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16 Feb

The artist will make you’re thinking that otherwise about

The artist will make you’re thinking that otherwise about

The artist will make

Soheila Sokhanravi talks to Niloufar Haidari about her Barbican show, Rebel Rebel – a study of Iranian womanhood, and the misconceptions which have at all times surrounded it

With one hand within the pocket of her tartan dress, Iranian actress Faranak Mirghahari is frowning with perfectly arched eyebrows and aiming a pistol at someone just out of frame. The pattern of her dress clashes with the red geometric design artist Soheila Sokhanravi has chosen as a background for the miniature portrait.

Mirghahari, who shoots her way through the patriarchy in The Last Hurdle (1962), was a contrast to the passive, sexualised roles common for girls in Filmfarsi (pre-revolutionary Iranian cinema). The actress is one in all 28 women who feature in Rebel Rebel, an exhibition by Sokhanravi that pays tribute to the extraordinary courage of the ladies who pursued their careers in a “culture enamoured with Western style, but not its freedoms”.

Filmfarsi was arguably the cultural arm of the Shah’s White Revolution, a programme of aggressive modernisation forced onto a society that had little readiness or desire for it. This is clear within the struggles faced by the ladies in Rebel Rebel, who often spoke out against the culture they found themselves in. We meet Jaleh Sam, an actress who left Iran in 1976, disillusioned by the sexism of the film world, and the genre’s sex symbol Forouzan, who spoke out concerning the degrading work conditions for girls in a 1972 interview: “I’m sick, sore, and exhausted. I’m bored with standing in front of the camera listening to the director telling me ‘be a bit sexier, a bit more lustful, bring your skirt higher, be a bit more inciting and provocative‘.” Following the revolution, she had all of her assets seized, and would go on to die in obscurity in Iran in 2016.

The feminine body has historically functioned as a battleground for ideological, philosophical and spiritual debates and agendas, and reading the blurbs that accompany these intricate, patterned miniatures, what’s abundantly clear is that Iranian women have never been free. Whether that’s the forced sexualisation and objectification they faced in the course of the US-backed Pahlavi regime, which forbade women from covering their hair, or the mandatory hijab that followed when the people’s revolution of 1979 was hijacked by hard-line religious fundamentalists, the ladies of Iran have for a long time been denied personal selection.

Conversations around women’s rights in Iran are frequently extremely reductive, with pre-revolution Iran often viewed through rose-tinted glasses as a spot of total freedom and equality, entirely populated by glamorous women in miniskirts and bikinis. This was obviously not the case, and your exhibition highlights the superficiality of those images, in addition to the frustration felt by these women who were often exasperated by the two-dimensional, sexualized roles they were being offered. Often they were steadily not even paid for his or her work. Was difficult this historic revisionism something that was necessary to you?

Soheila Sokhanravi: Iranians generally tend to recollect their country because the land of Xanadu. Iran has at all times been divided between the conservative values of the mullahs and the modernisation forces of the Shah[s]. These women were pulled between these two forces, and had to barter the hurdles that they got here across – there was still a lot patriarchy and misogyny. That they had to do mental somersaults to cope with the dichotomy of the society, and negotiate the very fantastic line between these two opposing worlds. For instance, on one hand, the actresses needed to compete with Hollywood and Bollywood movies with Western ideals and values that were [being shown] in Iran, after which then again their very own families, communities and audiences, were pulling them back. The Shah’s modernisation was too alienating for a few of these women and the conservative families they got here from. It wasn’t easy for girls, particularly those that were in the general public eye being judged.

What I used to be trying to focus on in my exhibition was how much tenacity these women had to point out in an effort to reach the platform of stardom, and the way much they lost when the revolution happened – they lost even the small rights that got to them by the Shah. That was a story that I felt very drawn to as a female artist – I can’t envisage what it will need to have been like for them to lose their ability to make their art as and once they wished. I wanted Iranian people to recollect them, because a variety of them have been forgotten and are literally unknown by Iranians. I desired to bring them back to a latest generation, and more globally to an even bigger audience.

There may be very little public record of most of those women – their stories weren’t deemed interesting or necessary enough to be recorded on the time, and after the 1979 revolution lots of them were forced out of labor and forgotten completely. How did you select who to feature?

Soheila Sokhanravi: They were either related to the political history of Iran, or were pioneers of their field. Forough Farokhzad was [a pioneer of] poetry. Roohangiz Saminejad was the primary woman to look in a movie [in 1933]. Some, like Googoosh and Ramesh, are the largest stars of their time, and I selected them because I had so many memories of them from once I was a toddler in Iran. I needed to end the exhibition with the portrait of any person who a number of Iranians were unaware of, and that was the portrait of Nosrat Partovi who starred in The Deer. She was the feminine lead, and [the portrait tells] the story of the Cinema Rex fire [During a 1978 screening of the film, the cinema was locked from the outside and set on fire, killing at least 377 people. It is thought to have been a catalyst for the downfall of the Pahlavi regime, and there is still disagreement as to whether the fire was started by hard-line Islamists or the Shah’s secret police]. Every woman told a story that covered a component of Iranian culture, and the history that I used to be attempting to tell.

‘It’s a stereotype made by the Western media that Iranian women are oppressed victims who’re punching the air with their fists and chanting death to America… I believe they should be recognised for what they are surely: brave, sassy, intelligent, rebellious women’ – Soheila Sokhanravi

My impression before your exhibition – and customary sentiment – is that every one of the ladies who worked within the entertainment industry were exiled or fled Iran post-revolution. And while that was the case for some, others stayed and fought to maintain their legacies alive – Pouri Banaaei refused to sign the ‘letter of repentance’, saying she had nothing to be ashamed of, and Haydeh Changizian, the previous prima ballerina of Iran, lives between Lisbon and Tehran, where she is working to create a museum of dance. In my very own life, the ladies in my family have at all times been those making the household decisions, which is at odds with the prevalent image of Iranian women as passive, oppressed figures cloaked in black. Do you’re thinking that this strength and defiance are intrinsic to Iranian womanhood?

Soheila Sokhanravi: It’s a stereotype made by the Western media that Iranian women are oppressed victims who’re punching the air with their fists and chanting death to America. There’s at all times been this other alternative image of ladies, and their power, that has been ignored. I wanted to offer another image of Iranian women because I believe they should be recognised for what they are surely: brave, sassy, intelligent, rebellious women.

I believe women on the entire are defiant as a gender – we’re resilient and tenacious, due to ideas of patriarchy that we’re still fighting. Iranian women have historically been very strong and powerful; they’ve at all times been fighting for his or her rights. Every one in all these women had a rebellious nature that made them succeed – without that nature you can not achieve as much as they’ve of their lives. These women are the moms and grandmothers of the ladies participating within the demonstrations at once within the streets of Iran – there may be this thread that goes through the generations, because Iranian women don’t take no for a solution. I’m very pleased with them, because I believe they’ve proven to the world how brave they’re.

I used to be struck by how much of a threat art was considered by each the Pahlavi regimes and the Islamic regime, each of whom banned and censored works for fear of dissent or criticism. Art has at all times been of great importance in Iranian culture, from the Persian Empire all over to modern Iran. Even now, with their hands creatively tied by censorship, Iranian cinema is widely considered a few of one of the best on the planet.

Soheila Sokhanravi: Censorship, metaphors, and symbolism have at all times been in Persian culture. We have now this thing called tarof – the thought of never having the ability to speak truth to power is in our language. Have a look at the poetry of Hafiz, you could have to read the text, after which you could have to determine what it actually means – there’s a variety of reading between the lines. I don’t consider that power or suppression comes from the highest down; I believe that censorship comes from the family upwards. We’re brought up from childhood to watch out of what we are saying, it’s ingrained in our culture and in our language, and I feel like this has been utilized by most of the ruling powers in Iran – not only the Pahlavi regime, and never just the Islamic Republic.

Lots of the reviews I read of the show while preparing for this interview appear to have missed the purpose, which is that these women, although undeniably glamorous, weren’t free and liberated, and were attempting to navigate a culture that will have loved them but didn’t necessarily respect them.

Soheila Sokhanravi: These women were all pioneers of their fields, so to attain what they did was a mammoth task – inside a generation, to go from a society by which men would turn their back to you for those who were walking on the street, to [one in which] women were wearing miniskirts and orgasming on camera [Fereshteh Jenabi in 1976’s Resurrection of Love]. I believe that was really shocking for nearly all of people, it was too soon to be subjected to those sorts of freedoms.

In the event you have a look at images of ladies who went to protest against the Shah, lots of them donned headscarves as a protest against what happened to their grandmothers – they were saying we reject your modernity and your Western values. After which once they were forced to wear obligatory hijab [after the revolution] they resisted that too. It’s an example of the complex values that Iranian people have, and I used to be trying to deal with the complexities of the culture, and get people to give it some thought.

‘I’d often be criticised for my work being too ‘pretty’. But beauty permits you to carry ugly and bitter messages, messages of hope and sadness’

You began working on the show in 2019, and clearly had no idea its release would find yourself coinciding with the largest women’s rights movement in Iran for the reason that revolution. What are your feelings on the show in context of what is happening in Iran?

Soheila Sokhanravi: The protests in Iran have brought my show right into a more political focus. It’s funny – up until then I used to be concerned about people not understanding what the work is about, because I’d often be criticised for my work being too ‘pretty’. But beauty permits you to carry ugly and bitter messages, messages of hope and sadness. It was in light of the protests that individuals really understood what my work is about: it isn’t about patterns and hues, it’s concerning the women. It’s an important story that should have beauty to hold the message across.

It’s a tragic scenario for me because at the identical time individuals are dying in Iran. It breaks my heart to see my sisters and my brothers being injured and killed. It’s appalling and it completely tears my heart apart, but at the identical time, I wanted to offer hope for what women can achieve in the event that they are given a bit little bit of support. I’m not attempting to say ‘look how good we had it up to now’, I’m attempting to say look what these women achieved of their time, despite not getting the support. Imagine how way more we are able to achieve if [we have] support – perhaps then women could have freedom in totality.

Rebel Rebel is running at London’s Barbican Centre until February 26

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