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Another chance to live, even for dead rebels

 Soheila Sokhanvari

(Barbican, 7 October 2022 – 26 February 2023)

Review by Sana Nassari


The 1979 Iranian revolution and the establishment of the Islamic regime have impacted the lives of women more than anyone else in Iran. Along with the compulsory dress code of full covering for women, other forms of hijab and of exclusion have been imposed, among which the prohibition on dancing and women’s solo singing are addressed in Soheila Sokhanvari’s exhibition, Rebel Rebel. As part of its multi-faceted installation, Sokhanvari has created 28 portraits of progressive Iranian females who, despite all the limitations of family and society, pursued their careers as artists instead of sticking to the clichéd, acceptable roles for women. This exhibition not only commemorates those female icons from pre-1979 revolutionary Iran but, by offering a journey through the not-too-distant contemporary history of Iranian art, provides a space in which they can continue their stolen artistic lives. 

The whole of the walls and floor of the Barbican Curve gallery have been illuminated with geometric motifs from Islamic art. Considering that Sokhanvari depicts images of the rebellion against orthodoxy of modern Iranian female artists, the purpose of these geometric patterns is not only decorative, nor, as some critics believe, are they intended to create a peaceful temple for the audience to focus on artworks. Rather, the overlapping green and white Islamic motifs – initially created to avoid figurative images in accordance with the sacred scriptures of Islam – are here surrounding illustrations of women who are considered prohibited subjects. The repetitive, interlaced lines that reach every corner of the hall seem metaphorically to represent the patriarchal rules which are always, even benevolently, designed to limit women’s acts and erase their presence. Besides, whether this is the artist’s intention or not, the overarching scale of the patterns versus the relatively small portraits might also be drawing attention to the disproportionate, lopsided occupation of art spaces, which have mostly been dedicated to classical Islamic art rather than the contemporary art of the Middle East. 

Sokhanvari employs the flatness of perspective of Persian miniatures in her photograph-based portraits to point to the disparity between the conservative, patriarchal structure of the society and the confident smiling faces of Iran’s cultural divas. The irrepressible exhilaration of the depicted divas is mingled with a soundtrack including the voices of iconic female singers such as Googoosh, who was popular before the Iranian revolution, went silent and has since re-emerged to perform internationally, and Mahvash from the 1950s, whose famous songs involved call and response with her male audiences. In post-revolutionary Iran, women are only allowed to sing in a chorus of singers, which is seen as a vocal veil for their voice.

There are also two boxes in the exhibition, in each of which hologram videos of a female dancer are played. Although held captive in a box, each dancer passionately repeats her moves. It seems that they are pushing against boundaries, and fighting fiercely with an unseen opponent, recalling the fact that this art form has been banned. 

The huge glass crystal star at the very end of the Curve gallery does not come into view until towards the very end of the exhibition, when visitors can finally lounge on seats and watch a compilation of old videos of the artists – dancing, acting and singing – through the glass facets of the star. While the sides, angles and joints of this glass sculpture interrupt the view, they remind visitors that the liveliness of these shows – now blurred memories on old video tape – is distant and inaccessible. 

There is no way out at the end of the Curve, and visitors have to walk back past the vivid colours of the elaborately detailed portraits, during which they can confirm that this is not a ceremony of mourning for the past but a promising invitation towards an ongoing future for the women of Iran. 

Photo courtesy of Lia Toby, Getty Images