Meet Courageous Iranian Women in Soheila Sokhanvari’s Exhibit

Globally, the fight for women’s rights is still happening. This can be seen in the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the United States this past summer and the subsequent protests that occurred after it. 

The current protests in Iran are in response to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. She was killed by Iran’s morality police because she was not wearing the hijab to government standards. Law enforcement in Iran has stated that she died of a heart attack or stroke, but eyewitnesses believe the cause was police brutality. Her death sparked global demonstrations against Iran’s mandatory hijab law and has led activists and artists to express their support for the cause.

However, it is essential to note the long-standing history of the rebellious women who have inspired generations of women to unapologetically be themselves. Iranian-British artist Soheila Sokhanvari’s Rebel Rebel at the Barbican Centre in London (on display until February 2023) works to showcase the beauty of Iranian women pre-revolution. The exhibit explores the femininity and freedom that Iranian women possess. 

The exhibit explores the femininity and freedom that Iranian women possess. 

The exhibit showcases 28 portraits of women, from actresses to literary icons, highlighting these women’s personalities through color and texture. Each portrait is painted on calf vellum with a squirrel hair brush. Soheila utilizes an ancient technique known as egg tempera, which gives each portrait a glow-like quality which entices viewers to immerse themselves fully.

Although the exhibit’s main attraction is the portraits, the space itself takes inspiration from traditional Iranian patterns that creates a sense of whimsy for the audience to think about themselves in a greater sense of the world while in a space-like setting. Interestingly enough, Sohelia was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The inspiration can be seen in the design of the room to create a world that combines both painting and sound to explore feminism and all its complexity further.

Each of the portraits is numbered, which helps visitors utilize the exhibition guide to its total capacity. The exhibition space is shaped as a half circle, with each piece in chronological order alongside a few pieces on the opposite wall to create contrast between them. The placement of the pieces forces the audience to view the exhibit entirely without overlooking a piece while creating a whole new world to explore. 

Wild at Heart (Portrait of Pouran Shapoori), 2019, offers itself as the cover image for the exhibition. Pouran Shapoori was a famous pop star in Iran, which can be seen in Soheila’s usage of a whimsical print, which in this instance, was a combination of lotus flowers and cherry blossoms. The portrait depicts Shapoori sitting on a chair, seemingly in a domestic setting at home, highlighting a sense of calm that comes with being in a peaceful environment. Although the background consists of a print that would be seen in an outdoor setting, such as small birds and flowers sprouting in various directions, it also serves the purpose of the pattern of Shapoori’s dress. 

The pattern on the dress suggests that Shapoori is one with the natural landscape. Also, Shapoori’s facial expressions indicate that she enjoys this sense of freedom that comes with being in nature. Shapoori was raised in a traditionally conservative and wealthy family in Iran; while her childhood dream was to be a singer, her family had a more traditional life for her in mind. The portrait also suggests a sense of duality that many of the women of Iran were forced to possess. The painting displays the urge to live a life of freedom, which can be seen in Shapoori’s successful music and film career, but also wanting to “do right by their family” and society as a whole. Women shouldn’t have to choose between following their dreams or making their families happy. 

Women shouldn’t have to choose between following their dreams or making their families happy. 

 The Dancing Queen (Portrait Jamileh), 2019, seemingly an ode to the ABBA song, depicts the singer, Jamileh, born as Fatemeh Sadeghi. She began her entertainment journey at age six alongside her father, who worked in theater as an actor. The portrait depicts Jamileh sitting outside in a garden surrounded by various forms of cacti and plants, representing the versatility of Jamileh’s dancing techniques and movements. 

Jamileh is seen wearing a black fedora paired with a pearl necklace. In Jamileh’s career, she was known for being the first woman to dance in subversive, jâheli style, which involves challenging the energy of an uber-masculine man, usually wearing a black fedora hat. Pairing the black fedora with the pearls, a feminine accessory, suggests that femininity and masculinity should not be tied to genders. Jamileh is also wearing pants, traditionally seen as “men’s clothing”, showing how Jamileh pioneered combining historically masculine and feminine for Iranian women entertainers. 

Baptism of Fire (Portrait of Nosrat Partovi), 2022, depicts the actress Nosrat Partovi, who unfortunately only appeared in one film, The Deer (1974). Still, the film created such an uproar across Iran that her legacy continues to live on. This portrait is unique because it is a painted polaroid of Partovi, which someone is holding. This is probably due to the lack of documentation of her life, and it can be argued this is the only image of her. 

The polaroid depicted looks worn along the corners, suggesting that it is an old photo; adding someone holding it indicates that it is the only photo they have of her, so they are cherishing it. The backgrounds of the polaroid and the portrait do not take away focus from Partovi but enhance it. Although her life was not well-documented, she still deserves recognition and attention for what she has done for Iranian cinema. 

Soheila’s work speaks to the lifelong legacy of Iranian women from pre-revolution to today. These women depicted were not afforded the freedoms of western society but continued to follow their dreams and passions despite society and their families telling them to do otherwise. As we look at the current protests in Iran, Soheila shows that the courage and the tenacity that we see in the young women of Iran today have been instilled by generations of women before them.

© Jessica Bond (11/22/22) – Special for FF2 Media ®


Rebel Rebel exhibit at The Barbican Centre.

Soheila’s website featuring her other artworks.

An interview with Apollo Magazine discussing Soheila’s work and latest exhibit.


Featured Photo: The Rebel Rebel exhibition.

Bottom Photo: Wild at Heart (Portrait of Pouran Shapoori). 

All photos courtesy of Jessica Bond & used here with her permission. Authorized for responsible use as long as a link to this post is included in user’s credits.

Tags: Barbican Centre, Iran, Iranian Woman, Jamileh, Jessica Bond, London, Nosrat Partovi, Pouran Shapoori, Rebel Rebel, Soheila Sokhanvari, Women painters

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Jess joined FF2 Media as a 2020 graduate of Temple University's journalism program. She has a passion for the arts and using writing as a tool to spread awareness on social issues, independent and small artists. She is a 2021-2022 Fulbright recipient to the University of Sussex, getting her MA in Media and Cultural Studies. She hopes to become an international journalist focusing on local communities and showing the beauty within them.
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