Sheida Soleimani, an Iranian-American multimedia artist, grew up absorbing what was around her. Based in an “all-white rural suburbs” with two political refugee parents that “definitely strayed from the norm”, Sheida tells us that it was her mother’s rescue of half alive animals and her father’s fascination with politics “and the grotesque” that influenced her creatively. “I don’t think there was a definite moment where art ‘clicked’,” she tells It’s Nice That, “it was always a supplement to my life.”
She first picked up a camera during her teenage years, where she would explore the countryside with her lens and create photoshoots with her friends. “Now, I like to use photography as a medium to challenge my audience to re-evaluate what they recognise,” she says. Indeed protesting against the literal interpretation of an image, the work of Sheida is an outstanding representation of fiction vs reality. Combining photography with sculpture, film and collage, she aims to highlight a critical take on historical and socio-political issues currently navigating within society. This interest in activism through art was spurred on by her past, and the fact that she is the daughter of political refugees who were persecuted by the Iranian government in the early 1980s.
“Being the only brown kid in an all-white school was really what pushed me to start thinking about how the American system teaches only what is relevant to the West,” she says. “If I mentioned that my mother was ‘imprisoned’, the other kids thought my parents were criminals. The only access to the idea of imprisonment that my peers had was that it was how ‘bad people’ were ‘served justice’ – the concept of a political prisoner wasn’t even in their vocabulary. Nor did they know anything about human rights violations, or much outside of their wonder-bread enclaves. Growing up and thinking about how education still operates in this way pushes me to create work that begs people to consider their societal conditioning.”
Her multi-media outtake is fuelled by imagery sourced from the web, especially that of torture victims, executioners, as well as the dictators. She then cuts and collages alongside three dimensional objects that give a firm nod to the research of the specific event being portrayed. Referring to these scenes as a “theatrical tableau”, she sometimes invites people in to play the roles of her politicised characters, before photographing the scene as a still life document. “By flattening the layers of the sculptural planes, I aim to create confusion as to what is and isn’t ‘real’; similarly to how we interact with the news.”
Sheida has just finished working on her latest series, Crudes, inspired by Iran’s oil production and an offshoot of her last project, Medium of Exchange. While researching into the oil industry, she came across a long list of names of crude oils and noticed a recurring sense of humour within the titles. “Crudes investigates a niche sector of the oil industry by creating portraits of various crude oil blends, while researching their often humorous names as well as their histories and origins,” she says. “Each portrait is composed of a satellite image of where the crude oil blend is produced, alongside various manufactured goods that are derived from each crude, as well as the primary agricultural or food trade that is harmed by the refinery industry at each facility.”
Conclusively, Sheida’s work may at first appear to be a humorous bundle of mixed media but, actually, there’s such a deep and personal agenda hidden behind each of its layers. She sees her art as a form of seduction, and likens it to a Trojan Horse. “We’re accustomed to news being violent in both content and imagery, and that often makes us push information away,” she explains. “Viewers first pay attention to an image based on its aesthetic qualities before fully understanding what it is about. With this gesture, I hope to trick viewers into contending with the content after getting past the initial attraction.”