Soheila Sokhanvari, “Rebel (Portrait of Zinat Moadab)” (2021) (all photos Naomi Polonsky/Hyperallergic)

LONDON — A woman leans seductively against a table, pouting. She holds a cigarette loosely in her manicured hand and wears a striped polo shirt. Her curly dark hair is cut in a stylish Marilyn Monroe bob. This is Zinat Moadab, star of the first “talkie” made in Iran, and one of the 28 Iranian women portrayed in Soheila Sokhanvari’s series of luminous miniature portraits, currently on view in the exhibition Rebel, Rebel at the Barbican Centre. 

Zinat Moadab went into self-imposed exile in the United States with her filmmaker husband in the early 1970s and continued to work in the theater. She was one of the lucky ones. Other cultural figures in the portraits were victims of a society that oppressed women both before and after the 1979 Revolution. Under the Shah’s pro-Western autocracy they were given superficial freedoms but punished for their creativity and sexuality; under Khomeini’s Islamist theocracy, they were forced to renounce any public role or risk arrest. Many died tragic and premature deaths. 

Born in Shiraz, Sokhanvari herself fled Iran as a child a year before the Revolution and has devoted her artistic practice to the country she left behind. Her works in Rebel, Rebel bring a bygone age back to vivid life. Using archival photographs as her source material, she recreates the black and white images with riotous colors and kaleidoscopic patterns. The exhibition space itself is transformed into a psychedelic vision with its pastel-green patterned walls, hologram videos housed in pink plinths, and glittery Stanley Kubrick-inspired “monolith” sculpture. 

Sokhanvari’s use of colorful patterns references traditional Islamic designs found in mosques, which are intended to induce a sense of reverential awe in the viewer with their dizzying geometries. Islamic artists and artisans were prohibited from creating representations of people in holy sites, so Sokhanvari’s introduction of female figures into her temple of worship is political. So too is her inclusion of the Cosmic Dancers hologram videos, which show women dancing for an audience — an act that has also been banned as “indecent” since the Revolution.

Using the ancient medium of egg tempera, Sokhanvari spent up to six months painting each portrait. When she started work on this exhibition back in 2019, she couldn’t have predicted how heartbreakingly timely it would be. Last September, 22-year-old Jina (Mahsa) Amini died in police custody under questionable circumstances after being arrested by the Guidance Patrol — Iran’s religious morality police — for wearing her hijab too loosely. This sparked ongoing mass protests across Iran and Kurdistan, which have been brutally repressed by government forces. The protestors’ chant of “Woman, Life, Liberty” could be a fitting subtitle to Sokhanvari’s exhibition. Her women — defiant, sexy, glamorous — are symbols of life and a liberated future.   

Soheila Sokhanvari, “Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season (Portrait of Forough Farrokhzad)” (2022), egg tempera on calf vellum
Soheila Sokhanvari, “Cosmic Dancers I (Hologram)” (2022), wood, metal, PVA, acrylic sheet, car paint, emulsion paint, and electronics
Soheila Sokhanvari, “The Love Addict (Portrait of Googoosh)” (2019), egg tempera on calf vellum
Soheila Sokhanvari, “The Star” (2022), perspex two-way mirrors, wood, metal, plastic, and electronics
Soheila Sokhanvari, “The Immortal Beloved (Portrait of Pouri Banaaei)” (2022), egg tempera on calf vellum
Soheila Sokhanvari, “Monolith” (2022), wood, metal, perspex mirrors and glitter
Soheila Sokhanvari, “She Walks in Beauty (Portrait of Shohre Aghdashloo)” (2022), egg tempera on calf vellum
Soheila Sokhanvari, “Baptism of Fire (Portrait of Nosrat Partovi)” (2022), 23K gold and egg tempera on calf vellum
Soheila Sokhanvari, “Bang (Portrait of Faranak Mirghahari)” (2019), egg tempera on calf vellum

Soheila Sokhanvari: Rebel, Rebel continues at the Barbican Centre (Silk Street, London, England) through February 26. The exhibition was curated by Eleanor Nairne, curator, Hilary Floe, assistant curator; and Tobi Alexandra Falade, curatorial trainee.

Naomi Polonsky is a London-based curator, art critic, and translator. She studied at the University of Oxford and the Courtauld Institute of Art and has experience working at the Hermitage Museum and Tate...