Soheila Sokhanvari’s ‘Rebel Rebel’: Exploring the Genealogy of Iranian Female Artists

Josie is a postgraduate student in Contemporary literature, culture and theory

Upon visiting Soheila Sokhanvari’s exhibition, ‘Rebel Rebel’, it is easy to see why the Barbican described it as a ‘feminist delirium’. Housed in The Curve, the exhibition space leads you down a narrow, high-ceilinged tunnel, lined with soaring murals of traditional Islamic patterns in muted blue and white. Once you pass the first piece of art, a ‘Monolith’ made of perspex that throws kaleidoscopic patterns of light across the floor of the entrance, you follow the winding path until you lose sight of the entrance. The soaring voices of Iranian singers like Googoosh and Ramesh enfold the space, completing your immersion into the artistry of Iranian women across the last century.

The main focus of the exhibition is Sokhanvari’s beautiful portraits depicting female icons of Persian cinema, poetry, music, and literature. The lovingly rendered paintings are tiny, encouraging the viewer to step close to the frame and examine the smiling faces of the women inside. Although the backgrounds and clothing in the pictures are brightly coloured, the skin and features of the women are in black and white, emphasising the way they have been pulled out of history. They are depicted here because history has not been kind to them, an injustice Sokhanvari seeks to draw attention to by celebrating their work. After the Islamic revolution in 1979, many of them were interrogated, ostracised, and had their lives and livelihoods threatened.

The singer Ramesh, whose music fills the exhibition space, was forced to flee Iran after the revolution in order to carry on singing. It is forbidden for women to sing in public in Iran, and Ramesh mourned her exile, saying, ‘If one day I return to Iran, I will sing from the bottom of my heart for my people.’. Others among the painted women, such as director Shahla Riahi or documentary maker Shahrzad, didn’t go into exile but instead, after being sent to Evin prison, were forced to renounce their previous careers. Many of them became destitute and died in obscurity. The exhibition is a tribute to the creativity and power of female artists, as well as a monument to its loss in post-1979 Iran, by memorialising the forsaken women and showing their work to a new audience. In addition to the songs from female singers, the exhibition culminates in a screen showing a collection of snippets from old Iranian cinema. The screen is encased in a three dimensional star made of perspex two way mirrors, allowing the light from it to reflect and refract upon the faces of those watching it. Thus, the film stars are literally seen in a new light.

In her 1992 essay ‘Writing and Freedom’, author Nawal El Saadawi discusses the restrictions placed upon female artists in the Arab world. Speaking from her own experience, she says that, despite ‘writing being the only means by which (she) could breathe,’ the authorities around her said that ‘there is no connection between writing and the act of breathing in a woman.’ She speaks of her own experience being imprisoned and highlights the injustice of it, as it was due to her refusal to acquiesce to the new president of Egypt. Artists, she claims, are unable to dissolve themselves into obeying a leader. This is because, in order to create art, one must express oneself. To create art, one can’t dissolve in ‘(their) husband, God, or the president’.

In light of El Saadawi’s words, the exhibition takes on an even greater sense of loss. Despite their talent and determination, the women in the portraits couldn’t continue to practise their art in their home country. Even now, women in Iran still have to protest for their basic rights. Sokhanvari’s exhibition captures the beauty of Iranian women’s art and mourns the loss of it for so many years. She subverts the Arabic expression ‘the demon of art’, and shows that art can be angelic and transcendental.