Rebel Rebel: Soheila Sokhanvari captures bravery of Iranian women in 20th century

New exhibition at the Barbican examines pre-revolutionary voices of women in a patriarchal society

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A British-Iranian artist has captured the strength and bravery of Iranian women throughout the 20th century in an exhibition in London.

Soheila Sokhanvari's exhibition in the Curve Gallery in London’s Barbican presents portraits of women from a pivotal era in Iranian history who played a part in battling oppression.

The exhibition resonates even more due to the current protests in Iran, sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who has become a symbol of resistance.

Her death while in the custody of the morality police has given rise to widespread protests both inside and outside the country, with many demonstrators putting their lives in danger by dancing in the streets and burning their hijabs.

Sokhanvari's exhibition — which draws its name, Rebel Rebel, from David Bowie's 1974 pop song — examines the contradictions of Iranian women's lives during the period before the shah was overthrown.

While compared to the current regime it may appear to have been liberal, before the revolution, Iran's patriarchal system was still very much present and silenced any oppositional voices.

Nevertheless, there were women who fully embraced modernity and modernism, and Sokhanvari's exhibition focuses on those who tried to escape the captivity of age-old societal roles.

The exhibition features 31 portraits of famous Iranian women, including Faegheh Atashin, known as Googoosh. Each portrait is hung in the middle of hand-painted geometric Islamic murals.

The exhibition features 31 portraits of female stars form the era. Lia Toby / Getty Images.

It describes Googoosh as “perhaps the biggest star of 20th-century Iran and a true cultural icon for Iranians everywhere”.

Regarding her career, it says: “Googoosh began performing aged only three, and made her first film at the age of seven, becoming a child star. She continued acting but is best known for her prolific music-making, which took inspiration from western pop, funk and soul.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, she released more than 200 songs. She was also beloved for her sense of style, popularising the miniskirt as well as a short haircut that became known as the “Googooshy”.

At the time of the Islamic revolution, she was travelling abroad, but she chose to return to Iran. She was jailed for a short time before being released on the condition that she would no longer sing in public.

“They tried hard to erase me — I mean, erase my name, erase my position, erase my songs, erase my face, erase the memory of me,” she recalled. “But they couldn't.”

Following the revolution, many feminist icons were arrested and forced to renounce all public activities or be exiled.

Rebel Rebel can be viewed at the Curve Gallery in London’s Barbican until February 26.

Updated: February 15, 2023, 5:25 PM