This is an old review of an exhibition seen in February, which is now closed. Keep an eye out for more of the artists amazing work though through her website!
Upon approaching the Curve Gallery in London's Barbican, you will be met by a darkened room: the lingering light shedding in from the exhibition's entrance projecting fractals of frost-esque shadow across the ground. The presence of a tall, glass sculpture – the 'Monolith’ – is the body through which this light shines, in emulation of the broken-yet-still-standing.
As you continue to enter the room, twenty-eight faces mounted across a curving, geometric-patterned wall share varying gazes, searching the space amid the immersive inclusion of Iranian background vocals: an ode to Islamic roots and the forbidden joys of self-expression. Soheila Sokhanvari's portraits are of no ordinary people. They are depictions of famous Iranian women who played a part in pushing back against the inherent patriarchal oppression of their government. Though, the majority of these figures succumbed to a bitter fate, either in terms of their career ending or being later sent into exile.
Sokhanvari is an Iranian-born British artist. After fleeing her home country in 1978, Sokhanvari resided in the city of Cambridge, going on to create works such as those in 'Rebel Rebel', linking back to her heritage. As women in Iran today are still left battling for freedom, the timely relevance of Sokhanvari's exhibits are perfectly poignant. Mahsa Amini's name is a regular on the lips of those around the world, and protests continue to flood the streets in hopes of raising awareness for those persecuted, solely for wishing to be who they are.
The juxtaposition between seeking unfiltered selfhood and the reluctance to be oneself translates through Sokhanvari's portraits. Spaced at least two metres apart, while weaving around the room you will notice how each portrait sequentially increases in its sense of boldness. The first, a portrait of 'The Lor Girl' (Roohangiz Saminejad), is pencilled in complete monochrome. Stepping to the next, 'Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season' (Forough Farrokhzad) appears monochrome, aside from painted crimson lips. Eventually the portraits reach a state of complete vibrance and provocativeness: yellows and greens, enticing patterns, displays of androgyny, and the holding of cigarettes. These images communicate as framed snapshots of internalised defiance, showcasing the beauty of Iranian women being everything that their society tells them not to be. Bold and vivacious. Feminine and feminist.
However, among the bright pictures, there remains a veil of darkness. The skin of each woman rests in a paled-out grey, contrasting sharply against their adornments. Their ability to break the fourth wall and maintain eye contact with a viewer is scattered, often looking to the side or slightly off-centre. These women appear to be glowing from the outside, but not from within.
Rebel Rebel is a song of bravery and an ensemble of truth – a space where the reclaiming of identity is celebrated, yet also shown in its real sense of hardship and sorrow. Allow the space to hypnotise you with its serenity, as you float back to each element again and again. But allow it to touch your heart, too, under its abundance of vulnerability and access to insightful stories.