Iranian women show cheerful defiance in Rebel Rebel at the Barbican
The title, Rebel Rebel, is that of David Bowie. The soundtrack mixes 1970s pop, film scores and folk ballads. The vibe is dizzying funhouse – mirrored disco ball decor opens to a tessellated glass monolith inspired by Stanley Kubrick 2001: A Space Odysseycasting strange lights and shadows as you move around her.
But the paintings with which Soheila Sokhanvari transforms the curve of the barbican into a shimmering memorial hall follow the miniature tradition of the Persian court. Based on archival photographs, beautiful, intricate egg tempera portraits posed with a fine squirrel hair brush recreate the glamor and individuality of female stars of stage and screen in pre-revolutionary Iran.
It’s a fabulous installation – seductive, captivating, purely narrative rather than conceptual. Sokhanvari grew up in the 1970s in Shiraz, trained as a cytogeneticist at Cambridge University, then became an artist drawing on the experience of the diaspora. Rebel Rebel was conceived as a nostalgic evocation of an exile, but it launched much more last weekend: an exhibition vital to the moment, revealing parallels and a hinterland with Iranian news, as schoolgirls and female students tear off their headscarves during protests following the death of Mahsa Amini, arrested by vice squad for a hijab violation.
Kobra Saeedi, nightclub dancer and filmmaker performing as Shahrzad, rushes toward us from an undulating red/blue floor, head tilted casually, gaze guarded, cigarette between long fingers. Sitting, elbows resting on knees up, legs apart, she looks like a head from a Weimar Berlin cabaret – powerful, in control. But the narration was the loss of this Scheherazade. With her 8mm camera, Shahrzad documented protests against the introduction of the compulsory veil in 1979, was arrested, imprisoned for years in a mental institution, lost all her possessions and remained homeless decades after her release .
She is one of around thirty voices silenced by the 1979 Revolution (women are still not allowed to sing in public in Iran) and animated by the joyful and provocative art of Sokhanvari.
“A Dream Deferred” renders ballet dancer Haydeh Changizian in delicate gold leaf. “Rhapsody of Innocence” portrays Monir Vakili, a soprano whose sadly sweet lullaby “La Laiee” (“Can you hear how the panther moans in the mountains?”) echoes through the gallery. “The Woman in the Mirror” is a fragmented portrait of actor Fereshteh Jenabi in a claustrophobic interior. For his movie Accelerate naked until noon (1976), explicit on female erotic pleasure, she was sentenced to death in 1979, went into hiding in Tehran and finally committed suicide.
Each woman’s biography is told in an accompanying booklet, and there are also survivor stories. “The Dancing Queen” features belly dancer Jamileh in a dark fedora and loud plaid pants: the first woman to embrace a gender-bending macho style. jaheli style, she was still performing in Los Angeles in the 21st century. In the title track “Rebel,” Zinat Moadab, with a ruffled, smoking bob, bows against a modernist motif of pulsating diagonals; Poster of early Iranian cinema, she also flourished in America and, at 99, still lives in California.
The portraits begin in monochrome, evoking the black-and-white walkie-talkies of Iran. “The Lor Girl” commemorates the first film (1932) to show a woman without a headscarf: her heroine, played by Roohangiz Saminejad, dared to shout at the male characters. Sokhanvari emphasizes Saminejad’s flowing glossy black hair; her costume, a field of tiny dots, pressurizes the space, animates the figure. The film ushered in a new era of Iranian cinema defying cultural norms and was a box office success, but Saminejad herself was so often physically threatened that she gave up acting and changed her name.
“Everyone wanted to kill you because a Muslim woman had no right to act,” she recalls. Forough Farrokhzad, depicted here as a big-eyed beatnik in a black turtleneck, suggestively cradling a cat, was also harassed and ostracized after publishing erotic poems, and died in 1967 in a car crash – the one of the many young women in Sokhanvari. cast iron killed in road accidents.
Behind these tragedies lie the complexity and unfinished legacy of imperial Pahlavi rule (1925-1979), when reformist Westernization programs – the veil was banned in academic institutions and state workplaces – called to glamor while being disoriented in a historic conservative context. Seductive appearances were promoted as clerics versus culture makers fought a furious battle over women’s equality and speech rights. Sokhanvari’s immersive staging and fashion sense — her father was a designer of Western outfits — brilliantly evoke this psychedelic social reality, delirium between desire and hope, oppression and fear.
Everything is wavering, uncertain and enticing. Dazzling geometric patterns line the 90-meter walls and floor of The Curve. Dancing holograms spin and swirl, and inside a multi-faceted suspended sculpture “The Star”, film footage merges into one another. The magic of cinema meets the irresistible decoration of Islamic architecture. The embellished interiors of a mosque are meant to induce a trance-like sense of the greatness of God; Sokhanvari aims to “create a temple for these iconic women”.
Bursting in saturated colors, his portraits unveil Iran’s difficult evolution towards modernity in the 1960s and 1970s. In “Hey Baby, I’m a Star,” Forouzan, the highest-earning Farsi actor, looks nervously awkward in a low-cut pink mini dress. But actor Zari Khoshkam in bright yellow shorts and high boots on a striped sofa would look right at home in a David Hockney portrait from London.
In “Bang”, Faranak Mirghahari, dressed in a red and black checked dress, brandishes a gun; in the 1962 film The last hurdle it pulls its way, literally, through patriarchal society.
How far? Like all Sokhanvari figures, Mirghahari is fixed, pinned in place in ornamental geometry – here bright red mosaic shapes. These allusive and ambivalent backgrounds oscillate between dynamic pulsating abstractions and all-over filigree webs, sometimes suggesting the energy of change, sometimes the inescapable thread of repressive culture.
Many of the women celebrated here went into exile in 1979; those who remained were imprisoned, although mostly released after signing “letters of repentance”. None have yet worked in Iran. But their story is not over: as Rebel Rebel enacts, their art lives on in the collective imagination, reaching new generations.
After the Revolution, counterfeit copies of singer Googoosh’s funk and soul music, for example, circulated widely, along with reminiscences of the chic short haircut, the googooshy, which she had popularized. “They tried to erase my memory, but they couldn’t,” she says now. (She was allowed to leave Iran in 2000.)
Sokhanvari paints the 1970s Googoosh as a picture within a picture, a larger-than-life memory, in “The Love Addict.” Like every image here, it is poignant yet optimistic, affirming the protesting power of art, its momentum for freedom and change shared with today’s girls chanting “Woman, Life, Freedom”.
As of February 23, barbican.org.uk
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