Iranian-American artist Sheida Soleimani has never been to Iran, and she most likely never will. After her 2014 photo series, National Anthem, which displayed chaotic iconography from the country's even more chaotic political history, appeared in the press, Soleimani started receiving threatening letters from members of the Iranian government. Now, she's pretty sure she's on their watch-list. However, her work provides such an incisive lens on the country that it wouldn't be completely accurate to call her an outsider looking in. As the daughter of two political refugees who were targeted by the government during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the country's war-torn discourse has always been a part of Soleimani's life and her art.
Her latest, untitled photo series aims to bring attention to women in Iran who have been executed by their government for "crimes" such as not wearing their headscarf correctly or defending themselves from rape. According to Iran Human Rights, 3,344 people have been executed in Iran since 2011 for minor offenses. The total number of women executed in the country per year is unknown; the government will report a certain amount of executions—sometimes adding false charges—but many go completely unacknowledged. Even without this context, it's clear that the women resurrected in Soleimani's surreal photographs—bloated and pixelated—have gone through something grotesque.
Ahead of her solo exhibition in Cologne later this year, I talked to Soleimani about the emotional, and multi-media, process behind her photos, identity in art, and her deep connection to a place she'll never see.
Broadly: A lot of the work you made is very much tied to Iran. As a woman of color, I'm always curious about how and why people choose to represent their racial and gender identity through art. There seems to be two different camps of artists of color: those who want to avoid the label and those who embrace it. Did you always know that you wanted to explore your Iranian heritage?
Sheida Soleimani: Yeah, ever since I was young. I was raised in the United States, but I didn't learn how to speak English until I was six. My parents were very specific about me learning my native tongue because they knew that I would learn how to speak English when I went to school and met other kids. So I was always really eager to share what was going with me when I learned how to speak English. I was really excited to be able to communicate with other kids and, once I started doing that, I felt like everything I had to say to them was so foreign.
As I got older, that started to make me think about what people in the West are exposed to and how they are exposed to different things, specifically through the news and popular media. What's shown about Iran on the news is very specifically framed. My parents being political refugees really made me want to start talking about [what's happening in Iran] more.
Were your parents open with you about their experience as refugees?
They were always really candid with me. Sometimes I wonder if it was too much, but I don't think so. When I was five, my mom would put me to bed and tell me stories about when she was in prison and what the prison guards did to her. [She was arrested and tortured by members of the Iranian government.] I think part of that was because she didn't have anyone else to talk to about it. I kind of became my parent's psychologist. My dad, over dinner discussion, would talk about how his friends were executed and hanged and how he had to witness public hangings. As a child, it was definitely a lot to hear about, but I learned about the truth at a very young age. I'm thankful for that.
My parents are always my go-to. Even when I'm making this work now, I'll call my parents and ask them what they think. The rest of my family still lives in Iran, and they're my news source for getting news that's not filtered by Western media. Anything that I can't find on the dark web comes from them, especially during times of revolution and protest. There were a lot of things that weren't talked about on Western TV when the Green Revolution started happening in 2008, for example. Family members were telling me, "It's bad here. There's sweepers cleaning up blood from the streets at night."
What do your parents think of your work?
It took them a little while, but my mom has always been really helpful. When I started taking self-portraits she would help me set up photos even though I was, like, half-naked. My dad is really interested in the activism of it. He was a political activist in Iran, and that's actually why my mom got arrested. He's definitely into displaying opinions—he thinks that's really important—and my mom is more interested in the artistic process of it.
It seems like both of their philosophies influenced you in the way that your work is visual, but it's not just "retinal" art. What are your thoughts on art as activism?
I would consider myself an activist in some means, but my work is just to raise questions. Everyone is going to take away something different from it, but at least they'll get to see it. That's my biggest concern.
When did you start making work about Iranian women, specifically?
This work is pretty new. I started this in November, but I've really been running with it because I have a few shows coming up. It's become really important to me, so I'm going to try to make a whole show's worth by April.
I remember I was sitting in the car, having a conversation with my partner, and I was just coming down from finishing National Anthem. Those images addressed a lot of torture victims, whether they were male of female, and people who have been victimized for speaking out. But then I started thinking about it more, and I realized it was important for me, having a mother who went through what she did, to highlight the women who have been executed. No one is representing them or protecting them in the country of Iran, and they are killed if they try to have a voice. I started thinking about what would happen if I started forcing [people to look at] these images of these women on trial. And this just after I had learned about Reyhaneh Jabbari, a woman who was executed for killing her rapist. I was just thinking, "Wow, a woman can't even protect herself from someone who is trying to rape her. He walks free, and she gets killed. How can I start a conversation about this?"
The resulting images look three-dimensional or like they're from 3D forms. What's the process behind these compositions?
The first thing I do is look at the numbers online. I'm on Iran Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International—which doesn't even cover a quarter of the executions—and on the dark web, where there are forums that people can confirm casualties in Iran. If one of your family members has been jailed, no one in the government will tell you if they have been executed or what has happened to them. That's where these forums come in. The Humans Rights Watch put out a report in 2013 that said that over 200 executions were not even claimed, and last year saw the highest number of executions in 15 years. There are public executions as well, and that's how the government tries to instill fear in its citizens. They execute women in this way to send a message: don't do this or you'll be killed, too. Reyhaneh Jabbari was one of those women.
The next thing I do is try to find images of these women. Very rarely are women even allowed to have trials—it's really just a matter of formality—but when they do have trials, sometimes images will be posted online. In the image I made of the woman crying, that's from her trial, but other source pictures come from mugshots. Since they're usually for web, the images are small and I need to upsize them. That's why they appear pixelated—I leave them that way as a nod to their online source. Then I print them on fabric and stuff them to make them plush. The next thing I think about are objects that can tell the story of the woman's execution. Most recently, I had an image of a woman who was handcuffed and led to her death. I sourced and cut-up images of her hands and placed handcuffs around her form. It's really all about playing with that language and thinking about what an image can contribute to another image. Then I set it all up in a corner of a room and photograph it.
Oh, wow. So these are all photographs of physical installations. They're not digitally collaged at all?
No, not at all. I'm really bad at Photoshop.
Knowing that makes these images even more horrifying to me. The mangled doll aspect... You're quite literally making these invisible women visible, in a way that's fittingly disturbing.
I knew I wanted to print the women's faces on some sort of fabric to make them plush, but I started playing around with things and then realized that when I created my first sculptural form it really resembled the form of a Bobo doll, which are those clown-looking dolls that are weighted at the bottom. The end result of the doll really does look like a punching bag.
I mentioned this to a friend who is a psychologist, and she brought up Albert Banduras' social learning experiment. The experiment was done in 1961 using two control groups of children. One group gets to go into a room with various toys and they get to play without any direction. The second group of children, before they get to go into this room of toys, watches a video of a person displaying aggression toward a Bobo doll. After that group of children watches the video, every single one of those kids decided to play with the Bobo Doll aggressively. The first group didn't do that all. When started thinking about these forms I was making out of pictures of executed women, I couldn't help but see the link there. In a lot of villages in Iran, you are forced to go to the city square and witness a woman get killed. People take their kids—it's so normalized that it's like taking your kids to the circus.
I was actually horrified myself the other night when I was photographing one them. I was positioning the dolls and touching them, and then I realized I was thinking about not touching the dolls too roughly. They're inanimate objects, but when I work with them I feel a connection and I feel like I have to treat them a specific way because of what's happened to the women behind them. It's like, I'm touching the face of this dead woman. It's strange. I get really sad.