Sleepy, almond eyed women with retro blow dries pose against psychedelic backgrounds in Iranian-born artist Soheila Sokhanvari’s reimaginings of celebrity photographs. These women were the pop-stars of Iran’s entertainment industry, who were forced to flee their country or abandon their art after the revolution of 1979 radically changed the country’s culture. Presented alongside mixed-media installations, these portraits form the artist’s latest solo show entitled Addicted to Love at Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery London. Visually striking and woven with complex political and cultural narratives, the exhibition investigates our impulse and desire to be seduced by imagery, whilst reviving Iran’s repressed and forgotten female stars.
The exhibition takes its title from a 1985 pop song. In the music video, the singer Robert Palmer is surrounded by beautiful women wearing glossy red-lipstick, dressed in tight black dresses. Though the usage of women as props in scenes orchestrated for the male gaze continues in contemporary culture, the artist is specifically concerned with the female role in mainstream pre-revolutionary Iranian cinema, which presented two basic female stereotypes: the saint or the sinner. ‘Women live in a world that objectifies and oversexualises their bodies, then shames
them when they dare to take back control and have sexual agency. There’s this idea that women need men to liberate them or give them permission to engage in the joys of love,’ commented Sokhanvari. In an attempt to subvert this male gaze, the artist’s portraits are based on photographs taken by Iranian men; the paintings reveal the women’s performance identity by showing them in surreal settings that we might interpret as the complex landscapes of femalenconsciousness.
Still, Life is amongst the most enigmatic of the series, depicting a framed photograph of a woman on a table next to glass of flowers and a pair of disembodied hands. The woman pictured is Qamar-ol-Moluk-Vaziri, the first Iranian woman to sing on stage without wearing an Islamic hijab. The presence of human hands, positioned in a gesture of patience or perhaps submission, is unnerving and surreal, whilst the vase of vibrant, blooming flowers functions as a symbol of life.
The title itself subverts the tradition of still life painting. Though the portrait is arranged as an object for the painter’s gaze, Sokhanvari’s placement of the comma invites us to consider a more complex perspective in which the singer is a symbol of the lasting life and power of art. Qamar-ol-Moluk-Vaziri is able to transcend her objectification and death through her music.
In the making of her paintings, Sokhanvari refuses manufactured products, instead mixing egg yolk with high grade pigments for paint. The use of calf vellum as a canvas possesses connotations of religious sacrifice, relating to the sacrifice of the individual as the artist's practise explores portraiture as a form of simultaneous oppression and empowerment for the subject. Notably, Sokhanvari has dedicated three portraits and a sculpture installation to the actor/singer Googoosh, who famously became a fashion icon by embracing dressing up as a means of
liberation. In the installation Private Dancer, Gagoosh appears enlivened through a hologram dancing inside a sculpture to one of her greatest hits Khalvat. However, her endless dance symbolises her isolation and inaccessibility, whilst also highlighting the tension between public and private identities.
Alongside these works, Sokhanvari presents two further installations featuring extracts from 1960s Iranian films projected onto drawings made with crude oil on paper. Again, the artist’s medium is imbued with symbolism as crude oil is Iran’s most precious commodity and references a turbulent history. The drawings themselves are abstract shapes derived from the negative spaces between people and objects in the artist’s family photographs taken post the Islamic revolution. The artist considers these works ‘self portraits’ through which she ‘attempts to reclaim a presence in family events’ after her exile from Iran.
Layering collective and personal experiences, Addicted to Love explores the lasting impact of trauma and the objectification of the individual through historical narratives that continue to reverberate in the present. Beyond her bright colours and dreamlike scenes, Sokhanvari’s work possesses a vivid and complex emotional range that invites a deep engagement with not only the image itself but also, wider political and cultural discussions.