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The art of dissipating the winter blues

Kobra (Portrait of Kobra Saeedi), 2022, Soheila Sokhavari exhibition

For those of you not hibernating, here are some arty freebies to kick start 2023.

Rebel Rebel

Without doubt, one of the most extraordinary events of 2022 was the women and girl-led uprising in Iran. Protests are ongoing – in spite of hard-line state crackdown that has already led to a number of executions. The spirit of the Iranian revolution: WOMEN, LIFE, FREEDOM resonates through Soheila Sokhanvari’s timely exhibition at the Barbican - a heartfelt homage to the women and girls of Iran, gentle and fierce all at once ... and a little nod to David Bowie.

As you enter The Curve, you are greeted by a shimmering monolith - another Western reference, this time to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey - its stars shine bright in the darkness. The haunting soundscape of songs by Iranian singers from period between 1925 and the 1979 revolution fills the air – creating a contemplative atmosphere. This is particularly moving because women in Iran are prohibited from singing in public - well, in front of men. The décor is impressive, the walls have been painted, top to bottom, a deep solemn green with intricate flower-like patterns, inspired by Islamic design. Each flower nestles an intricately painted miniature portrait.

Soheila Sokhanvari has transformed the space into a sanctuary devoted to Iranian feminist icons - heroines of Iran’s recent past, so relevant to the present. Each tiny painting represents a different Iranian woman – actor, singer, writer, performer or film director. Each tells the story of a woman who broke the rules set by the almighty patriarchy – including under the Shah 'westernised' regime. Each portrait is delicate yet bursting with colour, joy, fearlessness and defiance. Each story, an experience more poignant than the last - all reminiscent of women's enduring struggle for human rights.

Rebel (Portrait of Zinat Moadab), 2021, Soheila Sokhanvari: Rebel Rebel exhibition

Rebel depicts Zinat Moadab. She was forced into an arranged marriage at 14 to a man 30 years her senior and divorced at seventeen, which meant she was unable to return to school. When director Esmail Koushan offered her the lead role in his ground-breaking film The Storm of Life (1948) – the first ‘talkie’ made in Iran, she did not tell her conservative family. The film was critical of forced marriage and infuriated her family, who ended up trying to kill her. She remained undeterred and continued acting and working in the film industry, becoming the first Iranian woman to edit films, doing voiceovers and studio management. In 1973, Moadab and her husband moved to the US in protest against the Shah’s regime. In New York, they created and performed in the first weekly radio program in Farsi. She lives in Los Angeles and continues acting, directing, and designing sets and costumes.

The woman in the mirror (Portrait of Fereshteh Jenabi), 2019, Soheila Sokhanvari: Rebel Rebel exhibitionabi), 2019
The woman in the mirror

The woman in the mirror is successful Iranian actor Fereshteh Jenabi. She performed in 11 films between 1971 and 1978. In two of these films – Resurrection of Love (1973) and Speeding Naked Til High Noon (1976) – her character orgasms on camera, an audacious expression of female pleasure in a deeply conservative society. Following the 1979 Islamic revolution, she received a death sentence for this work. Afraid for her life, she went into hiding for nearly 20 years and became dependent on drugs. She died aged only 50 in Tehran.

Anarchy of Silence (Portrait of Azar Shiva), 2022, Soheila Sokhanvari exhibition
Anarchy of Silence

Anarchy of Silence is the portrait of famous actor, Azar Shiva. She decided to boycott the film industry in protest against the sexual and financial exploitation of female performers – publicly declaring that she would prefer to sell chewing gum, which she did, rather that taking any more objectifying roles. She ended up moving to Paris with her daughter in 1979. In a 2016 interview, she commented: ‘women have always been under the weight of patriarchy. We are like a water drop trying to bore its ways through a rock.’

*Kobra (top) depicts Kobra Saaedi, better known by her stage and pen name Shahrzad. Famous dancer, actor, filmmaker, journalist and poet before the Islamic revolution, she was arrested for attending and filming an International Women's Day protest against the mandatory veil for women. Sent to prison and later to psychiatric institutions, she fled to Germany in the 1980's. But, unable to support herself, she returned to Iran, where she became homeless. Following a documentary about her in 2015, fans gave her basic accommodation.

Rebel Rebel is on until 26th February 2023.

Reasons to visit Hyde Park this month

A stroll through Hyde Park is always a treat – especially in winter when there are fewer crowds. Not only is it one of the largest royal parks, it also interlinks with three others, Kensington Gardens, Green Park and St James Park – ideal if you fancy a bit of a walk. Hyde Park is home to a ‘secret’ pet cemetery, has over 4,000 trees, a swimmable lake, the Serpentine, that was commissioned by Queen Caroline who wanted the park to have an open pool of water that looked natural … and two galleries – both of which happen to have excellent exhibitions - that finish on 29th January.

Hyde Park is of course also where you’ll find Speakers’ Corner, bastion of free speech. In the age of Elon Musk’s twitter this may seems less significant, but, back in the day, between 1906 and 1914, it was a major suffragette meeting and rally spot. The exact place was actually Reformers’ Tree, popularised by earlier Reform League (men’s suffrage) protests in the 1860s. The tree was set alight during a League protest, but the charred stump remained in place and became a symbol of discontent for many decades to come – leading to the establishment of Speakers’ corner - a 150 years ago this year! In 2000, a black and white floor mosaic was unveiled by socialist politician and activist Tony Benn, replacing this significant site.

Serpentine South Gallery: At one with nature
Two Women (Eve and Eve), 2016, Kamala Ibrahim Ishag, States of Oneness
Two Women (Eve and Eve), 2016

“I believe that humans and plants are one and the same”

The first thing I noticed, stepping into the gallery space, was the colours, the earthiness and lushness of Kamala Ibrahim Ishag’s work – the greens, browns, and blues of her native Sudan. If you close your eyes, you can almost smell the soil, plants, and trees. And if you listen carefully, you can almost hear her grandmothers whispering stories of spirits, the folk tales and legends of her childhood. Her art is deeply evocative – and her connection with nature, spirituality and the feminine permeate every aspect of it ... in States of Oneness.

It is therefore no surprise that Ishag’s work draws on Zaar – a possession by unwanted spirits or djinns and women-only healing ceremony that includes ritualistic music, ecstatic singing and dancing, costumes and incense burning. Zaar was practiced in Sudan and North East Africa - a tradition that continues and has been popularised in contemporary urban culture, including in Cairo, as a form women-only entertainment. Strangely, she first became fascinated by Zaar, after seeing paintings of William Blake in London, while she was studying here.

There are so many captivating aspects of Ishag’s work – not least that she also started an art movement: Crystalism. From the early to mid-60’s, she was associated with the Khartoum School, which established a modern artistic identity for the recently independent Sudan (1956). She began to paint in a transparent style – envisioning the universe as a crystal cube but always changing according to the viewers position.

States of Oneness is on until 29th January 2023.

Serpentine Gallery North: Making history, not sculpture

Across the water, over on the northside you’ll find something altogether different: Barbara Chase-Riboud’s Infinite Folds. Looking at pictures of her work does not prepare you for the personal encounter with the monumental sculptures on display. The exhibition, which brings together over seven decades of Chase-Riboud’s work – sculptures, drawings and poetry - is nothing short of phenomenal.

Barbara Chase-Riboud, Confessions for Myself, 1972
Confessions for Myself

At the entrance, you are greeted by ‘Confessions for Myself’ (1972), an imposing black patina’d bronze and wool sculpture – a 'Darth Vader' like figure from a distance but breath-takingly intricate and multidimensional close up. Black bronze pieces are welded together, forming what looks like a mask and ribcage held up, in a gravity defying way, by long charcoal wool ropes and knots that act as both the spine and the drapes of a cloak or skirt with … infinite folds.

Meandering through the different rooms of this elegantly curated exhibition, you feel the presence of these powerful pieces radiate through the rooms. This is likely a combination of the sculptures themselves – the careful juxtaposition of hard, harsh bronze or aluminium and soft, flowing wool or silk - as much as their subject matter itself – the historical and political references – which is how Chase-Riboud’s art truly comes to life. She imagines her sculptures as edifices and memorials, as tributes to important historical, cultural, artistic, and literary figures – who often lack equal representation. Because history is viewed subjectively through the lens of the hegemonic white, western, patriarchal discourse, it dictates which people and events are commemorated, how and for whom, deeply impacting our collective knowledge and memory.

Barbara Chase-Riboud, Malcolm X #2, 1969,
Malcolm X #2

Chase-Riboud left the US in the 1960’s, but remained politically connected to her home country – not least through the civil rights movement. News of Malcolm X’s assassination deeply affected her and has remained a central subject in her work. “The idea of making a statue of Malcolm grew with this idea that he was beyond memory. He was emblematic. He was more important than he knew. And he was more important than we knew.

Barbara Chase-Riboud, Zanzibar, 1970
Zanzibar, 1970

Her work references the trade in enslaved Africans in the series Zanzibar, inspired by her poem ‘Why did we leave Zanzibar?’, which considers the history of violence, subjugation and resistance in what was the centre of the Indian Ocean Slave Trade, between the 17th and 19th centuries. Through her exploration of the history of slavery, she seeks to unearth the lost narratives of women of African descent.

Barbara Chase-Riboud, La Musica Josephine Red/Black, 2021
La Musica Josephine Red/Black, 2021

Women, the ‘power wielded by women’, ‘the concept of women ruling the earth and shaping society in immutable ways’ all re recurring themes – from Cleopatra to goddess Shakti and the illustrious Josephine Baker, all have been revered in her work. La Musica Josephine Red/Black honours the dancer, singer, actress, civil rights activist and secret agent, with whom she has a lot in common. Both American-born Black women who made Paris their home and contributed to its creative and cultural scene, and were awarded France’s highest order of merit, the Légion d’Honneur.

Infinite Folds is on until 29th January 2023.

Atta Kwami’s mural DzidzƆ kple amenuveve (Joy and Grace), Serpentine, Hyde Park, London
Atta Kwami’s mural DzidzƆ kple amenuveve (Joy and Grace)

Finally, as you leave the gallery, turn the corner to see the beautiful Maria Lassnig Prize MuralT lhatee art ist Attta Kwiami’s mural DztdzƆ kple lamenJoy and Grace). Until 03rd September 2023.


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