Sheida Soleimani’s exhibition Civil Liberties at Boyfriends scrutinizes the possibilities of morality and activism through the use of new mediums. Her subjects are Iranian women executed by the state for ‘crimes’ ranging from using social media to defending themselves against attackers. Through investigation, these women’s examples are uncovered and represented back into the exhibition space through soft sculpture and photography.
Soleimani’s desire to excavate these women’s stories is intimately tied to her family’s history. Both her parents are political activists and were targeted by the Iranian government after the country’s 1979 Revolution. In several interviews, Soleimani recounts the stories her parents told her as a child; accounts of the murders of friends and loved ones by the government and her mother’s torture while in police custody. 1
Precise documentation on the frequency of executions and incarcerations does not exist due to a lack of government transparency. NGOs like Human Rights Watch struggle to document these hidden activities. Instead, evidence of these countless cases is passed orally from one generation to the next. Many women can simply disappear because of the normalization of gendered violence. While this systemic violence exists within an international nexus of inequitable power relations, Soleimani specifically grapples with the potential of media and materiality to unsettle such oppression. Questions about the disruptive power of the image and the subversive potential of art compose the crux of Civil Liberties.
Each sculpture features the enlarged, distorted visage of an executed woman with her name: Maryam, Shahla, Delara, Sakineh, Raheleh and Taraneh. Originally these are JPEGs Soleimani gathered on the “dark web,” online networks that utilize anonymity software. 2 While the dark web is usually associated with illegal activities, the anonymity it offers also provides a degree of protection against state reprisal. Since the original JPEGs of the women are often of low quality, the enlarged prints appear blurry, pixelated, and queasily distorted. This digital marring is akin to the trauma media can reinscribe within a collective body and the artist’s refusal to let such cycles continue unabated. Soleimani prints the images on cotton fabric and sews them together to create soft sculptures. Her work’s materiality should be read within the context of her activism. By providing each woman a physical presence, she recontextualizes an image formerly lost to the swell of the Internet.
In addition to enlarging the images, the vaguely human shapes and malleability of the soft pieces evoke an aura of childhood totems. These are items that are made to be cared for and tended. Soleimani intentionally evokes childhood by modeling her forms after the eponymous “Bobo Dolls” popularized because of their use in a social learning experiment conducted by psychologist Albert Bandura in the early 1960s. The hypothesis of Dr. Bandura’s research was that aggression is a learned, social behavior rather than an innate human quality. Bandura’s tested this supposition by placing children in a room with a variety of toys and the Bobo doll. Test groups would either have an adult enter the room and demonstrate aggression towards the doll or ignore the doll. Children who witnessed the aggression were more likely to interact with the doll in a similarly violent manner. By drawing a parallel with this social experiment, Soleimani’s viewers are forced to examine their own emotional responses towards the sculptures and how the flow of media has shaped those.
These pliable objects provoke both aggression and empathy, but Soleimani’s activism forces a viewer to ask why they feel a certain way about the women and why others feel differently, pitching the empathy produced by the soft sculptures against the normalized aggression of the woman’s story. Soleimani’s has stated in several interviews that while transporting the pieces, she is rather gentle with them as she feels as though she is touching the women themselves. 3
Though Soleimani’s ceremonial placement of the sculptures speaks to their memorial nature, the most poignant point of confrontation stems from the realization of one’s ongoing role within the power dynamics that shape and reflect an imagery of justice thwarted and imperialist brutality. Civil Liberties challenges complacency. It is unflinching in its questions of the potential of the image and new media in an increasingly globalized world.