Sheida Soleimani So we see this photographic image of this mud brick-looking house in the ruins. You know, it looks a little in shambles. These are the ruins of the house that my mother grew up in.
Lilah Raptopoulos That’s the artist Sheida Soleimani. Recently I joined her at the Denny Gallery in Tribeca, New York, where we could look at her art together. Her newest work is art about her parents’ escape from Iran in the 1980s.
Sheida Soleimani It’s actually a very collaborative practice. So you know, I’ll be like, “Oh, I remember the story you told me, and this is what I’m thinking of putting into the set, or this is what I’m putting in the background.” And I’ll describe it to him and be like, “Oh, this sounds good, except you left out this detail and you should add this because it’s a very important element.”
Lilah Raptopoulos Sheida is talking me through this series, which we featured recently in the photography special of the FT Weekend magazine. It’s called Ghostwriter, and the story it’s telling is a difficult one. As an opponent of the Iranian revolution, Sheida’s father spent several years in hiding. And her mother spent over a year imprisoned in solitary confinement. The project’s name comes from the early 2000s. Her dad noticed that ghostwritten immigrant stories were having a moment in American culture.
Sheida Soleimani And I remember my dad was like, really excited about that at the moment and was like, “Oh, Papa, we should find a ghostwriter to write a story about our life.” And I knew that he would never do it. And lo and behold, he never did. And so I remember calling them and asking them, after a lot of thought, “Is it OK if I ghostwrite your story and photograph? And they said, “Yeah.” And they said under one condition: our faces remain anonymous. And I said, absolutely. You know, thinking about also how I experience and think about the medium of photography, the faces aren’t important to me. People don’t need to see faces to understand, like, you know, the trauma that they’ve experienced or their pain or their stories.
Lilah Raptopoulos Sheida was born and grew up in the US, years after her parents escaped. She’s 33, and until now, she’s been making very political work. A lot of it is about how the Middle East is represented in western media. But now she’s finally telling this very personal story about how her parents left Iran and the best sort of most comfortable way that she’s found to do that is to work with her parents. Today, I talk with Sheida about that complicated project of making art inspired by family history.
This is FT Weekend. I’m Lilah Raptopoulos.
Sheida Soleimani is a multimedia artist. Her final artworks, like the pieces that you’ll see in a gallery, are technically photographs. But they’re almost always photographs of something that she’s physically made in her studio. Kind of like a small diorama or a set. Behind it are layers and layers of overlapping stuff. So things like ripped up political flyers or patterned fabrics, just repeating images. The artworks are colourful and maximalist and just super textured. So the more that you look at the piece, the more it reveals itself to you. I put a few examples in the show notes.
So they look kind of collage-like, it’s all, it’s just, it’s a photograph entirely of . . . wow. OK.
Sheida Soleimani Yeah. So everything is it is collage, sculpturally collaged. I don’t do collage in the sense of I’m, you know, cutting apart newspaper and gluing it to like a photograph and then photographing that. I’m actually, you know, printing out large photographs, sculpting them on top of props, on top of different forms, bringing in different symbols, flowers, you know, sports types of like artefacts, like basketballs. You know, maybe you’re pulled in by something that’s seductive. Maybe it’s like a really, like, hot colour pink. And you’re like, “Oh, that’s really shiny. It’s lit really well. What’s happening?” And then when you start paying attention . . .
Lilah Raptopoulos They’re very aesthetically sort of grabbing. Yeah, they’re like, they’re like, You want to eat them?
Sheida Soleimani Yeah, I want them to be sumptuous. Like, I want there to be something there that makes you want to interact with it the same way. Like I look at a lot of advertising imagery and food photography, you know, like I’ll be driving and seeing a billboard and I’m like, “Oh, what type of lighting did they use to capture that image?” And why would I want to buy those leggings? I don’t actually want them, but the colour and the way that they’re shot makes me want them.
Lilah Raptopoulos The gallery that we’re in together, we’ll be presenting the Ghostwriter show in September. But today we’re here to look at two older pieces that are good examples of Sheida’s earlier work. One of them, called Proof, shows the hands of the former head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Qassem Soleimani. He has the same last name as Sheida, but they’re not related. He was assassinated by the US in 2020. What you see is a hand wearing a lavish watch and a large orange ring, and it’s holding a mirror. And in the mirror is a similar hand, but it looks severed or dead.
Sheida Soleimani There might be, you know, for instance, on the image that we’re looking outside on this wall, there’s the image of Qassem Soleimani’s hand after he was assassinated. And so you might not know that’s what it is. And it takes you awhile to sit with it and unpack it, because you might be looking at the colours or the textures.
Lilah Raptopoulos Can we look at it together right now? I’m going to bring this home with me and everything.
Sheida Soleimani OK. So I mean, the image we’re looking at right now is actually from my series “Levers of Power”. So here we’re actually looking at an image of Qassem Soleimani’s hand, both in life as well as in death. And so he was assassinated on January third 2020. I remember this because it was sitting at a bar in Marfa, Texas, drinking a negroni, and I felt my last name flash across the screen. And I was like, “Oh shit, this is going to be good.” (chuckles)
Lilah Raptopoulos Did people start asking you if you were related or anything like that?
Sheida Soleimani Yeah, I mean, I got so many and it’s surprising to me. I mean, like after 911, nothing surprises me. You know, I grew up in the Midwest, and so a lot of people were like, “Oh, does your dad know Saddam Hussein?” But, you know, fast forwarding, like I thought a lot of my friends or like people in my circle that like, obviously understand that it’s a somewhat common last name. And immediately within hours, all these texts, “Are you OK?”, “I’m so sorry for your family.” And so at the same time, there’s a New York Post article, which obviously we know is a tabloid. But there was a photo of Qassem Soleimani’s hand, this actually exact image of him wearing a ring during a press conference. And then they had this other image of a severed amputated hand that was found after the missile strike laying on the grass with a ring on it as well. And so there was this conspiracy theory that maybe the two hands are different and that Qassem Soleimani is not really dead. And so, like, you know, that for me, that’s like another like kind of pushed for me to be like, you know, it is necessary for me to be making this type of work. Like, how do we receive our news? Like, who are we receiving it from and how do we actually parse out how to believe what’s real and what’s not, what’s true, what isn’t?
Lilah Raptopoulos So that’s Sheida’s older stuff. It’s art that gives you a taste of this instinctive knowledge that a first-generation immigrant has. But there’s more to a news story about their country of origin than what you see in the news. And that’s not because someone’s out to hide it, but because stories are mediated through the people who tell them. And in this case, that’s the media. She’s criticising how much of the story can get lost through that lens.
Her newer work is different in that it’s more personal. It’s her parents’ story. But it’s also grappling with this question of who gets to tell a story and the ethics of how. Because even though Sheida is telling it now, she doesn’t have all the details either. She can’t go to Iran and she wasn’t born yet when her parents escaped.
Could you tell us what we should know about your parents’ story?
Sheida Soleimani Yeah. I can give you kind of the spark alert threshold is even still a little long. My parents were in Iran and are still today leftist pro-democracy activists that were opposed both to the Shah government as well as the Ayatollahs’ totalitarian regime. My father was very heavily involved with protesting, giving speeches, distributing documents, writing articles. And because of his heavy involvement with, you know, his political group, he had a bounty on his head and had to go into hiding. My mother was also political, but not as political as my father, but because of her relationship with him, also had to go into hiding. And yeah, then my father got a, I guess, guide or a smuggler, and the . . . he was smuggled across the border, over the mountains on a two and a half, three-week journey. And it’s a really kind of treacherous path. A lot of people actually tried to escape via the same routes, but don’t make it. And so my dad went. He was successful. And so then my mom tried to go and at the border she was caught. And because of her relationship with my father, she was thrown into prison and put into solitary confinement two different periods of about six months each for over a year.
Lilah Raptopoulos Sheida’s mother eventually got out of Iran and joined her husband.
Wow. And what year was that?
Sheida Soleimani She arrived in the States in 1986, I believe. 86, 87.
Lilah Raptopoulos Sheida’s newer work about her parents’ journey looks similar to the older stuff. There are still layers and layers and reflections and symbolism and collage. What’s new are these poignant, very personal touches from her parents’ lives. The exhibition of Ghostwriter is in London now at the Edel Assanti gallery, and it uses a hand-drawn map that’s screen printed on to the walls of the gallery to kind of carry you along the story. That map is actually drawn by her father, and it’s of his memory of his escape route to Turkey.
Can you tell me a little bit about . . . So you were born in Indianapolis in ‘89?
Sheida Soleimani ‘90.
Lilah Raptopoulos ‘90, OK. And you said that your parents spoke quite openly about what they had experienced.
Sheida Soleimani Yes. (laughter)
Lilah Raptopoulos You see all the time. Tell me how it came up and what in what ways it would come up.
Sheida Soleimani In every way, god. You know, my parents are of a specific generation in which, (A) therapy is not widely accepted culturally in Iran, but (B) for my parents’ generation, therapy is also not, you know, something that’s accepted. It means you have a really bad issue going on. And of course they did. They were super traumatised. They both have PTSD. But that was just like, you know, “No, we don’t need therapy. Everything’s fine.” And so I was their therapist and I think they really needed someone to listen and, you know, a child is a captive audience. And so I was. I heard all these stories, my mom, you know, and we would hang out together at home as I was growing up. These were my bedtime stories, my first childhood fear. You know, a lot of people were like, “Oh, the bogeyman is hiding under your bed.” I thought leprosy was hiding under my bed, because my mom was a nurse. You know, the Kurdish field hospital, where there’s a lot of lepers, there’s lepers. I live nearby. And so, like my, you know, fear was that there was this person with rotting, you know, tissue under my bed because of these stories. My father was not as visceral as she was. He would, you know, get stressed, think about the past, and he would go on these we lived in the country and would go on these drives. The drives have been my father’s like ultimate way of like, relaxing, like his whole life. And so he would go on a drive and he’d ask me if I wanted to jump in the car, and I would, and he’d turn on whatever music he was listening to lots of classical Persian music or like leftist revolutionary anthems and a lot of time we would drive in silence, and then he would begin to talk.
Lilah Raptopoulos Ghostwriter starts with an image of a hand carrying a suitcase. It’s her dad’s actual suitcase that he escaped from Iran to America with. And the hand is his hand, though it’s not attached to a body, so you wouldn’t know. The two statement pieces of the show are two portraits of Sheida’s parents now. Their faces are obscured as promised, and they’re sitting in the same scene, that collaged version of her mother’s house in Iran, which Sheida talked about earlier. Her mother is cradling a live guinea fowl and her father is clutching a rooster. These are real birds and they symbolise real stories. And the show is full of references like that to family history.
And when they said yes, did they . . . What was the emotion behind it? Was it . . . Yeah.
Sheida Soleimani Oh, gosh. I mean, my mom was like, ‘Are you sure you want to do that?” You know and I was like, “Yeah, I think so. I think I’m ready.” And she’s like, “OK, if it makes you happy, then I’ll do it.” And my dad was, you know, obviously being very like Marxist political, he was like, “Well, Baba, you have to discuss with me every single idea that you’re thinking of doing to make sure that this is actually getting your point across.” And so every time I would propose a photograph to them, they’re actually coming in a few months to photograph, to be photographed again, they want me to give them a rundown of what I’m thinking.
Lilah Raptopoulos What is it like to work with your parents? Like, creatively?
Sheida Soleimani It’s kind of the joy of my life. (chuckles) So, I mean, like being a kid, my mom was very like, you know, whatever. Artistic, like, as cheesy as that sounds. You know, she, we didn’t have other Persian families or friends. She didn’t socialise. I didn’t socialise because I didn’t speak English until a little later. So my mom and I had each other. And so there’s lots of like arts and crafts making. I wasn’t allowed to have dolls or have toys because they were too American. And so I learned how to make my own. And my mom taught me and my dad is not artistic in any way, shape or form, but he’s always about ideas. So in that sense, it’s been like a huge joy for me because it feels like they’re actually getting to tell their own stories, too. It’s not me fabricating these sets and sticking them in it and saying what happened to them? Like, if I’m photographing my dad. The last time my parents were in the studio, my mom was in the set moving around, thinking like, “What about this, Sheida?”, “What about this?” You know?
Lilah Raptopoulos Yeah, wow.
Sheida Soleimani It’s . . . yeah, it’s really great. It feels really special. And I feel really lucky to, like, have them be involved and trust me with this in their stories.
Lilah Raptopoulos I think a lot about how family histories get passed on and what gets lost and what details matter. I’m actually in the process now of piecing together the history of where my own parents’ family came from. And to me, this really beautifully depicts what patching family history together can be like. Real facts like the photo of the house, mixed with family memories and myths and missing pieces. Sometimes we go searching and all we can recreate is a feeling. And sometimes that feeling feels more true than the facts.
It’s kind of, it’s quite moving that they were so open with you. I . . . my mom’s dad, different of course but survived the Armenian genocide. And he . . . it was really hard for her to get him to say anything. And it was . . . so it was interesting. I mean, that was a generation above her, you know, or two. But that sort of . . . there was like an old world generation, I think, of people who just, like, didn’t want to talk. Yeah.
Sheida Soleimani Like even Holocaust survivors and Armenian genocide as well as, you know, thinking a lot about how people that have experienced that amount of trauma either shut down or they feel like if they need to be if they want to be successful in life or to be able to rebuild or reestablish, they’re not allowed to talk about these things anymore. And in my parents’ world, professionally, I mean, my mom, you know, was at home because of what happened to her, she never was in the workforce again. But they don’t talk about these things because you have to kind of be creative, divide or create these boundaries. And so, yeah, it is interesting thinking about the difference and how different generations had held on to this or not communicate these things.
Lilah Raptopoulos Were there certain questions or feelings that you sort of knew you always wanted to explore or you had rolling around in your head as you were young and as you were getting older about your parents and your, yeah, and what they kind of . . .
Sheida Soleimani I mean, so many different things, right? Because I’m a child of the diaspora, but I’ve never visit. I have all of these, you know, kind of images of Iran through the eyes of my parents. But they’re very dated because they’ve left. It’s been so long since they’ve gone. Questions rolling around in my mind for them. I mean, I never want to provoke. I never asked them “What was it like?” Or “How do you feel?” Because they tell me and I know. You know, I think it’s too painful to be like, “And how did you feel during this time?” You know, my mom just burst into tears. But I want to know the details. Like, I want to know why my dad doesn’t remember the name of the horse that he rode across the mountains and didn’t have a name. Well, I asked him if he would name and he said, I don’t know. I would. I didn’t name in, like, so interesting. Like, I think about this. It’s like a thing that carries you to safety. Like, did you build a relationship with it? No. He thought it was very large and it was nice. And I asked about the smugglers and I said, you know, did they, do you know their names? And he said, no, I don’t know their names. And so I had thought that maybe there was more. And a lot of these stories are extremely complex, but they are very matter of fact for what they are. And I think that’s something I’m negotiating as an artist, you know, thinking about how can I represent this in, you know, a way that does just the story and doesn’t add too many flourishes because this isn’t a flourishing story.
Lilah Raptopoulos Yeah, yeah, yeah. I don’t know. Now that you’ve opened up, starting to create work about your personal history and your family history has it, I guess the question is, where are you . . . where do you go next to like what opens up to you creatively? What do you get to do now that maybe you didn’t before? Because that part of . . . I don’t know, that wasn’t.
Sheida Soleimani Yeah, good question. I think I get to let myself be more sentimental. I’m an extremely sentimental person. I remember talking with my friend Nath about this when I started making this work and, you know, kind of asking him, like, “Do you think this is too sentimental? Do you? Because I don’t want this to be like sentimental, like, family album, like photography, you know, like, I don’t want it to be like, this is nostalgia.” And, you know, he was like, “No, you kind of have to let yourself, like, feel. And that doesn’t mean that if you feel sentimental that the work will be sentimental.” And I appreciate him giving me that nudge. I do have the ability to be more sentimental. I don’t think these images are sentimental, but it’s letting me access those feelings in a way without having to feel shame or fear. I’m having to be so serious and straight in, you know, facts, discovery and finding and delivery to an audience.
Lilah Raptopoulos Yeah, yeah. Sheida, this was so fascinating. Wonderful. Thank you so much.
Sheida Soleimani Thank you so much for having me. It was really lovely speaking to you.
Lilah Raptopoulos I’ve put links to a profile I wrote about Sheida and links to her work in the show notes.
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