Soheila Sokhanvari’s work treads a delicate line between reminiscence and nostalgia. It’s easy, if you’re making art about the past, to overly venerate history – to let time smooth out the rough edges. Inevitably the past contains paradoxes, contradictions and inconsistencies that are often carried away by the narrative flow of history.
Sokhanvari’s exhibition at the Barbican is an ode to the women of Iran in the first half of the 20th century. The exhibition celebrates these women, both their accomplishments and their daily lives, while keeping in mind that this era wasn’t just a glorious and golden past stolen away by the subsequent political turmoil, but a time of experimentation, fits and starts, an attempt at reconciling two disparate cultures.
For a brief moment Iranian women were allowed unprecedented freedom, but there were always cracks. It’s easy to paint this historical period solely as a time when Western Liberalism opened the doors for women to become independent and experience similar rights to men. However, as Sokhanvari deftly highlights in her art, this ignores the fact that Western Liberalism, especially in the early 20th century, was far from generous to women. While the particular outlines of its forms of oppression differ, patriarchal forces pervade both Iranian and Western societies and complicate this dichotomy of Liberal West vs. Repressive East.
For Sokhanvari, the shape that oppression takes in the West at this time, and which Iran imports as part of the country’s move towards ‘Westernisation,’ is commodification. Western ideology rejects the notion that women are property, but this doesn’t stop Western culture from presenting women as objects.
Sokhanvari’s exhibition captures the tension of this moment in history by juxtaposing full length Iranian designs which adorn the entire curve at the Barbican, with portraits of the unmistakably colourful patterns of mid-century Western interior design.
Whether it’s challenging the oppressive standards of public presentation and modesty in Iran today, or the equally brutal assaults on female sovereignty in the earlier era of relative modernization– during which women could be legally assaulted for covering themselves up– the question at hand is about ownership. Who owns a woman’s body? Who controls a woman’s life– the state, the family, or the woman herself? And who has ownership of the things that women make, given that the era Sokhanvari captures in her exhibit is one in which women could achieve financial independence and liberty through ownership of the art they created and patronised.
Furthermore, by allowing women to hold positions like judges or other significant posts, they were allowed to own the fruits of their labour through personal income in a way that domestic labour did, and still does not. Yes, of course the situation in Iran post-1979 was and is far more repressive, but the fact remains that the question of female ownership remains contentious far beyond Iran’s borders.
Often, ideas of reproductive justice, and women’s control over their bodies are treated as separate from the financial concerns of feminism such as the wage and wealth-gaps, but at the heart of both feminist issues is the argument over what women are allowed to own.
Sokhanvari reminds us that the country, currently mired in protest over the brutal killing of a young woman by the country’s ‘Morality Police’, was not always this way, by showing us an Iran that’s been somewhat erased by history. It’s vast, intricate and joyful and as much as it’s a monument to the past it’s a look towards an alternative path for the country going forward.
You can catch this exhibition for free at the Barbican up until Sun 26 Feb 2023.