Iran’s erased women remembered

Wild at Heart (Portrait of Pouran Shapoori), 2019 Credit: Soheila Sokhanvari, courtesy Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery

The long, winding path of The Curve art gallery at London’s Barbican Centre has been transformed into a devotional space. The cavernous room is dimly lit and echoes with the calming voices of female Iranian singers. Sprawling, Islamic, geometric patterns roll down the tall walls which are splintered with the light projected onto them by dazzling mirrored sculptures. Apart from the female voices, it feels like a mosque.

Take a closer look, and the walls are scattered with traditional Persian miniatures, depicting women whose histories have been erased in Iran. In painstaking detail, Soheila Sokhanvari’s portraits provide a snapshot into women’s lives pre-revolution. Born in Shiraz in the Fars Province of Iran, she came to England in 1978, just a year before the Islamic Revolution. But Sokhanvari remains enchanted with the country she left behind. Her miniatures depict unveiled and glamorous women, creative dissidents who pursued careers in a country awash with Western style but not its freedoms.

“I can relate directly to the women in my paintings,” she told Index. “Like them I am an artist but, unlike them, I am able to pursue my career, wear what I want and act as I want, and the idea that one day someone could take my freedom away from me is unthinkable”.

The portraits are displayed without names or biographical info but, by scanning a QR code, we are guided through the exhibition by their stories. There are 28 in total: actors, singers, poets, writers, dancers and film directors, all of which were either forced into silence or exile in 1979, when the Islamic Revolution led to a rollback in women’s legal rights. Much of their work is censored in Iran today. “I knew of many of the women from my own experience and time in Iran as a young girl,” Sokhanvari explained. “They were my idols, but finding out more information about the lives of several of the women took lots of research – they were essentially erased from the record by the regime”. She said that a small number of the women – like singer and actress Googoosh – are very famous, but that several had tragically died too young and were hard to trace.

The exhibition draws the spotlight back onto these talented women for which, she says, she feels a deep loss. The portraits beautifully capture this feeling: a simultaneous celebration of their bravery and a mourning of their freedoms. Vivid patterns and clothing contrast monochromatic faces, which make the pictures feel both vibrant and ghostly. The use of new and old multimedia was significant in telling these stories too. “I painted my portraits in the ancient technique of egg tempera, onto calf vellum, and I included films in which the women starred, ” Sokhanvari said. Two holograms of dancing Iranian actors Kobra Saeedi and Jamileh are also hidden in boxes. “I wanted the viewers to see these women, to watch them dance and to hear them sing, since they have been banned from these platforms.” The broadcasting of women’s voices in public is illegal in Iran. “I wanted to show these women at the height of their creativity, to show them as the sensational artists that they are, and using multimedia helped to achieve this immersive experience.”

This contrast of old and new is fitting. While the exhibition was curated without sight of the current unrest in Iran, the portraits certainly gain a tragic poignancy because of it. The brave women of Sokhanvari’s portraits embody much of what people are fighting for today. “Young women are at the front of this revolution and that is what gives it its power,” she told Index. “I feel a new sense of positivity and hope that perhaps we will see the end of this regime, but simultaneously I feel pain and bitterness that it is at the cost of so many bright lives.”

Although she doesn’t describe her artwork as a protest, she says that the message is political.

“What is happening in Iran can no longer be seen as just another protest, it is a revolution and I stand in solidarity with my sisters.” I asked if her portraits reflect a lost past or a hopeful future. She says both.

‘Rebel Rebel’ at The Curve, Barbican is open until 26 February 2023

Theatre censorship: still alive and kicking?

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”96602″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]This panel is part of Reflective Conservatoire Conference 2018: Artists as Citizens hosted by the Guildhall School.

On 26 September 1968 the Theatres Act abolished a censorship that had controlled plays in Great Britain since 1737. The next day the musical Hair opened in London with rock anthems and nude hippies. Expression was free.

Fifty years on, what are the forces at work that may be challenging a freedom of expression?

Who or what are the new Lord Chamberlains? How free are our performing arts?

This panel discussion, chaired by Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship, will include contributions from experts from across the sector. It launches the Shakespeare’s Globe series on Shakespeare and Censorship and makes up part of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s Reflective Conservatoire Conference.

Delegates to the Reflective Conservatoire Conference will be able to register for complimentary tickets to this panel discussion once they go on sale on 4 December.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

When: Wednesday 21 February, 7pm GMT
Where: Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the Barbican Centre
Tickets: Information via Guildhall School


Index at the Battle of Ideas festival

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”96059″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]In a rapidly changing world, debating ideas matters more than ever. The Battle of Ideas festival, at The Barbican in London, provides a unique forum to discuss the big issues of our time.

Index on Censorship will be participating in panel discussions: CEO Jodie Ginsberg will discuss censorship and identity politics on Sunday 29 October from 2-3:30pm; Assistant editor Ryan McChrystal will debate political activism and protest on Sunday 29 October from 12-1pm.

We’ll also be manning a booth in the main hall. Stop by for a tattoo and talk to the friendly Index staff about our organisation’s work defending freedom of expression.

See the full programme for the Battle of Ideas festival here.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

When: 28-29 October
Where: The Barbican
Tickets: Via Battle of Ideas


Exhibit B: Censorship pure and simple

Before the cancellation of Exhibit B at the Barbican this week, Index published an article from associate arts producer Julia Farrington in which she addressed the role of the institution in managing controversial art and a lack of diversity in arts management in the UK. Those who read the article following the cancellation and our short comment on it have interpreted our stance as one that in some way excuses or condones the protesters and the cancellation of the piece. This was certainly not our intention, but we realise that by failing to publish a detailed article or statement on the cancellation, we muddied our position.

So let’s be clear. People have every right to object to art they find objectionable but no right whatsoever to have that work censored. Free expression, including work that others may find shocking or offensive, is a right that must be defended vigorously. As an organisation, while we condemn in no uncertain terms all those who advocate censorship, we would – as a free expression organisation – defend their right to express those views. What we do not and will never condone is the use of intimidation, force or violence to stifle the free expression of others.

As an anti-censorship organisation we think it is self-evident that no work should be censored for causing ‘offence’. But we also know that controversial art will inevitably cause controversy, including demands it be censored. Some of those who object to the work may protest. Some of those protests may turn violent. So we have also sought in much of our work on this issue not simply to condemn those who wish to censor, but also to examine what more arts organisations and institutions can do to ensure that controversial works are put on: Taking the Offensive – defending artistic freedom of expression in the UK.

We hope the debate generated by the cancellation of Exhibit B will reignite discussion on both the necessity of, and mechanisms for, staging controversial work.

This statement was posted on 26 September 2014 at