“It’s not just artists that should be politically engaged – I believe activism is something all members of society should participate in somehow, regardless of their profession.“
Published as part of the featured project
Steeped in colour and political subtext, Sheida Soleimani’s vibrant tableaus come to life in the most unlikely of settings: an inconspicuous Rhode Island garage. The daughter of political refugees from Iran, her recent work examines and satirises the relationship between middle-eastern nations and their western counterparts. Here, Soleimani outlines her sources of inspiration, her working process and her future plans.
What inspired you to become involved with photography?
‘I’ve always enjoyed pushing people’s buttons. I grew up in rural suburbs with some pretty freak weirdo immigrant parents that definitely strayed from the norm. Between my mother’s assembly of half-dead animals she was trying to save and my father’s obsession with politics and the grotesque (including an over the top collection of animatronic Halloween decorations), my work just ended up absorbing what was around me: a surreal reinterpretation of normativity. I like to use photography as a medium to challenge my audience to re-evaluate what they recognise.’
What does a typical day in your studio look like?
It always starts with music. It has to be really loud, and usually ends up being hip-hop or rap. I’ll dance around for a good half hour or so while unpacking my materials before I actually get into the space of arranging things within a frame. I always make sure to reassess my object library – looking at everything that I’ve catalogued to see if any of it can be added into the tableau I’m working on. My backdrops take a long time to create and I get frustrated really easily. Sometimes I need to step back and give things a few days before I can return to them. I’m constantly having to remind myself that I won’t always get it right on the first attempt, and that it’s okay to do things over and over. I won’t stay in the studio for more than four hours at a time, and I always work in the afternoon. Once the sun goes down, I get too sleepy and I’m dead to the world!
Could you introduce your work for us?
I build and fabricate tableau scenes – sometimes on a table-top, sometimes on a much larger scale – to communicate a variety of different ideas. These ideas are often rooted in human-rights issues in the Greater Middle East, as well as the relationship between these territories and the West. Most recently, I’ve started to examine the relationship between illegitimately elected officials and the petroleum industry with my Medium of Exchange series. Leaders of oil rich countries use profit from petroleum to feed cronyism: oil in the hands of dictators has become a source of corruption, and many oil rich countries have funnelled profits not to the population at large, but to the ruling classes. While oil industries and the elites in these countries flourish, their citizens suffer. Creating humorous portraits of OPEC Oil Ministers and Western government officials based on real events, my work proposes an interplay of fetishistic love and sex between those in command.
Do you think all artists should be activists?
I don’t think it’s the job of just artists to be politically engaged – this is something that I believe all members of society should participate in somehow regardless of their profession or position. Activism and art are both very canned terms, especially in an era where“activism” is becoming more of a visual aesthetic than an actual practice. Is it possible to actually create change through protest or visuals? I think more than anything that “activism”in a contemporary sphere is about creating awareness on issues that are glossed over in our media saturated economy. In a time where we’re inundated with the same general pieces of information each day, we should be looking past mainstream issues to bring less-discussed topics to the forefront. We can talk about equality and justice all day long, but what does it even mean if we can’t begin to identify where the issues stem from?
What’s next for Sheida Soleimani?
Lately, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about reparations packages. Since so much of my research involves studying conflict, I started learning more about the “packages” that have been offered between countries to make up for lives lost during war, as well as to compensate for damage to industries and land. It’s such a strange idea to me that capital is the only means of reconciliation in these situations. How does one assess the value of a single life, or of thousands of lives? Can a cost be placed on torture? And who is it that decides what the correct value is? In traditional Sharia doctrine for example, the prosecutor is not the state but the victim or the victim's heir. This is referred to as diyah, where in cases of bodily injury or death the "blood money" compensation is determined by a formula – such as the value of certain number of camels. I’m not sure exactly how I’ll establish a hierarchy of command and value in the images yet, but that’s definitely the next big idea on my mind for creating a new project!