Sheida Soleimani

Birds of Passage

Exhibition review by Gem Fletcher

Gem Fletcher visits the latest exhibition at Denny Gallery, New York, Sheida Soleimani: Birds of Passage, an ongoing collaborative project which sees the artist work with her parents Mâmân and Bâbâ – two Iranian pro-democracy activists and refugees – to translate their traumatic experiences of political exile leaving Iran in the 1980s via densely layered images that half-document, half-mythologise family lore.


Spring 2023: I am at Edel Assanti, London, where a hand-drawn map, embedded with photographs, covers every inch of the gallery’s walls as part of Sheida Soleimani’s ambitious series Ghostwriter. The interplay between image and sketch, combined with the map’s lack of perspective, creates a subtle sensation that the ground is moving beneath my feet. The feeling is overwhelming, unexpected and seemingly involuntary as the map pulls me in. It recalls the city-bending scene in Inception (2010) when Ariadne (played by Elliot Page) rebuilds the landscape of a Parisian street with her imagination without being bound by the laws of physics. Whilst Solemaini’s map in Ghostwriter is more rudimentary – the frenetic and urgent blue mark-making feels more akin to something you might scribble privately on the back of a napkin for a friend – it is nevertheless effective in creating a disorientating spatial sensation that defies gravity.

Experiential storytelling is the driving force of Ghostwriter. In the ongoing collaborative project, Soleimani works with her parents Mâmân and Bâbâ – two Iranian pro-democracy activists and refugees – to translate their traumatic experiences of political exile leaving Iran in the 1980s. The duo opposed both the Shah government and the Ayatollahs’ totalitarian regime. Bâbâ went into hiding as Iran began to tighten its response to political dissent before eventually fleeing on horseback. At the same time, Mâmân endured solitary confinement and worse before finally reconnecting with him in the US.

The map at Edel Assanti, drawn by Bâbâ, traces his escape route through Iran, coming over the Zagros mountains into Turkey. Situated within it are Soleimani’s photographic assemblages – densely layered images half-documenting, half-mythologising family lore—which act like map keys unlocking specific scenes and information about their stories. For Soleimani, the gallery is a portal, a theatre of ideas to engage with the complexity of surviving political exile.

Autumn 2023: I am at Denny Gallery, New York, standing in Soleimani’s latest iteration of Ghostwriter, Birds of Passage. On this occasion, the map doesn’t pull you in but instead drops you, like Google Street View, into Mâmân’s detailed sketch of Namazi Hospital in Shiraz, Iran. The location is significant. It’s not only the site in which the couple first met in 1975 and their place of work (Bâbâ was training to be a doctor and Mâmân a nurse), but was also a site of resistance during the revolution. As surveillance increased for activists, Mâmân and Bâbâ began holding dissenter meetings in the operating theatre to avoid detection.

Birds of Passage is the third installation in the Ghostwriter continuum. Each chapter jumps through time, weaving together emotional truths with larger socio-political issues in a labyrinthine journey. The first chapter, On the Wall, presented in Providence College Galleries in 2022, was set on a map of the courtyard of Mâmân’s childhood home, where Bâbâ went into hiding for many years. In contrast to the second chapter at Edel Asanti, which offered a macro view of her parents’ lives predominantly focused on Bâbâ’s escape, Soleimani utilises the smaller square footage at Denny Gallery to present a concise micro-chapter on her mother’s psychological experience at the hospital and later in solitary confinement before her escape in 1976.

Like all the images in Ghostwriter, the complex stagecraft in Birds of Passage is informed by Dada collage, magical realist texts, political puppetry, propaganda poster design and feminist craft practices. Soleimani chops, collages and sculpts images to set the scene in her theatrical three-dimensional tableau. Objects, drawings, prints and fabric, sourced and crafted by the trio, are vessels for the story, set against a flaunting of fantastical shapes, colours and textures that create unique visual codes, networking the different chapters together.

One of the most significant codes in the series is taken from an ancient Persian game of Snakes and Ladders. The grid – which sometimes appears only subtly as a motif in the background and other times dominates the entire narrative of the image – alludes to the games immigrants are forced to play to survive as well as the elements of chance, risk and reward involved in the process of her parents’ journey. Soleimani plays with these contractions to build atmosphere and tension, shifting between beauty and peril, the alluring and the unnerving, holding us in limbo.

Ghostwriter is the first time Soleimani has turned the camera inwards. For the last decade, the artist’s practice has centred on geopolitics in the SWANA region, focusing on human rights violations and how governments fail to provide for their people. Now, we see the artist explore these themes through a personal lens in an attempt to retrieve, index and preserve her family’s story whilst examining the consequences of political systems reducing citizens to “abstractions”.

Time is not always linear in Ghostwriter as the artist grapples with how these stories have been told throughout her life. Since Soleimani was an infant, her parents, who didn’t believe in therapy, used storytelling to manage their PTSD and metabolise their traumatic displacement. At first, their experiences were shaped into a kind of autofiction – retold through protagonists like Mr Jones and his dog Bill over tea, on long car journeys and at bedtime – but as Soleimani and her sister got older, the stories became less censored and more matter-of-fact. “My parents didn’t want me to grow up and think of the world as an idyllic place,” she says. “They wanted me to know the truth.”

A commitment to ‘deep listening’, coined by the late American avant-garde composer and scholar Pauline Oliveros, shapes Soleimani’s life and practice. Oliveros distinguished hearing and listening – the latter a corporal experience that involves an acute awareness of the external and internal, spoken and unspoken, whilst paying attention to the multiple realities at play. Deep Listening embodies the trio’s co-creation process in Ghostwriter. Together, they patchwork different perspectives, memories and emotions from their collective past, dismissing the notion of singular truth and instead holding space for how trauma and the passing of time allow for new modes of (mis)interpretation.

Despite the shielded identity of her protagonists to limit the threat of ongoing persecution, there is a relational quality born from this work and how Soleimani unfolds the intimate geography of their lives. We become invested in them and their story. In theory, Ghostwriter’s biggest threat is becoming sentimental, a saccharine ode to the artist’s radical parents. However, Soleimani’s bold and imaginative narration goes beyond negotiating her family history and offers a conduit for a new way of seeing and feeling.

After experiencing Birds of Passage, I realised the difficulty of isolating these exhibitions. Whilst they are successful as their own entities, the work’s real draw is born from the visitor’s engagement with the work through its constant iteration. She may not admit it, but Soleimani rewards our loyalty. Her provocation to us as viewers is to code-break. Pay attention. Notice every detail and how they build, shift or morph over time. To remain committed to deep listening. ♦

Images courtesy the artist, Edel Assanti, London, and Denny Gallery, New York © Sheida Soleimani

Installation views of Birds of Passage, at Denny Gallery, New York, from 5 September – 7 October 2023.


Gem Fletcher is a writer and host of The Messy Truth podcast, a series of candid conversations that unpack the future of visual culture and what it means to be a photographer today. Her writing has been published in Foam, Aperture, British Journal of Photography, Creative Review, It’s Nice That and AnOther.

Images:

1-What a Revolutionary Must Know, 2022 © Sheida Soleimani

2-Noon-o-namak (bread and salt), 2021 © Sheida Soleimani

3-Crying Quince, Laughing Apple, 2022 © Sheida Soleimani

4-Khoy, 2021 © Sheida Soleimani

5-Agitator, 2023 © Sheida Soleimani

6-Panjereh, 2022 © Sheida Soleimani

7-Remorse, 2023 © Sheida Soleimani

8-Behind the Door, 2022 © Sheida Soleimani

9-Safar, 2022 © Sheida Soleimani

10-Field Hospital, 2022 © Sheida Soleimani

11>13-Installation views of Birds of Passage, at Denny Gallery, New York.

Noémie Goudal

Post Atlantica

Exhibition review by Fergus Heron

Visiting Noémie Goudal’s new exhibition at Edel Assanti, Fergus Heron considers the artist’s polymath approach to photography and moving image, understanding nature as a set of processes comprised of different ecologies, geographies and temporalities.


Noémie Goudal’s Post Atlantica is the first exhibition in Edel Assanti’s new gallery on London’s Little Titchfield Street. In this solo show, the artist’s recent works in various material forms and photographic realisation methods are presented with remarkable aesthetic and conceptual coherence. The gallery is arranged into spaces with distinct atmospheres, clearly produced with, and complementary of, each work. Together, the works essentially explore ecological and temporal concerns. At the same time, they complicate how the living natural world can be depicted by photography and moving image.

The gallery space upon entry is low-lit and features three long, rectangular large-scale paper works situated closely together. Untitled (Waves) (2022) contains print and high-definition projection moving image montages of sections of a single view of coastal rock formation surrounded by swirling seawater. The scene is composed from an elevated viewpoint without foreground or horizon. We are presented with an image of wild nature from a place between distance and proximity, the spectacle of the natural world and the artifice of its picturing in balance.

Central to the exhibition is Untitled (Giant Phoenix) (2022), a piece comprised of elongated rectangular photographs of palm tree fragments seen at night, illuminated frontally with the effect of revealing a high degree of surface detail. The flatness and rectangularity of each photograph is heightened by printing on matt paper and mounting on aluminium panels fixed to a steel frame that positions each photograph to form a single composite image when viewed from a central position. As the viewer moves left to right and returns to centre, the image fragments and recomposes alternately. This experience draws attention to spectatorship as a process raising essential questions of the basis of photography in perspective. Once a fixed viewing position is given up, it is as if the image falls apart and its fragments look back at us.

A low frequency rumbling soundtrack with crashing eruptive bursts draws the viewer into the gallery’s lower ground floor towards Inhale, Exhale (2021). This piece comprises a single screen projection onto a freestanding wall positioned at a slight angle, thereby unsettling the usual centrality of the screen. The moving image, projected floor to ceiling, depicts a section of woodland with a body of water in the foreground. The camera occupies a low viewpoint close to the surface. Correspondingly, a stationary viewing position from the gallery floor level is invited. From this point of view, framed by a fixed camera, a still, almost stage-like scene is set. Within the scene, diorama-like pieces featuring images of vegetation that complement and contrast with the woodland flora slowly rise from beneath the surface of the water, hoisted into position by a partly visible mechanism. Different ecologies and distant temporalities coexist for a short time in the image. Then, the set pieces are re-immersed, disappearing from view, remaining as memory. There is an uneasy sense of witnessing a distant event occurring unobserved in some remote place, and, at the very same time, knowingly orchestrated as spectacle.

Emerging from the lower gallery into a brightly lit space, evenly illuminating the works displayed, we are presented with a collection of porcelain, brass, bronze and wood pieces, Terrella (2021) and three colour photographs mounted in chrome frames, Untitled (Mountain) (2021), each situated in isolation on one of the three gallery walls.

The Untitled (Mountain) pictures combine photographs of partly snow-covered peaks and sections of mountain range with what appear at first to be seemingly impossible cut sections through the mountain, or walls in front of them in a ruinous state. Upon closer inspection, these elements are revealed as cardboard fabrications coated in variously textured paint, altering in scale and putting viewers in a position of close proximity and vast distance at once. In these photographs, we can see features of the natural world as we might just actually encounter them, and, at the same time, as models that not only constitute artifice, but show themselves as such. These works concentrate a central paradox of the photograph as both a record of observation of the world as it might appear, commonly understood as a document, and a constructed image, closer to our dreams and imaginings, a fiction. The installation of each photograph on its own wall positions them confidently as pictures that explore a single idea across subtle iterations. The exposed white borders of each print draw attention to the significance of materials in the production of the photograph as an application of ink to paper. Framed in polished chrome complementing the brass and bronze elements of Terrella establishes a dialogue between image and object, materials and abstract modelling in two and three dimensions.

Terrellas are small models of the earth that have been used in scientific research since the late sixteenth century as part of experimental processes that included the study of solar activity and related effects of light on how the earth can be seen under particular conditions. The six pieces that make up Terrella are situated in close proximity, five placed on column plinths, all clustered at varying heights, and one suspended above, suggesting worlds to be understood as multiple and in reciprocal relation with each other. The materials used in this piece have historical associations with the early development of photography in correspondences between astronomical observation and the desire to fix camera images. There is a polymath approach in these works, understanding art and science in dialogue, as different ways of making sense of the world with a shared spirit of enquiry.

Goudal’s work shows nature as a set of processes comprised of different ecologies, geographies and temporalities. Additionally, something of the illusion of the earth as eternal and the fragile instability of the world humans seek to know through seeing is revealed in the works presented in this exhibition. By looking at these works that show their own making in still and moving images, we make up and implicate ourselves with the living natural world.♦

All images courtesy the artist and Edel Assanti, London © Noémie Goudal

Installation views of Post Atlantica at Edel Assanti, London from 27 January – 12 March 2022. © Will Amlot



Fergus Heron is an artist and university lecturer currently living and working in Brighton, England and Nairn, Scotland. He studied at the Royal College of Art, London and the University for the Creative Arts, Farnham, UK. Exhibitions featuring his work have taken place at venues including Tate Britain, London; Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World, Exeter, UK; Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, UK; Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, UK; Museum for Contemporary Art, Roskilde, Denmark; K3 Project Space, Zurich, Switzerland. He is Course Leader for MA Photography and a research supervisor in the School of Art and Media at the University of Brighton, UK.