Never one to adhere to social mores, the Iranian filmmaker Kobra Saeedi wasn’t about to start when Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime took power in Iran. On International Women’s Day in 1979, she protested the compulsory hijab and made her feelings well known by filming it. For the insubordination, Khomeini’s Gasht-e Ershad, or morality police, sent Saeedi to the notorious Evin Prison for political dissidents, which was followed by several years in psychiatric institutions. Some time in the mid-80s, the regime released her, and she fled to Germany, a refugee.
But looking at Kobra, Soheila Sokhanvari’s 2022 painting of Saeedi, who went by the nom de théâtre Shahrzad, one sees a self-assured catalyst, her hair half-covered, cigarette between her bright-red-polished nails, looking lost in thought, as if plotting her next act. Saeedi is just one of 31 radical women painted by Sokhanvari for her show “Rebel, Rebel,” on now at the Barbican Centre’s Curve Gallery, in London. If the scheduling of the show seems calculated, it’s not. The Barbican had “Rebel, Rebel” on the books long before the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Gasht-e Ershad custody sparked the demonstrations that have swept Iran since.
Born in Shiraz in 1964, Sokhanvari was an early witness to the 1979 revolution, before her parents fled to the U.K. three months after the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Shah. The multi-media artist has a gift for pinching the nerve of the Iranian theocracy—she has done it in the past with her “Crude Oil” drawings, using actual oil to comment on Iran’s thirst, and her “Passport” series played on government bureaucracies.
“Rebel, Rebel” is in the same vein. Sokhanvari has taken Persian miniature painting—an art that, like book illustration, uses rich color and balanced, meticulous patterns to capture deities or mythological creatures—and tweaked it to honor her own heroes: poets, actors, writers, and singers who were arrested, exiled, sentenced to death, or forced to renounce their careers and possessions when Khomeni came to power. She has furthered the apostasy by painting real women, which also contravenes the Muslim prohibition on “idolatry.”
Under the current theocracy, unless they are murdered by the state for acts contrary to the government or used for advocacy campaigns, Iranian women are likely to be consigned to an obscure corner of history. Sokhanvari has immortalized a group of strong, vocal women and given them an alternative, ethereal narrative. —Adrian Brune
“Rebel, Rebel” is on at the Barbican Centre, in London, through February 26
Adrian Brune is an American writer based in London