This essay was produced in conjunction with the exhibition Sheida Soleimani: Medium of Exchange, curated by Kate Shepherd, on view at CUE Art Foundation, June 5 - July 14, 2018. This text is included in the free exhibition catalogue available at CUE.
Sheida Soleimani’s photographs and videos are both acerbic and illegible. The oil, the Shell logos, the hijabs, the keffiyeh, the doms, the subs, the queer bodies, and the caricatured faces of politicians: together, these referents speak to power dynamics at once gendered and geopolitical. Many of these cultural motifs read, to most Westerners at least, as pan-‘Middle Eastern,’ and while the specific actors and scenarios remain elusive, the sort of corruption and abuse of power the photographs embody is all too familiar.
In Medium of Exchange, Soleimani considers relationships between Western military leaders
and leaders of oil-rich countries through a series of photographs and screenplays. The latter are pictured by way of their official portraits on www.opec.org—OPEC is the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and includes Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Qatar, Indonesia, Libya, United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Nigeria, Ecuador, Angola, and Gabon. The organization’s mission is to unify member countries to defend the price of oil. In Soleimani’s work, the small, official portraits are printed larger-than-life and worn as masks by anonymous, androgynous bodies that reenact and exaggerate various historical scenarios between OPEC Oil Ministers and leaders of non-OPEC nations involved in oil-trade conflict.
In her studio, Soleimani translated for me each specific person and scenario reenacted, reprinted, and reconfigured in Medium of Exchange. This essay on the series could easily be one of explication, a didactic text explaining each scene and figure, but I chose instead to meditate on the productivity of the images’ illegibility, which speaks more broadly to our heavily mediated and fragmented experiences of political narratives.
Her images are illegible in two ways: first, at times, it is difficult to discern exactly what you are looking at and surprising to learn the works have not been digitally collaged. Instead, the artist prints out images—many sourced online, from the news, from opec.org, and the like—and refashions them as objects, which are staged in tableaux. The viewer is often faced with pictures of pictures, interspersed with pictures of live bodies and three-dimensional objects before Soleimani’s own camera.
Soleimani’s formal technique is unique to our current technological moment in that it is enabled by the easy and rapid proliferation of digital image files online. This is not to say it is without precedent: Adrian Piper, for instance, re-photographed and re-printed images of women from Ebony magazine with an analog camera as part of her video installation Out of the Corner (1990). Soleimani’s technique is also in dialogue with her contemporaries in photography. Daniel Gordon’s work, for example, includes photographs of objects wrapped in photographs of themselves. Lucas Blalock creates similar worlds in a digital space. Blalock’s still lifes layer parts of an image over itself, using Photoshop to create entirely new compositions that don’t have to obey the laws of gravity or the ordering of real space.
Gordon and Blalock take as their subjects the medium of photography and issues of representation, but avoid any overtly political content associated with such issues. Soleimani’s work asserts that the mutability of representation is always political. Several of the photographs succinctly refer to photographic representation as an always-already political act: by putting red X’s on aerial photographs of oil fields, Soleimani evokes both marks on a battle map and the red crayon marks photographers put on contact sheets to indicate which negatives they don’t want printed. Tactical decisions for plotting a battle plan are thereby equated to the editorial choices for printing images.
One “battle field” adorned with red X’s is Ghawar Field—the largest oil field in the world, located in Saudi Arabia. The richest OPEC nation, Saudi Arabia is also home to severe human rights violations. When confronted by the United Nations about such violations, Saudi Arabia has denied the allegations, or defended them as “traditions.” Saudi Arabia threatened to cut off its oil supply if the U.N. failed to remove it from their watch list, and the U.N. acquiesced.  Accordingly, in her photograph Minister of Energy, Industry & Mineral Resources, Saudi Arabia & UN Secretary-General, Soleimani has figured Saudi Arabia as a dom and the U.N. a sub—succinctly capturing how, often times, with money comes power comes abuse.
Another sense in which Soleimani’s work is productively illegible is in the untranslatability of its symbols, including unknown figures and unfamiliar cultural referents. The scenarios portrayed are extensively researched by the artist, meaning that her own experiences of the scenes she represents tend, like her viewers’, to also be mediated and fragmented. Soleimani was raised in the United States by two Iranian political refugees. Her parents were persecuted for their pro-democracy actions—her father for his activism against Ayatollah Khomeini's totalitarian regime, and her mother while he was in hiding. Soleimani herself has never been to Iran, and will likely never go—the critical nature of her art has been met by death threats from members of Basij, a voluntary militia. It is not simply that some of the referents might be unfamiliar to a Western audience; the artist also explores her own mediated relationships to the stories and power dynamics she depicts. She takes on scenarios too complicated and too poorly represented in mainstream media, to be simply illustrated; Soleimani opts instead for a more fragmented representation. Her own highly-mediated research process is made visible through her printed, marked-up, and pixelated images; her relationship to the content, like ours, is revealed to be one at a remove.
The title of the series, Medium of Exchange, reframes oil as a form of international currency. It is “black gold,” a liquid asset in the literal, material sense. The substance slithers across geopolitical contexts, but our experience charting its path is a mediated one—experienced through fragments of news bites rather than as a clear and direct narrative. Looking at the work, I can’t help but thinking of the black oil as a lubricant—a substance enabling global promiscuity and complex power dynamics, resulting in pure joy for some but utter abuse for others.
1. Lewis, Kayleigh. "UN ‘blackmailed’ into Removing Saudi Arabia from Blacklist after Just a Week." Independent, June 9, 2016. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/un-saudi-arabia-blackmail-blacklist-removed-after-one-week-a7073046.html.
This essay was written as part of the Art Critic Mentoring Program, a partnership between AICA-USA (US section of International Association of Art Critics) and CUE, which pairs emerging writers with AICA-USA mentors to produce original essays on a specific exhibiting artist. Please visit aicausa.org for more information on AICA-USA, or cueartfoundation.org to learn how to participate in this program. Any quotes are from interviews with the author unless otherwise specified. No part of this essay may be reproduced without prior consent from the author. Lilly Wei is AICA’s Coordinator for the program this season.
Emily Watlington is a 2018-2019 Fulbright Scholar. Previously, she was the curatorial research assistant at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, where she contributed to the exhibition catalogs Before Projection: Video Sculpture 1974-1995 (2018), and An Inventory of Shimmers: Objects of Intimacy in Contemporary Art (2017). Her art criticism has appeared in numerous publications including Frieze, Mousse, Art Review, The Brooklyn Rail and Art Papers. In 2017, she received Vera List Writing Prize for Visual Arts.
Mentor Nancy Princenthal is a New York-based critic and former Senior Editor of Art in America; other publications to which she has contributed include Artforum, Parkett, the Village Voice, and the New York Times. Her book Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art (Thames and Hudson) was published in June 2015. She is also the author of Hannah Wilke (Prestel, 2010), and her essays have appeared in monographs on Shirin Neshat, Doris Salcedo, Robert Mangold and Alfredo Jaar, among many others. She is a co-author of two recent books on leading women artists, including The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium (Prestel, 2013). Having taught at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College; Princeton University; Yale University, RISD, Montclair State University and elsewhere, she is currently on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts.