Sheida Soleimani has been on my radar for a while. Not only are her images visually stimulating and challenging, but they are also laden with purpose and grounded by the weight of their content. The prolific Iranian-American artist and educator describes herself in a 2021 interview with BOMB magazine as a Marxist atheist raised in the bible belt by Persian political refugees who escaped oppression during the ‘79 Iranian revolution in fear for their pro-democratic activism. She attributes her parents with introducing her to the concepts and principles she strives to instill in her life and her work: “speaking frankly to power, rallying around difference, and confronting ignorance and misrecognition.” Soleimani finds inspiration in propaganda posters, humor, collage, and research (to name a few) and builds tableaux out of symbolic objects and found imagery. The tableaux allow her to avoid the often exploitive nature of photography where consent is often lacking. Soleimani describes her process to Silver Eye: “By building theatrical sets, ranging in size from the wall of an entire building to a small tabletop, I combine diverse assemblages of culturally overdetermined objects, in a practice similar to what Marx called bricolage, to make a thing called a “photograph”.I first print images sourced from the web: often these are of torture victims, prisoners, executioners, and dictators, amongst a multitude of politically situated images. I cut these printed images and collage them with three-dimensional objects that reference research pertaining to each specific scene and tableau. After creating a 3-d set, assembling bodies, props, and symbols, I photograph the tableau as still life, flattening the layers of the physical forms to reassert the aggressive nature of the sourced images, blurring the boundaries of what some believe to be ‘digitally created’ vs what can be manipulated in physical space.”
Sheida Soleimani has a finely honed gift for incorporating humor and approachability to incredibly dark and deeply significant socio-political conversations without stripping them of their gravitas. Her work pulls you in with color, gesture, and often seeming absurdity. For example, in Hotbed (2020), Soleimani constructs an image using the Iranian health minister's arm wiping sweat from his forehead while making light of the Coronavirus as the centerpiece. Surrounding the arm are aerial views of mass graves of pandemic casualties, lime powder (used to dissolve human remains), chunks of grass and dirt, floral imprinted toilet paper, money, chains, and a box of tissues. While there is humor in the gesture of nervously sweating while lying to the public, the image itself is captivating and absurd and begging to be decoded. Once you do begin to break it down it is a condemnation of corruption and the revealing of a more brutal truth.
In her series To Oblivion Soleimani focused on women who had been wrongfully executed by the Iranian government. In order to collect the letters, execution records, and images she had to carefully contact families, lawyers, and activists via the dark web in order to protect the identities of her sources from retaliation. Using images to create soft effigies of unlawfully imprisoned and executed women she builds a set around them relating to their arrest. The end results are colorful, two-toned surreal images that are incredibly attractive and saturated with tragic injustice. Even at first glance, the images are unsettling and revealing of their true intentions. Soleimani uses her freedom and voice to share the opinions and stories of those unable to speak out against the regime. Anger at the Iranian government’s brutality against its people is a driving force for Soleimani as well as Americans’ general ignorance of Iranian injustice. Through her work, she hopes to bring awareness and visibility to the plight of the Iranian people and America's relationship with their government.
In Levers of Power, she discusses the complex relationship between the United States and Iran including demands for reparations, trade sanctions, resource scarcity, and the petroleum industry as well as how these relationships are reliant upon exploitation, corruption, financial gain, brutality, ignorance, and blame-shifting. Her images challenge us to be more aware of our involvement with these atrocities while also speaking truth to power without a more palpable sugar coating. She draws the viewer in with candy visuals and then hits them with the bitter reality of the sufferings of others.
In Medium of Exchange, Soleimani examines a “fragmented history of the relationship between OPEC nations and western political powers since the 1960s, when the organization was formed, highlighting the correlation between sovereign oil wealth and civil rights abuse. (Edel Assanti)”. She stages anonymous queer actors in grotesquely constructed masks of ambassadors and ministers (Kissinger, Cheney, Rumsfeld, etc). The characters act out over-the-top scenes of sex, aggression, passion, romance, bondage, and posed portraiture to reinterpret and satirize the power plays between the countries involved. Essentially fetishizing war and greed. Through the masks the actors are able to communicate through their eyes, becoming representations of those that lie beneath the headlines and are affected by the plays for power and wealth of the corrupt and exploitative people manipulating policies.
Her work is energizing and her passion is palpable. It is as easy to be inspired by Sheida Soleimani as a person as much as an artist. In balance with the violent and destructive nature of her art practice, she spends a good deal of time rehabilitating birds and is a professor at Brandeis University. It is clear through her art, interviews and dedicated activities that Sheida Soleimani cares deeply about those who need help, have had their voices silenced, and lives stolen on a macro and micro level. She is driven to share their stories as well as unmask, dismantle and demystify the socio-political systems that encourage and allow atrocities to continue. Her work is informed, challenging, and driven by righteous anger that is much needed in today's art world. For more information or inquiries contact Denny Dimin Gallery