Rebel Rebel by Iranian Artist Soheila Sokhanvari
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
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