Dialogue with Sheida Soleimani

Reyhaneh 2015, archival pigment print, 24 x 17 inches

Reyhaneh,
2015, archival pigment print, 24 x 17 inches

Do you consider yourself a Humanist artist?

I don’t identify as a specific type of artist, or for my works to singularly be defined by an ideology. I do, however, definitely consider my personal and political views aligning with those of a humanist. My photographs definitely comment on the agency of humans in society, and the acts they commit against each other.

Do you consider the figure to have a vital role in your art?

It’s actually surprised me that they do have such a significant presence in my work. Before starting my series National Anthem, I did dabble with using literal figures but never as a connecting thread between my pieces. Most recently, I’ve played around with metaphorical figures and symbolic forms in reference to the body. The internet appropriated images of prisoners and torture victims, as well as political figures have become the basis upon which my recent photographs are created.

What is your artistic process like? How do you compose these collages?

The process is long, tedious, and detail oriented. I start by sourcing images disseminated via social media- the images range from those of protesters taking photos of themselves after being beaten by government officials, to photographs of public executions taken by bystanders. I then print the images larger than what they are sized at, so they often get pixelated or fuzzy. I usually sketch ideas of how I want the ending photograph to look, as well as what other objects and symbols will appear in the scene. After getting a rough idea for composition, I’ll start to build the sculptural collages; in which all of the cut out printed photos interact with the other objects I have chosen to communicate a story. It usually takes me around a week just to pick the colors (representative of political parties, color revolutions, and psychological colors) and how the objects and photos are composed and what they represent. Shooting the actual photo is pretty fast as I use time sensitive materials such as fresh fruits, raw petroleum, and liquids that need to be poured on the scene right before I take the photo. I’m interested in the final product being a photograph as it flattens all of the planes of the sculptural scene, which I find to be an aggressive and confusing gesture.

Do you feel that contemporary art should have a commitment to issues that effect our daily lives?

I don’t necessarily think that contemporary art needs to be socially or poltically motivated, but am personally less interested in work that doesn’t reference social issues. I believe that artists are able to communicate opinions in a visual language that is often more dynamic than how society is exposed to their surroundings and current events. By taking a stance on the issues and ideologies in our sphere, we can offer an alternative way to navigate terrains we may not have engaged with otherwise.

Illuminated 2014, archival pigment print, 24 x 17 inches

Illuminated,
2014, archival pigment print, 24 x 17 inches

You take on very direct issues in your work, what are some specific reasons that you’ve chosen to address and create a visual dialog for these issues?

I was raised as a Middle-Eastern child of political refugees in the mid-west of America. I was constantly exposed to stories from my immediate family, as well as my family in Iran about the political climate in the Middle East- but when watching the news portrayed in the American media, I was having a hard time connecting dots between the different versions of the truth. It was pretty hard to believe everything I heard on American news when the stories of my parents whom were in hiding and imprisoned differed drastically. The first time I remember getting extremely bothered by the mainstream news was when the Green Revolution in Iran (2009) started finally getting coverage in western media, but was immediately forgotten about when the ‘breaking news’ of Michael Jackson’s death was released. With the start of the ‘Arab Springs’ I would hear more and more from my family in Iran about the usage of social media to communicate during protests without being surveilled by the government- I thought this was brilliant, and within the past few years, have started a database of images I have found through twitter streams, as well as social media leaks. The images circulated by the Iranian youth are not the sensationalist ones we are used to seeing here in the west- they are often gruesome and disquieting, but offer a more in-depth perspective into the reality of daily life. By using cultural signifiers and a lexicon of symbols, my photographic mash-ups offer an alternative way of looking at the political systems we often do not get an inside view on.

Lachrymatory Agent, 2014, archival pigment print, 24 x 17 inches

Lachrymatory Agent, 2014,
archival pigment print, 24 x 17 inches

Your series “National Anthem” is incredibly powerful for its use of shocking imagery to raise critical awareness about social injustices within the Iranian regime. The use of national symbols like the flag, where you’ve replaced the coat of arms with a banana split is one of the many powerful protest images in your work. Can you tell me about some of the source materials you’ve used here and what the symbols mean in their altered states?

Every single object included in the photographs is part of a symbolic lexicon. I’ve formulated the language throughout my time working on the series, and the symbols remain constant. The usage of most fruits and foods reference Gross Domestic Product reports and trades of a country- a pomegranate for example, is one of the highest agricultural trades in Iran (oil/petroleum being the main source of trade and income for the country). The sugar cubes or frosting reference the killing of livestock in the Middle East- before the slaughter of an animal, a sugar cube is placed in its mouth to pacify the creature before it’s throat is slit. The animal is often also adorned and feminized with eyeliner (sormeh) before it’s death. I see this as a metaphor for the political situation in Iran throughout the past century. I’ll often use sugar cubes, marshmallows, and frosting in my collages when the sourced photographs are of executions. In ‘Lachrymatory Agent’, onions and coca cola reference how protestors rub coke and onions in their eyes to protect themselves against tear gas in protests. I’m currently working on a book and have been thinking about including a more in depth key to the symbols and their meanings.

What’s next on the horizon? Any new shows?

I’m moving to Rhode Island in 20 days where I’ll be teaching as a Post-Graduate fellow at RISD, as well as continuing my studio practice. I have a new series of images in the works, and will be in an exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Mapplethorpe’s the ‘Perfect Moment’ exhibition this November.

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