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For the last 18 months, the Iranian-American artist Sheida Soleimani has been engaged with a new body of work, Medium of Exchange, which explores the political relationships and affiliations between Western countries and the 14 nations within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Her interdisciplinary work has been gathered in a solo exhibition which opened at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center last month, and includes 14 large-scale sculptural collage portraits lampooning the leaders of OPEC, as well as a 34-minute video of a five-act screenplay that can be viewed in a tent, decorated with imagery of the agricultural GDP reports of the OPEC countries.
The timing is uncanny, in light of President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, and re-impose sanctions on Iran that were eased under the Obama administration. Prior to that, the United States had imposed restrictions on activities with Iran under various legal authorities since 1979, following the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran. But according to Soleimani, who spoke over the phone with Hyperallergic while in transit to Providence, where she lives and teaches at Rhode Island School of Design, this is only the latest turn of the screw in a relationship between powerful political players that ultimately rains consequences on the weakest — and therefore most easily disregarded — members of Iranian society.
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Sarah Rose Sharp: Can you share any feelings you have about the news around Trump’s decision on the Iran nuclear deal?
Sheida Soleimani: I’m thinking more about it from the standpoint of sanctions in general, and thinking about how, in the last 50 years, the only time the imposition of sanctions on a country or place has actually worked positively was apartheid South Africa. Every other example of US- or UN-imposed sanctions on a country has not been successful, and ends up resulting in severe human rights violation issues. For me, regardless of whether the Iran deal is canceled, or who it is canceled by, no one is actually thinking about how the country functions or works. They’re catering more toward what Western policy generally wants. We think that by tightening the belt, the government will suffer because they see the people suffer, but in reality, the government doesn’t give a fuck about the people — so as long as they’re in a position of hierarchical power, they’re fine. People suffering is not going to create a change.
SRS: And this is what you’re dealing with broadly in your screenplay?
SS: Absolutely. In the last screenplay [act], I hired a sports commentator to read the Obama-Iran deal transcripts, in the voice of a motivational sports coach. The whole deal is about getting Iran to cut off nuclear threat — and I don’t think the Iran deal was a good deal either. I don’t think Western policy knows how to actually consider Iran in any way, shape, or form, because they’re not thinking about the space culturally or how their government functions.
SRS: How would you characterize it as different from the “Western way”?
SS: It’s an Islamic totalitarian regime — and it’s similar to our government in a lot of ways, though we definitely are more democratic — so all of the people who are in positions of power are religious clerks, and they have access to funds. It’s a patriarchal system, and they control the rights of the bodies of others. They make the money and control the money, so whatever happens to the people, they don’t feel the pain as much. Western complexes aren’t thinking about how to destabilize the top tier; they’re thinking about how to make it hurt as a countrywide thing. Inflation in Iran over the past seven years has already gone up something like 25-30%, and that happened before the Iran deal, under the Iran deal — so with or without it — and with the sanctions being imposed again, it’s definitely not going to help the situation.
SRS: Can you talk a little more about how you explores issues like OPEC-West relations in your work and why you chose the specific iconography? How do you think your art might resonate or look in light of the current news?
SS: I’ve started to examine the relationship between illegitimately elected officials and the petroleum industry. Leaders of oil-rich countries use profit from petroleum to feed cronyism: oil in the hands of dictators has become a source of corruption, and many oil-rich countries have funneled profits not to the population at large, but to the ruling class. While the oil industries and elite of these countries flourish, the citizens suffer.
I create sardonic and humorous portraits of OPEC Oil Ministers and Western government officials based on real events; each of the photographic scenarios proposes an interplay of fetishistic love and sex between those in command. In one image for example, a Dominant Saudi OPEC Minister Khalid Al-Falih pins down a submissive, bare-breasted UN Secretary Ban Ki Moon against a backdrop of the Ghawar Field, the largest oil field in the world — a reference to Saudi blackmailing the UN to remove them from the Human Rights Watch Blacklist, while referencing D/s roles in BDSM culture. In “Minister of Petroleum, Iran,” Iranian Oil Minister, Bijan Zanganeh, poses on top of a lion rug holding a sword — a symbol that was removed from Iran’s pre-revolutionary flag that acts as a nod to the history of oppression in the country. Scattered amongst him is rice, and grapes — spoiled by globs of oil, a reference to the overshadowing of Iran’s agricultural sector due to the petroleum trade. His costuming is a nod to the masculine conditioning that occurs within government positions only held by men.
SRS: How much are you in contact with people who currently live in Iran?
SS: All my [extended] family is there.
SRS: Have you spoken with any of them?
SS: Oh, yeah. There was the Green Revolution in 2008, which was mostly intelligentsia and student-led protests lashing out towards the rigged elections that put Mahmoud Ahmadinejad into power. That was the first time, as I was growing up, that I saw Iran represented on the news. In this last year, three months ago, for the first time there was a protest by lower-income, blue-collar individuals — not people attached to educational institutions — because things are getting outrageous. The price of bread has gone up 200-300%. Families literally can’t feed their children. It’s not easy to go to the grocery store and get bread if you don’t have a lot of money — the level of unemployment is so high. There actually was a lot of protesting, and it was the first time in a while that the government felt threatened by it — but they also retaliate by responding with brute force, and can wipe people out completely. There’s not really much left that the people can do.
SRS: And it’s an open threat.
SS: A few years ago, a woman did a political cartoon where she represented the faces of politicians with the faces of animals, and she was arrested and imprisoned for making fun of governmental leaders. There’s not any form of democracy there.
SRS: Can you give an example of a way that sanctions will impact daily life?
SS: British Petroleum (BP) has the biggest share in stock in Iran, where 99% of their gross domestic product is trade in oil. If they can’t be exporting their oil to any of the United Nations countries, the only places they’re going to do trade with are Russia and China, really. That’s not going to be enough, in the global market, so in Iran, where there’s not that many jobs to begin with, people who are employed by the oil companies are going to be losing their jobs. Once you lose your job, how can you afford to get bread that’s seven times more expensive than it was three years ago? Protests started a few months ago because the cost of eggs had risen so significantly that people couldn’t afford to buy eggs to feed their families.
SRS: Do you experience any residual fear or concern in making your work that it poses some kind of a threat to you?
SS: Oh, absolutely. It always will. President-King [Bashir al-]Assad is not liking the fact that he’s being portrayed in this way. The President of Iran in an ice cream-eating contest isn’t what people in the government are wanting to see their supreme leader in a position of power as. And I’ve gotten commentary from Basij members about that, as well. At this point, nothing surprises me anymore.
Sheida Soleimani’s Medium of Exchange, continues at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center (535 Means Street Northwest, Atlanta, Georgia) through July 29. A version of Medium of Exchange will also open at the CUE Art Foundation (137 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) on June 5.