While artist Sheida Soleimani’s colorful photographic scenes may contain dolls, they are not toys designed to appeal to children.
Sewn by hand to appear both bulbous and grotesque, Soleimani’s distorted figures imitate the basic shape of a bobo doll — a clown-shaped punching bag that featured in a groundbreaking observational learning experiment in the early 1960s. This experiment, devised by Albert Bandura, introduced children to violent transgressions against the playful objects, which were habitually repeated when the subjects were left unsupervised.
Onto the bobo doll forms, Soleimani prints mined images of Iranian women who have been executed by the government for such heinous “crimes” as defending themselves against a rapist, or a forced confession to a murder they did not commit. For Soleimani, the dolls serve as a compositional clue for the viewer, a way to instill a stronger relationship to the work’s forms.
“I was thinking about the bobo doll experiment because I didn’t want the series to just call out the women that are being killed in Iran,” said Soleimani. “I wanted to make the work psychologically relatable to an audience.”
Soleimani photographs these dolls within layered and colorful backdrops containing imagery symbolic of the detention and violence suffered by each of the women she features. The symbols are recognizable, such as hand cuffs in “Shahla” (2016), which are repeated across the scene, as well as paracord and life-vests that Soleimani uses as literal representations of life-saving devices, for women who called out for help and received no aide.
To compose one of her scenes, she begins by researching data collected by Iran Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, digging for any specific information available on the updated death tallies of executed women in Iran. These numbers are difficult to find. According to the Iran Human Rights Watch, identifying information for 70 percent of all government executions are not released, and charges for the executed prisoners are often omitted. Of the 30 executions of women in Iran in 2013, only nine were announced by the authorities.
To unearth images relating to these underreported deaths, Soleimani either receives images from photojournalists stationed in the region, or searches the dark web, finding pictures that range from a woman’s blurry passport photo to those depicting torture. When enlarged to create the fabric of Soleimani’s dolls and backgrounds, the digital images lose what detail they held when they appeared on screen. The images become pixelated and distorted, evoking their dark web origin, a location often relegated to criminals. Soleimani’s works serve as a way to restore these women, whose government has endeavored to make disappear, memorializing each beyond the oral histories of their families and friends.
Soleimani has a particularly personal investment in the work: Her parents, both political refugees, escaped Iran in the mid-1980s after her mother’s imprisonment and torture by the government in an attempt to learn about her father’s whereabouts. Having heard tales over dinner of her parents’ time in Iran when she was growing up in Loveland, Ohio, Soleimani began her artistic practice by attempting to translate these experiences into tactile scenes, building sets to mimic their past in a more concrete way than second-hand memory. Between 2009-2012 Soleimani worked specifically on re-creating images of her mother’s prison cell in a series titled “My Mother’s Daughter,” while also working on two series titled “Namaz Khaneh”(House of Prayer), and “Panjereh” (Window), that depicted tableaux from childhood stories told to her by her parents.
“It is a yearning for me to interact with what I am creating,” said Soleimani. “I have never been to Iran. I am telling these stories, the ones I have tried to recreate over and over again as a child. Growing up with those stories being told, and having those experiences being so close to me, I started thinking about all the women that are still in Iran. Any of the women that have been executed could have been my mother. Through my work I am trying to re-memorialize these women.”
With a working title of “To Oblivion,” her current series of handsewn-doll photographs is a direct evolution from her graduate project while at Cranbrook Academy of Art titled “National Anthem,” a series of collaged scenes that depict the atrocities carried out by the Iranian government with a broader language than used in her previous projects. With deeply symbolic imagery, the works includes photographs of Iranian citizens — like her current project, of those who were killed for acting against government orders. The series was inspired by her father’s own role in the 1979 revolution, expanded to relate to a more global conversation about Western media’s response to such events.
“Everyone forgot about [the Green Revolution], as is a common occurrence of Western media overshadowing events that happen outside of the sphere of Western interest and prescribing the news we receive from the East (sanctions, nuclear energy, and oil trades),” explained Soleimani who cites the death of Michael Jackson as a reason that the media ignored the mass deaths and executions that happened in Iran during the Green Revolution.
After the conclusion of “National Anthem,” Soleimani wanted to turn her focus to women like her mother who were wrongfully imprisoned and tortured. She sought to explore the women’s issues that get glossed over when the West looks East. “We hear about women’s issues in Iran in such a prescriptive and Western way. ‘Women aren’t free, they must cover their hair.’ It’s all so base level,” said Soleimani. “I wanted to expand that language and use images of women that have been executed due to a slanted justice system to start a more in depth dialogue.”
In this series, which started in late 2015, Soleimani hopes to address how the Iranian government normalizes violence towards women, leading by example with each public execution they hold (often with children in the audience.) Soleimani draws parallels between this and the bobo-doll experiment that, like the executions, exposed children to violent acts. The experiment concluded that children who were exposed to violent acts against the dolls always lashed out when exposed to them, showing aggression due to the socialized exposure. “It’s permissible for these children to punch these dolls because they see someone else doing it,” said Soleimani. “The Iranian government shows this aggression towards women which makes it permissible because it is okay to kill these women. They label them as criminals and then give them public executions. This is what I am linking it to with the bobo-doll experiment.”
After shooting each photograph, the dolls remain a part of Soleimani’s studio. Each doll stays stuffed, each set rolled up in cardboard boxes, and props stored rather than thrown away or recycled. “I can’t let go of them,” said Soleimani. “After I have shot an image I have memorialized that woman in my mind, but I don’t unstuff their figures. I just continually buy new stuffing. Sewing and stuffing them is already such an aggressive act that I can’t bring myself to deflate them. Not yet.”
Sheida Soleimani currently has a solo exhibition in Cologne, until April 25, at Rompone Art Space that will feature some of the images from this series. She will also exhibit the series September 23 at BOYFRIENDS in Chicago’s East Garfield Park.