Iranian artist Soheila Sokhanvari’s exhibit Rebel Rebel borrows from David Bowie’s 1974 cult pop song and features 27 exquisite portraits of feminist icons from pre-revolutionary Iran. On display at the Barbican Art Gallery through February 26, 2023, the exhibit pays tribute to the courage of these female icons, who pursued their careers in a culture enamored with Western-style but not its freedoms.
These women include Roohangiz Saminejad, the first unveiled actress to appear in a Persian language film; the controversial modernist poet Forough Farrokhzad; and the leading intellectual and writer Simin Dāneshvar. The title also serves as a lament to the fate of these women after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the subsequent establishment of a conservative Islamic theocracy, which left them with a stark choice: to renounce any role in public life or be forced into exile.
Each of Sokhanvari’s miniatures – hung against a hand-painted mural based on Islamic geometries decorating the 90-meter gallery – is a labor of love. Rebel Rebel culminates in extravagant sculptural forms made of mirror and featuring internal projections drawn from classic Iranian cinema. The exhibit becomes a devotional space where rarely told feminist histories can be contemplated.
Says Sokhanvari, “When I was invited for this commission, I knew immediately how I wanted to respond: with a body of work that would transport visitors to the pulse of life in pre-revolutionary Iran and to the women at the heart of that culture. I hope that visitors will revel in the opportunity to learn about the lives of these formidable women, who gave up everything to pursue their creativity.”
Flowing through the exhibition is a new soundtrack, composed by Marios Aristopoulos, which weaves together songs by celebrated Iranian singers from the mid-20th century, including Ramesh and Googoosh – a poignant gesture given that it remains illegal for a woman’s voice to be broadcast in Iran.
Sokhanvari’s previous work has addressed the pervasive influence of Western culture in the Middle East. Portraiture has been an enduring concern, from a series of expired passports adorned with handmade stamps drawn from vintage advertising slogans – ‘Just for men – won’t let you down’ and ‘reveal your inner goddess’ – to paintings of her father Ali Mohammed dressed as the Hollywood actor James Dean. Humor is always just beneath the surface, as a subversive means to consider the violent legacies of Western politics in Iran.
Top image: Portrait of Artist Soheila Sokhanvari Soheila Sokhanvari: Rebel Rebel Installation view Barbican Art Gallery, 2022 © Lia Toby / Getty Images