To commemorate the one year anniversary of the Women, Life, Freedom protests in Iran, sparked by the violent death of Mahsa Jina Amini, the V&A has newly acquired a series of works by the Iranian-American artist, Sheida Soleimani.
Soleimani’s practice is shaped by her own experiences as the daughter of political refugees exiled from Iran in the early 1980s. She uses photography, film, performance, collage and sculpture in a broad artistic approach which sits at the intersection of art and activism.
Soleimani’s research focuses on the history of photography and world events – specifically, how the construction and circulation of images has shaped the landscape of global socio-politics and the West’s historic relationship to the Middle East. Often drawing on found images from the press and social media, Soleimani restages photography in complex constructed sets within her studio, adapting and abstracting their original context into subversive sculptural or collage works, which provide a critical perspective on international relations and government power dynamics.
In Ghostwriter, the series newly acquired for the V&A Photography Collection, Soleimani explores the personal implications of political systems levelled at the body. Adopting the role of a ghostwriter, Soleimani assumes responsibility of translating her parents’ traumatic experience of political exile and leaving Iran in the 1980s. It is the first time the artist has turned the lens on herself and her family. Weaving together a powerful and tragic tale of exile, displacement, persecution and survival, Soleimani casts her parents, mâmân and bâbâ, as the photograph’s main protagonists, symbolically recounting the memories surrounding each parent’s forcible departure, as Iran began to tighten its response to pro-democracy activists and political dissidence.
The acquisition features two large photographs portraying the artist’s mother and father, each figure sitting in a domestic setting composed from layered and symbolic imagery. Patterns are inspired by Persian rugs and the ancient Persian game of Snakes and Ladders, alluding to the chance, risk and reward of her parents’ journey. Fragments of bâbâ’s safe-house overlap with photographs which capture the remnants of mâmân’s family home in Shiraz, translated through the drawings she frantically makes to therapise her harrowing experiences. Their faces are shielded by handmade paper masks to conceal their identity and limit the threat of ongoing persecution. Both parents hold birds – symbols of freedom and an analogy for mâmân’s experiences both with incarceration and as a caregiver, initially as a nurse in Iran and later, when she was no longer able to practice in America, as an animal rehabilitator. The patchwork of perspectives echoes the incoherence and instability of memory.
As custodian of these sensitive stories, Ghostwriter begins a retrieval, creation and recovery of the artist’s family trauma, whilst representing the wider experiences of displacement and Iran’s diasporic community. While specific and personal, the work, in its collapse of space and time, speaks to the wider phenomenon of migration and the enduring effects of Iran’s regime and the complicity of the West as an enabler.
The series is accompanied by another work by Sheida Soleimani, gifted by the artist and Edel Assanti gallery, which pays homage to Mahsa Jina Amini. Mahsa features a hand holding a white hijab on fire, with a backdrop of inverted images of Amini’s brain scans. The image was used in the 2022 exhibition Eyes on Iran, displayed outside the UN office in Manhattan.
The acquisition is a collaboration between the V&A Parasol Foundation Women in Photography project and the Middle East section of the V&A’s Asia Department.
Sheida Soleimani will be in conversation with Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe and the Iranian-Australian artist Hoda Afshar, who’s work is currently on display in the new Photography Centre, in an anniversary event on 26th September.
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