Sheida Soleimani Stewards Birds and Memories
Carrying people’s stories in her camera and birds’ lives in her hands, the Iranian-American artist sees a duty to create ethical practices of consciousness-raising and care-taking.
Sheida Soleimani’s intricately layered tableaus are jam-packed with imagery and allusion, dealing as much with the seepage of coercive state power into mundane life as sweeping socio-political events. Their arresting density—photographs, screen prints, people, fabrics, birds, layered and layered on top of one another—evades the emergence of any single story. For Soleimani, it’s an intentional choice aimed at resisting the totalizing and orientalizing narratives the “Middle East” is so often subjected to.
Soleimani is an artist and bird rehabilitator based out of Providence, RI. Born in Ohio to Iranian political refugees, Soleimani discovered photography in her adolescence at the same time she was surrounded by her parents’ vigorous political discussions at the dinner table.
Soleimani’s previous exhibitions include On the Wall: Sheida Soleimani at the Providence College Galleries. Subtitled “Ghostwriter” by Soleimani, the exhibition traversed memories and events in her parents’ lives, who fled in the 1980s from Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime. More recently, in the wake of the large-scale anti-government protests in Iran sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, Soleimani participated in a group show called “Eyes on Iran.”
When I asked her whether she felt the protests have altered the way she approaches her art, she said that they haven't changed much. “I’ve always made work with this in mind,” she told me, referring to her previous work that has centered themes of Iranian resistance. “If anything, these protests have reinforced [my creative practice] for me, and been a moment for me to say ‘Okay, this work has stood up for all of these values for so long.'’’ The last I saw of her studio, Soleimani was creating a tableau of a cemetery which holds the bodies of protesters killed in Iran during her parents’ time.
Soleimani spoke at the opening of “Eyes on Iran” in November alongside other Iranian artists, as well as Hillary Clinton, the cofounder of the non-profit who helped to mount the show. Installed such that it directly faces the UN Building in New York from across the river, the show was part of a larger campaign calling on the UN to oust Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women. The campaign proved successful on December 14, when the UN voted to remove Iran from the commission. “Eyes on Iran” will remain on display at Roosevelt Island until January 1, 2023.
In her day-to-day life, Soleimani flits between her art studio in her garage and her wildlife clinic in her basement. “Congress of the Birds” is the clinic’s name, according to a painted sign hanging outside her house. As one of the only federally licensed wildlife rehabilitators in the state, Soleimani spends much of her time caring for sick and injured birds which people bring to her.
In fact, when I arrived at her house, Soleimani was running back from a hawk pick-up at the fire department. She told me she normally receives about three to four calls per day about a bird in need of care—and even more during the summer, when the noise in her clinic becomes so cacophonous that it sounds like an “anarchist orchestra.” Although her intense work with the birds is self-admittedly exhausting, for Soleimani, it serves as precious solace from the petty human concerns and trivialities she encounters constantly outside of the clinic walls. In late October, I sat down with Sheida to discuss her art, activism, and her wildlife rehabilitation work.
What’s the role of your art in political activism?
I grew up in Ohio, and we’re Iranian. There were no other Middle Eastern people around. There were no other people of color around. So I learned at a really young age that I was doing the education for all the white people around me. That was difficult at a young age to be like ‘Oh, no one that I go to school with knows what Iran is. They think that Iran and Iraq are the same.’
If you think about activist practices, there is a lot of labor. People should know, but they don't know. And they're not going to learn unless it's packaged and easy for them. Because we live in a society and an economy where things need to be bite-sized for people to be able to latch on to them.
In that way my work, in tandem with my activist practice, is to unearth these narratives that Westerners do not engage with or know about. I force them to contend with it, because they're packaged in ways that are beautiful, or hot, or drippy—they look like advertising. Images are thinking about how we sell ideas. And so if I can sell an idea that's actually not palatable, and it's difficult to digest, how can I re-educate or get people to reframe what they're thinking about?
Like you’re delivering knowledge in a pretty package to help it go down easier.
Go down easier. Then when people realize what it is they're like, ‘Oh shit, this is fucked up, I don't know if I want to contend with this.’ Like too late. You already are dealing with it, you know? White people don't like to do work or labor in having to figure things out. And so if you're able to trick them into having to figure things out, I think my MO is the trickery aspect, like the Trojan horse. Like here's a gift. That's really beautiful. Oh, the gift is unpacking itself. And then you're like, oh shit, like, this is not a pretty gift anymore.
The materials and media you use to construct your tableaus are embedded with meaning, both overt and covert. How do you decide which elements you’re going to use?
If you were to come to my studio, you’d see probably fifty big shelves, floor to ceiling covered in objects. I think of that as my symbol library. If you see an object in the world, you generally attach an idea or ideology to it. Like a baby doll, or a Barbie, all of these things have preconceived notions.
A lot of my work is going into my object library and being like: Okay, what are the symbols that could work for this specific tableau or piece? Is there connective tissue, is there lineage, am I building a language? If I'm doing so, how can I displace the origin of that object to change what it means?
Like a soccer ball. What can I be doing to the soccer ball to render it useless? How could it be abstracted into something that is not actually what its origin is? Those are kind of the methods in which I decide to put in and take out things. Generally, there's a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor in that as well. That's what I find to be palatable but also sinister and cynical. There's a lot of playing around. I take things in and out all the time until I figure out what works.
Your photographs look almost entirely two-dimensional sometimes. It’s a compression, in a sort of way.
Totally, compression is really violent, too. And so thinking about the history of photography being very violent as a medium. What does it mean to take an image? Are you objectifying someone by taking their image or their identity, in a sense, maybe away from them? I'm really interested in flattening as a convention of photography. If you shoot at really high aperture, with flash lighting or strobe lighting, you have the possibility of taking a completely three dimensional space and flattening it and making it look really graphic. And that's really violent, if you think about it. It’s folding all of that space into something so compact and tight.
I also think of them as claustrophobic spaces, where a lot of the people don't have the choice to get out of the situations that they're in. Then, is it my job as the photographer, like the governor, the governments to allow them the opportunity out? Am I creating a way for them to get out of this claustrophobic space to tell a story?
Art about or from the Middle East is often orientalized by Western audiences. What strategies do you deploy to resist such orientalization?
I actually think it's quite an issue. I see a lot of other Iranian artists that are like: Oh, Americans expect us to do miniatures. So we're gonna make really beautiful miniatures. This is our historical tradition, so why not do it? And sure, it's important to be like: Yeah, Persian miniatures are a huge thing. Persian rugs are really important societally. But are we falling into the tropes that help white people or Westerners recognize our culture? For me, I really push back on those things. Unless I'm using them in tongue-in-cheek ways to poke at the ribs of my viewer, I stray away from using any of those symbols.
People are going to fetishize and orientalize all they want, and that's why I also stray away from putting bodies in my pieces. I like to cut things up and collage them so they become unrecognizable immediately. Because the minute that you see a body, you're able to associate it with a place, generally a gender, a socio-economic class, and a place in the world. If you're fragmenting and cutting things apart, and making these cyborg collages, I like to call them, then maybe these things aren't as recognizable. You're making the viewer work harder to try to find out what these things are, who they are, and what they might mean.
I want to talk about your recent exhibition, On the Wall: Sheida Soleimani, at the Providence College Gallery, which you subtitled “Ghostwriter.” You’ve talked about how the figures under the tree in this map represent stillborn or aborted babies buried by your mother, who was a nurse.
What was the process of talking with your parents about their memories, and of learning their pasts?
The way that a person tells a memory, it's a construction every single time. They might not tell it the same exact way, they might leave out something, they might add something, they might embellish something. I’ve heard these stories so many times in my life that I've kind of started like piecing them together. That's been a huge part of it. Reconstructing and trying to figure out the most real or the most true story, to figure out also where we're from.
One thing with the map is that mom did it a long time ago, she drew me that map in 2013. So before I started making like, very, very intensely political work, I was gonna go to Iran. And I was going to go try to unbury those babies from under the tree. So my mom drew a map of where they would be if I wanted to find them. But I realized when I looked at the map, it's not coherent. It's very childlike. I couldn't look at an actual place and be like, ‘Oh, where am I?’ You know? So there's also this layer of memory clouding where things could actually be. How could we actually find something? Do they need to be found? Is it important that we know that they're there, and maybe that's it?
What role does texture have in memory?
Texture absolutely plays a huge part in memory. My mom would tell me stories about the water and how it would feel in the big well that they had in the center of their house. When I'm creating that photo, I'm like, okay, what does that well look like? What's the texture of her memory? And how could I actually physically recreate that? And what does that mean?
Also texture in the sense that texture generally is a form of layering. And so if you're thinking about layering—whether it be like layering the clothes I'm wearing, or layering the paper and the patterns—it's to obfuscate, and it's to cover. What does it mean to take away and to add? You’re covering and uncovering? And I think that is a lot of memory for me is, how much of this is being shrouded? How much are they letting through? How much are they telling me? How much are they covering up—literally—you know? So how much is it for me to find out as well, as a researcher, or as a daughter?
You’ve mentioned that you see your work as an artist and your wildlife rehabilitation work with birds as the two most important care-taking practices in your life. How do you conceptualize your art as a care-taking practice?
A lot of my work is about human rights violations and issues. So I'm thinking a lot about the failures of governments to provide for their people. Thinking about caretaking in that sense,
Who are you going to be displaying in these images? How is portraying them an act of service or an act of care, because you're highlighting them instead of trying to bury their stories.
So far as the wildlife rehabilitation goes, obviously, there's the caretaking of having the caretaker for injured animals. But then there's also the idea of being this governor, in a sense. I'm making these decisions for these animals that are not consensual. I don't know if they would consent to what I'm doing to them. There's so many occasions in which I have to euthanize. Am I easing their suffering? Or do they want to live? It’s giving and taking life in so many ways. Am I the government of the bird clinic in a sense, and how can I make decisions that best suit my patients?
In some of your previous work, birds have served as symbols. But now you’re trying to move away from that, to present the birds as they are.
People project on birds all the time. And this is why I stopped using them as symbols. People will be like, ‘Oh, that's a hawk, it's violent because it's a predator. That's a dove. It's peaceful.’ Actually, those assumptions are really destructive. When people think that doves are peaceful and they release them at weddings, they're releasing these animals that are not equipped to be in the wild, and they're dying. If we think about the projections that we have on these animals without actually understanding who they are, or how they live, or what they actually do, then actually we're destroying our environment.
People bring me wildlife, and they're like, ‘Oh, it's my spirit animal’. And I'm like: You're not indigenous, it’s not your spirit animal. There's another person that said that she's a spiritual messenger for robins. What is it in your head that makes you think that you are meant to save this animal? Instead of aggrandizing yourself, why can't you just help something? Why are people trying so hard to build relationships with animals? Is it because they're so tired of existing in the world that they've created? And how can we get away from people trying to own animals like they always have, and thinking about how to live alongside them, instead of possessing them in some way. That's a huge part of the work too.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.