Sheida Soleimani uses photography as her primary medium, but she deploys it across multiple formats including sculpture, installation and (a kind of) portraiture/propaganda. Her work addresses the issues and ideas surrounding the relationship of Iran to America, of Iran’s treatment of women and political dissidents, and the global power structure that tacitly enables egregious human rights violations. These are things that have been present in her life since childhood—her parents were persecuted for their political beliefs, her mother was tortured and her father hid in the mountains for three years. They both separately escaped Iran in the ’80s, and came to America where they were able to reunite. As she was growing up, her parents talked candidly about their experiences and thus, from a young age, Soleimani was deeply aware of the rampant misogyny and terror enabled by Sharia law.
Folio Weekly chatted with the artist about her current show, Oppress(er)(ed). These questions have been edited for space.
Folio Weekly: You’ve been quoted as saying, “If you’re not taking a risk, you’re not doing it right.” How do you know when you’re balanced on that edge between idea and risk?
Sheida Soleimani: Ha! I never know if I’m balanced on it, honestly … going further than what is comfortable is generally what helps me with generating my ideas and challenging my content. The sense of uncomfortable I get when I get into ‘risky’ territory is usually when I know I’m on the right track. Hopefully, I don’t end up getting myself into any trouble, but I think it’s worth it regardless.
You take sources from the dark web—photos (often the last photos) taken of women who’ve been accused (often baselessly) of “crimes.” How do you choose the images and how do you protect yourself emotionally?
There isn’t really the option to protect myself emotionally—and that’s what is actually such a large part of the work for me. Getting to know the specific situations of each of these women, and even sometimes getting to know their families is so important to me—it keeps the photographs from becoming didactic. When I know the situations of each person, and their backgrounds, it aids me in constructing the tableau sets and deciding on which objects and symbols to incorporate within the images.
In your photographic tableaux, you often position figures that read as female, but have them wearing signifiers of male-ness: cis-gendered male faces, swords, Gold-Toe socks, and at least one bird-of-prey. I had a conversation with a brilliant drag performer here in Jacksonville; she touched on the trope of intent in language and how, through turning a “feminized” lens on cis-men who identify with sets of stereotypical “maleness” one can—in a sense—“steal” their power while also ridiculing them for their ossified ideas …
Absolutely! By using the stereotypes of masculinity and femininity to challenge one another, I aim to re-condition our viewing of gender, but to also seduce an unexpecting audience into viewing the piece. The content isn’t easy, and I think about the symbolic cues as a Trojan Horse—an idea I return to within all of my works. When I was looking at all of the politicians from the OPEC countries as well as the Western politicians involved in the struggle for oil, I noticed that they were all men, and it was an unfortunate reaffirmation of the patriarchal systems that govern femme bodies. By casting femme identifying bodies to play some of the roles of these politicians, I propose that there should be a change in how power is viewed, while using humor, theater and sex as a way to propose the codependence of leaders.
During my research, I noticed you’ve been involved in wildlife rehabilitation. Can you talk a little about this?
My Maman used to be a nurse when she lived in Iran. When she came to the States, she wasn’t able to practice as a nurse anymore and, instead, started finding injured wildlife and using her nursing skills to help them. In college, all my friends jokingly referred to my cellphone number as the Sheida Wildlife Hotline, and I continued to rehab and save animals the way my mother had taught me. Recently, I got involved with the Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island as a volunteer, and am now actually licensed in [Rhode Island] to rehab wildlife.
For your show here in Jax, you’re showing several soft sculptures that were inspired by the Bobo dolls used in Albert Bandura’s research into societal violence. But you’re also mounting/collaging a collection of images of ski-masked heads onto the wall.
The faces on the wall are selfies taken by members of the Basij: the Revolutionary Guard, which is a paramilitary group. These men are often the ones who arrest, torture and even execute people in Iran. The first iteration of this project happened at MoMA PS1 for the Art Book Fair this past September. In this iteration, photographs and sculptures of the executed women will be resting on top of the photographs of the Basij, proposing the women’s position of hierarchy over the guards.