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Issue 08 Aug 09, 2022

Home Truths: Sheida Soleimani’s Trenchant Tableaus

For Issue 08, Dr. Jordan Amirkhani visits Sheida Soleimani on occasion of her Providence exhibition and discovers a practice dedicated to care and critique.

Profile by Jordan Amirkhani

A portrait of Sheida Soleimani wearing a green dress during an exhibit installation.

Portrait of Sheida Soleimani during the installation of her solo exhibition at Providence College Galleries as part of the "On The Wall" series. Photo by Mel Taing for Boston Art Review.

“The exile knows that in a secular and contingent world, homes are always provisional. […] Seeing ‘the entire world as a foreign land’ makes possible originality of vision. Most people are principally aware of one culture, one setting, one home; exiles are aware of at least two, and this plurality of vision gives rise to an awareness of simultaneous dimensions.” —Edward Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays1

In this brief, humble epigraph spoken on behalf of the Palestinian people by one of its most visible advocates, Edward Said articulates the condition faced by so many citizens of the post-colonial diaspora: the loss of home and the existential condition of precarity felt by those living and enduring exile. Famous for his work on the representational ideology of colonial peoples by their nineteenth and twentieth-century masters, Said’s life and writings are haunted by his own exile as well as the blessing of his hybridized identity. As a Palestinian living in the United States, Said remains a model for all those who find them – selves at the other side of a great distance from family and the familiar. His questions resound in that distance: Where does home become, and where do I belong? Under what terms is my personhood decided and framed? What role do images play in inscribing Otherness? And finally, what tools do I have at my disposal to reckon with my experiences?

Said’s emphasis on belonging elsewhere and the complexity (if not impossibility) of returning home has granted me a language for examining my own identity and how to think “between” spaces. As an Iranian American, I spend a lot of time thinking about the notion of home, particularly when I consider how varied the definition and creation of a place called home is amongst my own personal cohort of friends, family, and fellow diasporic travelers. While my own answer has been to never become attached to any singular conception of home or permanence at all (why bother when everything could shift in the blink of an eye, as it did before?), Iranian American artist Sheida Soleimani’s response to the idea of home seems to be to ground herself and gather as much life into it as possible. And that perhaps—to her—the manner of building an image is somewhat related to building a home, in that both are careful, complex businesses.

Soleimani’s studio is filled with source materials including printed stills from speeches by world leaders, elaborate sets, and props for her photographic assemblages. Photos by Mel Taing for Boston Art Review.

I made my way to Providence, Rhode Island, in late March, just a few days after Nowruz (one of the most important annual celebrations for Iranians), to meet Soleimani, who lives an hour’s drive from Brandeis University, where she has taught in the Fine Arts department since 2016. Eager to meet an artist I have followed closely for a number of years at an exciting moment in her career, I spent my train ride oscillating between my research on Soleimani and the homepage of the New York Times app, keeping tabs on the escalating attacks in the Donbas region of Ukraine. Any heaviness I arrived with soon dissipated into laughter and joy upon meeting Soleimani, who opened her home and studio to me with a generosity of spirit known in Iran as taarof and a sense of playful, sharp political humor so familiar in the homes of immigrants. Upon entering Soleimani’s sprawling nineteenth-century house, I kept thinking of Said’s words about home and what it means to build one when you and your family have been severed from or denied it. I could not resist smiling when I noticed her Haft Sin carefully displayed at the end of a long table in her breakfast nook—a sign of celebration and recognition for all Iranians during Persian New Year. A vignette of symbolic items marking the beginning of spring and the celebration of new life in the natural, human, and spiritual realms, the Haft Sin includes objects that point to regeneration and reflection (mirrors, candles, coins, painted eggs, and other Persian treats). My eyes watered as I thought of my own family’s staunch commitment to this season and its traditions, the many years I did not celebrate as I wanted to, and the gift of sharing this time with other Iranians. It seems to be no accident that Haft Sin arrangements are constructed with movement in mind, arranged more for the home or community that gathers around it than for any specific location. Seeing it in Soleimani’s house, I felt very much at home. As my father has always reminded me, “Home is wherever your people are.”

Nowruz’s call to engage life in all its multiplicity is made visible in Soleimani’s domestic world—a space where she and her partner share their time and living quarters with an abundant and ever-changing rotation of animal life. Cats slink and roam in and out of rooms, a cohort of chickens, ducks, and a rooster putter in a simple enclosure in her front lawn, and a striking black crow reigns over the artist’s basement-slash-rehabilitation center, all accompanied by a rotating band of small birds and reptiles in various states of injury. During my short two-day stay, a severely dehydrated turtle struggled to swim in a plastic crate in Soleimani’s breakfast nook; the turtle sat next to a field mouse dropped off on Soleimani’s front porch in a cardboard box.

Installation view, “On the Wall: Sheida Soleimani (Ghostwriter),” 2022. Photo by Scott Alario. Courtesy of Providence College Galleries.

Soleimani has been caring for animals her entire life—a practice inherited from her mother, who trained as a nurse in her native Iran and continues to engage in care work in a volunteer role at a local wildlife center in Ohio after her escape from her home country. Soleimani has not only carried on her mother’s lifelong commitments to care, but has expanded her skills and expertise as one of the only federally licensed wildlife and bird rehabbers in the state of Rhode Island. Her wildlife clinic, Congress of Birds, is run out of her home and takes in upwards of 400 birds during the migration season. Worried and anxious calls and texts come in frequently, which Soleimani handles with confident sensitivity, her instincts for what to do and how to care for these creatures as alive and alert as her delicate patients.

We discussed her turn toward this work at length and the complexities involved in seeing care work as directly involved in her artistic practice. Just as escape is part of her mother’s story with animals and care, care work provides Soleimani a space of escape as well: “The work I do with these animals isn’t my work in the studio; it is my break from the art world and all its demands and inhumane requirements. But I also realized that for my mother, it was a release from the trauma of leaving Iran and of everything that occurred when my parents arrived to the United States. Maybe that’s why I feel it is important to bring these two kinds of work together in my practice now?” The demands and pressures of the art world are real for Soleimani. Represented by an international triad of galleries (Edel Assanti in London, Harlan Levey Projects in Brussels, and Denny Dimin in New York), Soleimani is an artist rising through the ranks of a contemporary art world newly sensitized to the gaps and omissions of Western-centric art history, her star climbing at pace with the field’s eagerness to recognize and support the work of artists living and working outside its geographical and conceptual parameters. Nourishing one’s artistic pursuits alongside the demands of galleries, collectors, university systems, and, most importantly, the needs of the body and mind remains a complicated dance for almost all artists, women especially. Soleimani is no different, and there is a sense that by setting time and resources aside to pursue care work, she is engaging in a much bigger and more radical critique of what it means to make meaning and add value in a world torn apart by consumption, exploitation, and capitalist gains.

From left to right: Sheida Soleimani, Khooroos (rooster) named Manoocher, 2021. Archival pigment print. 60″ x 44, and Noon-o-namak (bread and salt), 2021. Archival pigment print. 60″ x 44″. Commissioned by Providence College Galleries. Courtesy Denny Dimin Gallery, NYC; Edel Assanti, London; and Harlan Levy Gallery, Brussels.

Soleimani’s pursuit of a more conscious and considerate mode of artmaking forms a long arc in her body of work. For Soleimani, the ethics of creating and presenting an image is complicated work deserving of a very particular process that makes visible the artificial “nature” of aesthetic production. Using traditions of still life, landscape painting, collage, photomontage, and installation to bear down on the constructed nature of images, Soleimani’s carefully arranged “tableaus” allow viewers to notice the visible seams where images and objects come together and ask questions about where and how they belong. Aware of collage and photomontage’s relationship to times of war and crisis and the genre’s anti-propaganda mission, Soleimani embroiders upon those histories to create images that resist instantaneous visual consumption in order to slow down and, at times, confuse the viewer with an overwhelming constellation of sensory information. Thus, Soleimani very often flattens, edits, and alters realities in her images, not to seduce or domesticate her audience, but to heighten the political charge of the objects she incorporates into her work.

Soleimani’s acute sensitivity to photography and its use as a tool of colonial oppression is the truth upon which much of her critique of images and ethics relies. A medium that harbors the false magic of direct reproducibility, photographs were wielded to reconstitute and affirm the hierarchies of class, race, gender, and economic power as organized by Western Europeans. Widespread contemporary use of cameras around the world has created more than a mass of images; as Ariella Azoulay reminds us, it “has created new forms of encounter between people who … have new means to look at and show its [past] deeds.”2 Soleimani’s photographic praxis builds on this new possibility for photography to stand akimbo and negotiate with power in ways denied to subjects across photography’s long history.

However, the great force of Soleimani’s work is born out of her deep research and selection of objects, which reverberate in her pictorial worlds due to their associations with acts of violence, colonialism, war, and/or exploitation. In late afternoon, we moved to Soleimani’s garage-turned-home studio—a treasure trove fit for a magpie that holds her incredible collection of props and material along with a nearly finished outdoor enclosure for the artist’s beloved crow. The abundance of items gathered into groups on long shelves, on tabletops, and in simply made wooden armatures—masks, children’s toys, rolls of colored paper, books, and multiples of found images of political dictators—underscores not only the multimedia nature of her work but her understanding of the latent potential and possibility in objects. Both funhouse and workshop, Soleimani’s studio buzzes with projects and work in various states of completion. I immediately responded to the work holding court at the center of her staging area—a large mockup of the infamous circular podium and speaker’s rostrum in the General Assembly of the United Nations’ headquarters in New York, which Soleimani is using as a set for an upcoming body of work dedicated to the history of the space and political leaders (many from Middle Eastern and North African or MENA nations) who have used it to address the world.

So much of her world-building comes from her persistent emphasis on addressing the insidious nature of American foreign policy in the MENA region. The body of work exhibited under the title Medium of Exchange features a series of individual and group portraits of power players involved in the bogus invasion of Iraq. In one image, war criminals Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney hover around a large gas canister in poses reminiscent of BDSM erotica, their bodies sutured and cyborged into a hallucinatory landscape of fragmented found images of desert landscapes, smoke, oil refineries, and pipeline. Using papered backdrops (a major feature of her work) as ground for her additions, Soleimani’s pictorial world is abundant and additive in ways similar to a theater set. Figures and forms stage the narrative, plotting together in a hyper-dramatic fashion the horrific unfolding of the American imperialist agenda and the underlying justifications for the United States’ exploitation of nations and peoples for finite resources.

Portrait of Sheida Soleimani during the installation of her solo exhibition at Providence College Galleries as part of the “On The Wall” series. Photo by Mel Taing for Boston Art Review.

More recently, however, Soleimani has decided to render the wide political field of her work into a more intimate frame. By using the stories of her family and flashes of intergenerational memory, Soleimani continues her world-building in images, dedicating it to her parents and the circumstances of their political exile from the Islamic Republic of Iran in the mid-1980s. While her work has always been rooted in Iranian-American geopolitics, biography has never been foregrounded in the work so potently before. And yet, to see this work as only biographical or narrative is to miss the conceptual and critical import of Soleimani’s revised investment in her family members and their trajectories—for the family unit is indeed a political structure, one that American imperialism continues to come for with its greatest aggression.

For her current exhibition “On the Wall,” made for the Reilly Gallery at Providence College in Rhode Island, Soleimani gathers together a range of material practices—collage and digitally manipulated photographs, drawing-based mural work, screen-printed textiles—to build a site-specific installation unfurling pieces of her parents’ journey to the United States. Using a variety of formal operations shaped by addition, fragmentation, layering, and covering over, Soleimani authors a narrative grounded in her unique mode of discontinuity and interruption—conditions familiar to anyone seeking to remember the past, retell another’s story, or revisit a trauma.

Both Soleimani’s mother and father narrowly escaped Iran, leaving family, opportunities, and communities behind, but it is also what they brought with them— their culture, language, politics, and memories—that bears the gravity of exile and the understanding that one’s entire temporality is regulated by the disordering consequences of expatriation. In many ways, Soleimani addresses what philosopher Walter Benjamin describes as the “flashes” of memory—the fragmented remainders of the past that become visible in moments of danger or crisis that structure diasporic experience itself—to mine the discontinuous gaps of her parents’ lived experience and the systemic forces of precarity that surround their exile.3

Sheida Soleimani, What a Revolutionary Must Know, installation view, Providence College Galleries, 2022. Archival pigment print. 40″ x 30″. Commissioned by Providence College Galleries. Courtesy Denny Dimin Gallery, NYC; Edel Assanti, London; and Harlan Levy Gallery, Brussels.

Aware of the wider art world’s impulse to seize, misinterpret, and ultimately flatten the stories of the historically oppressed, Soleimani is careful to consider who, what, and how she reveals. For as the artist recalled, “representation does indeed matter, but it is not a means to an end … especially when we consider that the history of art is founded in a tradition of categorization and classification invented by colonial powers to fetishize and accommodate those peoples from elsewhere.” Soleimani does not undress her family or their history for the trauma-hungry viewer, but instead gathers together flares and flickers of her parents’ story and uses the visual field as a way of celebrating and protecting her family from the impulse of disclosure.

This dissociative character, so common in retellings of diasporic experience, is acknowledged most powerfully in the mural-scaled drawing Ghostwriter, which covers all four walls and the floor of the Reilly Gallery. Here Soleimani repeats a drawing made by her mother of the interior courtyard and fountain in her home in Shiraz, which includes the location of eight unborn or aborted fetuses her mother buried in secret. Prior to her escape, Soleimani’s mother worked as a nurse in a village hospital where she witnessed many stillbirths and complicated pregnancies that were often fatal to the mother and child. Lack of resources combined with the shame imposed upon Iranian women who became pregnant outside of marriage or under challenging circumstances meant stillbirths happened in secrecy and abortions were conducted through dangerous means with women abandoning the bodies of their dead to be thrown away without fanfare. In her role as a nurse, Soleimani’s mother worked to support women through these experiences, later deciding to grant a dignified burial to the bodies left behind, burying them under a naranj, or sour orange, tree on the grounds of her home. Soleimani recalls that her mother shared this story with her, along with this drawing, not to alarm her, but as if it “was just a mere recollection, something she forgot to tell me, just something that happened.”

Rendered by Soleimani in a vibrant grass green, the artist traces her mother’s naive but confident line, the specific compositional groupings that mark distances as near and far, together and apart, with uncanny precision, allowing memory (not observation) to guide the way. Soleimani engages the hand and the body to articulate this piece of the story—a move away from photography’s flattened orders towards something more embodied, full, “real.” By repeating her mother’s drawing, Soleimani points to the inexactitudes associated with memories, specifically memories attached to the loss of home and the enduring traumas of forced displacement. What happened “before” is only recoverable as fragments, pieces of what was—a mere thing that happened alongside and in tandem with many other things. A photograph could never carry the weight of such a story.

As I left Soleimani’s home on a bright March afternoon, full with the satisfaction of wonderful company, I thought about how this visit began as a conversation about building and keeping a home and of reckoning with the knowledge that for so many, home is an unfinished place. It seems to me that what animates so much of Soleimani’s work is the way she creates a space (visually and spatially) to catch the pieces—the “flashes”—of what remains within her family’s stories and to recuperate and perhaps repair them. Thus, Soleimani is an artist working in a reparative mode—one built from a refusal to abstract, a commitment to protect, a desire to educate, and a recognition of what can never be represented.   

1. See Edward Said, “Chapter 17: Reflections on Exile,” Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 186.
2. See Ariella Azoulay’s book The Civil Contract of Photography, trans. Rela Mazali and Ruvik Danieli, New York: Zone Books, 2008, p.24.
3. See Walter Benjamin’s fifth and sixth theses in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Walter Benjamin: Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books, 1968, p. 255.

This feature was originally published in Issue 08: Face to Face in summer 2022. 

Jordan Amirkhani


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