by Vatsala SethiDec 26, 2022
At the end of Rebel Rebel, British-Iranian artist Soheila Sokhanvari’s solo exhibition at the Barbican Centre, you will see a portrait. Like the 27 other portraits you will have passed by, this too depicts a woman—painted in the black-and-white tones of an old photograph. Like the other women, Nosrat Partovi is also a ‘rebel’, a woman who went against the grain to become a public figure and an entertainer. The painting is called Baptism by Fire. A skeletal pattern resembling a deer skull creates a maroon and gold backdrop against which a hand holds up what looks like a polaroid snapshot of Partovi. The snapshot is signed in one corner; a charcoal smudge appears on its white border.
When I talk to Sokhavari, she tells me about how Partovi was the last unveiled woman to appear on screen in Iran, in a film called The Deer. In August 1978, the film was being shown to an audience of hundreds at the Cinema Rex in Abadan, Iran, when four men barred the doors, doused the cinema in petroleum and set the hall on fire. At least 377 people died; it became a catalyst for the revolution that we are still feeling the ramifications of today.
Now, more than ever, in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s murder.
When, still shaken from my conversation with Sokhavari, I go onto Wikipedia to read more about the film, there is one thing that is immediately apparent to me. While everybody who worked on the film has their own page on the website, here is what I see when I look for Nosrat Partovi: ‘Page Does Not Exist’.
Sokhanvari’s image of her defiant gaze is where her existence glimmers back into view.
The history of Iranian women is riddled with gaps and deliberate erasures such as these. It is precisely this lacuna that Sokhanvari’s art speaks to. “The themes of my art have to do with the collective trauma and the subsequent amnesia that comes with it of pre-revolutionary Iran. I feel like my whole country changed this culture behind my back. So, I am trying to make sense of it all.”
Rebel, Rebel, named after the David Bowie pop song—Sokhanvari’s favourite— builds on this practice to present portraits of 28 prominent women who were pioneers in pre-revolution Iran. Sokhanvari grew up in Iran, leaving in 1978, one year before everything changed with the revolution in 1979. With Rebel, Rebel, she builds a sensorium that takes you to that moment in time. The art exhibition cuts an arc across The Curve, a six-meter tall wall that circles away from the entrance. When you walk in, you are confronted by a shining monolith, created to mimic the proportions of a typical Iranian cinema hall from the 1970s; it sparkles with cut pieces of mirror that cast their reflections on the show, and, according to Sokhanvari, create an atmosphere that pays homage to these forgotten stars of Iranian cinema.
The show is bookended by two portraits: the first is of Roohangiz Saminejad. What immediately strikes you are the characteristically 1930s waves in her hairstyle. Saminejad was one of the first women to appear unveiled in an Iranian film and while she made one more film, she stopped acting because of the censure she faced and the death threats she received. Making its way to the ill-fated story of the last portrait of Partovi, the exhibition traces the trajectory of Iranian pop-culture from the 1930s until 1979.
We see the filmmaker Kobra Saeedi, who protested against the introduction of compulsory hijab, documenting her dissent with a camera before being jailed by the regime and eventually ending up in poverty. We see figures such as the Googoosh, who was so iconic that she had a hairstyle named after and who also —unlike many of the other women in the show—retained her iconic status for six decades. Others were not so lucky; many were imprisoned, forced to write letters of penitence and had their property confiscated. Seeing them in the show—hair coiffed, gazes confident, captured in candid spontaneity—and reading their often tragic biographies underscores the contradictions of a shifting culture.
Throughout, the walls are painted in a delirious riot of patterns, all drawing from the fractal-like, repetitive motifs seen on Safavid and other Islamic mosques and monuments. When I ask her about her choice to embed the portraits in this mosaic of motifs, she tells me how their function in Islamic monuments is to create a space where the viewer is so overwhelmed by beauty that they lose their sense of self and start contemplating God. She says, “For me, I wanted to create a temple for these women so that as you come to the space, you can lose a sense of yourself and get into a feminist delirium, as it were.”
The strains of a soundtrack that brings together songs by singers such as Ramesh and Googoosh flow through the space and at the very end of the exhibition, visitors are confronted with a three metre star, inside which there are projections of extracts from the Iranian films in which these women starred. At a time when it is illegal for a woman’s voice to be broadcast in Iran, it is particularly poignant to see these songs and films unearthed from an eroding archive and animating the space.
For Sokhanvari, the show is deeply personal. To imagine being a female artist whose creativity is stubbed out, whose practice needs to be abandoned, hits close to home. This exhibition tells a story she has been holding in for a long time—“I felt like the story was burning in my chest for 43 years. I had to tell the story. I had to give them their voices back, and I had to put them back on a platform where they could sing and dance again.”
Through this immersive tableau of portraits, songs, holograms, archival footage and stories, Sokhanvari creates something that is all at once a shrine to pop culture, a triumphant memorial, but also a sobering eulogy, but most of all an antidote to forgetting these women and their lives. The gaps in the histories of women in Iran (and let’s not forget, elsewhere as well) are borne of violence, and no matter how much we tell the stories and save the photographs, we cannot paper over this fact. At most, we can treat them as fissures out of which something different and generative can grow, and, with this show, that is precisely what Sokhanvari does—chronicling a past that informs a traumatic present, with deliberation, care and real feeling.
Tap on the cover video to watch the full conversation.