An exhibition on until early February in Cambridge is showcasing the work of Iranian-born UK-based artist Soheila Sokhanvari. “We Could Be Heroes” takes inspiration from images of Iranian actors and performers, as well as the artist’s family – a culture and a loving home from which she was separated at a young age due to 1979’s revolution.
Sokhanvari arrived in the UK in 1978 as a 14-year-old girl on an educational visit. She was not to return to her homeland as planned; the Islamic revolution intervened. She began drawing her family, helped by a photograph album her mother had made her bring with her on her trip. “When I was drawing the people in the photos came alive and I could relive that moment again. It helped me cope with the longing for my family and my people,” she has recalled.
Her most recent style pays homage to the way conflicting conservative and liberal values lived side-by-side in pre-revolution Iran. Working in a traditional Persian way in egg yolk pigments on calf vellum parchment with a squirrel hair brush, she creates miniatures bursting with vibrant western and Islamic motifs. She says she put the “two together because these people are trying to negotiate the two opposing cultures.”
The effect is stunning – almost pop-art, almost hyper-real – and Instagram-friendly, filled with architectural, surreal gardens and bold walls of geometric pattern and colour. As well as loved ones, Sokhanvani’s subjects include female artists and performers, celebrated in the 1960s and ’70s in Iran, but prevented from working, imprisoned, tortured and silenced post-revolution. Sokhanvani dresses them in bright colours and portrays them in strong, calm poses, pointing guns. Some of them have contacted her to say how much they appreciate being given back their voice and their image.
Each miniature takes Sokhanvari between six and 12 weeks to create, working at least 12-hours a day. But as a former research scientist she is used to meticulous precision work, even if she always wanted to be an artist. She went into science to please her mother, but says she always felt like she “was trespassing in the world of science.”
And so we come to another rift and interplay her work could be argued to represent – that in her own life, not just as an Iranian-Brit with dual heritage, but as a scientist-artist. Her research career took a turn after a bad cycling accident in her early thirties prompted her to take another path. “I promised myself that if I regained my health, I would become an artist. I didn’t want any regrets in my life,” she has explained.
Despite turning away from science, there is a distinctly science-based theme in her early work, that painted nostalgia with crude oil, discovered in pre-revolutionary Iran in 1908 and now associated with decades of hurt and battles for political control.
Previously shown at London’s Barbican in “Rebel Rebel” and described as “defiantly joyful art”, Soheila Sokhanvari’s work can now be seen at the “We Could Be Heroes” exhibition at Heong Gallery, Cambridge, UK, until 4 February 2024.