“The Star” Soheila Sokhanvari and Jean-François C. Lemay Mixed media sculpture (perspex mirrors, wood, metal, plastic …
Soheila Sokhanvari and Jean-François C. Lemay
Mixed media sculpture (perspex mirrors, wood, metal, plastic and electronics), 300 cm, 2022
“Rebel Rebel” was an exhibition by Iranian-British artist Soheila Sokhanvari, at the Barbican centre, curated by Eleanor Nairne. 32 pieces of artwork were exhibited from October 2022 to February 2023.
To understand the exhibition mood and specifically “The Star”, it may help to step back and review Sokhanvari’s background. Her family moved to the UK when she was 14 years old, just a year before the Pahlavi royal dynasty was overthrown in Iran and replaced with an Islamic government under Ayatollah Khomeini, in 1979. The rights of women were swiftly curtailed under this new regime and remain so to this day. Currently, Sokhanvari works as an artist at Wysing Arts Centre, presenting some of the complexities of life in Iran after the revolution.
On Sep 16th 2022, Mahsa Amini was killed in Iran by morality police and the ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ protest movement sprang up across the world. Although Sokhanvari’s exhibition had been planned for 2 years, it took place at this key moment in history, giving voice and agency to Iranian women, who continue to suffer under the brutal regime. As you enter the gallery, you feel yourself in a mysterious world in which paintings, sculpture, video art, soundtrack and accompanying graphics on the wall and floor, combine to induce an atmosphere of positive female empowerment, transporting you for a moment to pre-1979 Iran.
Sokhanvari’s exhibition in the Curve is apt, as the shape of this space is alternatively described as a Crescent – a symbol appropriated by Islam but of secular, Byzantine origins. She transforms the Curve into a devotional space, populated with 28 exquisite miniature portraits of glamorous, female cultural figures who were forced to stop their artistic careers by the Islamic regime due to severe restrictions, including for example forbidding for women to sing in public. Sokhanvari’s portraits are hung on a 90-metre wall and the surrounding space is hand-painted from floor to ceiling with geometric shapes, derived from traditional Islamic patterns designed to help the viewer contemplate the vastness of the universe and God’s greatness. In contrast, a soundtrack composed by Marios Aristopoulos and featuring songs by iconic Iranian women singers, particularly Googoosh and Ramesh, lulls the visitor.
As you are progressing through the Curve, the music grows louder. Finally, a shining 3-metre sculpture can be glimpsed at the end of the corridor, titled “The Star”.
‘The Star’: located at the end of the curve, indicated by No.32.
“The Star” is a mixed media sculpture made from Perspex two-way mirrors, wood, metal, plastic, electronics and a screen in the centre, onto which is projected videos of performers who are possibly in exile, as their fashions date post-1979 and their performances would not be permitted in Iran today.
A comfortable seating area at the end of the Curve allowed viewers to watch video art from a mixture of performances (including original videos made before the revolution) and documentary films.
While the majority of Sokhanvari’s paintings depict Iranian heroines as miniatures, often measuring around 15 x 20 cm, the Star is a large, mirrored sculpture with video projections of classic Iranian cinema. It’s location was the perfect place to capture a sense of the whole installation (note: the artist considers this exhibition as an installation) as you felt the connection of each piece of artwork to the soundtrack, from the entrance to the end of the Curve and culminating in The Star and its projected video and sounds of female performers depicted in Sokhanvari’s paintings. The geometric shape of The Star and the reflection of its light on the walls, floor and your body, makes you a part of the artwork, basking in the performance of the artist but also of the singers she is paying homage to. This is the place where some of these women’s lives and voices are returned to them through their screen performances. These real fates of the women depicted in Sokhanvari’s works are arrests, exile, death sentences, and in almost all cases, the ends of their artistic careers. However in this exhibition at the Barbican, Sokhanvari’s artworks and the full force of the installation refuse to let their stories disappear and it joins the ranks of allies in the current struggle over female bodies and minds that continues today.
Sokhanvari wanted to create a feminist ambience so that you could contemplate your own identity as you contemplate these women. However, she is also inspired by the way US Director Stanley Kubrick uses patterns as a metaphor. His storytelling through shapes and patterns inspired Soheila to create her monolith sculpture. She said: ‘My brain works as two threads woven together because I’m a collage of two cultures. I can’t help but bring these two languages together.’
It is a meditative, thoughtful, deeply felt attempt to resurrect a lost world of strong, free Iranian women.