Tales of an Iranian story-teller

by Shaye DiPasquale

Many artists use their artwork as an outlet to make a political or social statement derived from their own thoughts or beliefs. But few artists have quite as serious and personal an agenda to tackle in their art as Sheida Soleimani. Soleimani’s parents are both political refugees from Iran. After her mother’s imprisonment and subsequent torture by the government to discover the whereabouts of her father, Soleimani and her family fled Iran and settled in Ohio. Soleimani grew up hearing all about her parent’s lives back in Iran and was inspired to incorporate their struggles and stories into her artwork. She wanted to find a tangible and creative way to visually represent her parent’s experiences, specifically the experiences of her mother. 

In an interview with The NY Times, Soleimani stated, “It is a yearning for me to interact with what I am creating,” said Soleimani. “I have never been to Iran. I am telling these stories, the ones I have tried to recreate over and over again as a child. Growing up with those stories being told, and having those experiences being so close to me, I started thinking about all the women that are still in Iran. Any of the women that have been executed could have been my mother. Through my work I am trying to re-memorialize these women.” 
Previously, Soleimani had worked on a series of photographs entitled “National Anthem” to depict the atrocities against citizens that were carried out by the Iranian government during the Green Revolution. The series was inspired by her father’s role in the revolution and was expanded upon to include a more global conversation about Western media’s response to human rights violations. After completing this project, Soleimani was ready to shift her focus to the grotesque women’s issues in the East that are generally glossed over and misrepresented in Western mass media. Soleimani wanted to focus her work specifically on Iranian women like her mother who have been wrongfully imprisoned, tortured and killed by the government. In her current series entitled “To Oblivion”, which she began working on in 2015, Soleimani seeks to point out the numerous ways in which the Iranian government normalizes violence towards women. 

This series consists of photographs of distorted, hand sewn dolls situated within loud, colorful backdrops that contain symbols of the violence suffered by each of the women featured. Handcuffs are frequently used to indicate bondage and various life-saving devices represent all of the women who have called out for help and received no assistance. Soleimani models each doll’s form to mimic the shape of a bobo doll- a clown-shaped punching bag that was used in observational learning experiments led by Albert Bandura back in the 1906s. These experiments concluded that children who were exposed to violent acts against the dolls continued to lash out when exposed to them, expressing their aggression due to the socialized exposure. Once she has created the bobo doll form, Soleimani prints an image of an Iranian woman who has been executed by the government for an “atrocious crime”, such as standing up against her rapist or being forced into a confession for a crime she did not commit. 
When these innocent women are publicly executed as “criminals”, the Iranian government establishes that it is acceptable to kill women for their wrongdoings. Soleimani chose to incorporate the bobo doll form into her artwork to emphasize that both the experiments and the executions perpetuate the idea that violence against women is a permissible social norm in Iran.

The Iran Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are Soleimani’s main sources for collecting specific information and data on Iran’s executed women. In general, little media attention is given to these executions and most of these deaths go unannounced by authorities. In order to collect the necessary images related to these underreported deaths, Soleimani retrieves crisp photos from photojournalists located in the region or searches the dark web to uncover blurry pictures depicting the torture. No matter the quality of the images she is able to find, Soleimani’s main goal is to restore the faces of these women whom the government made disappear, and to memorialize each woman in a haunting manner. “After I have shot an image I have memorialized that woman in my mind,” said Soleimani. “I can’t let go of them.”



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