her @activistanna42