“Oh it sounds like a common Grackle,” Soleimani remarks on my description of the adorably ugly baby. If mom doesn’t come back soon, Soleimani is ready to swoop in and take the role of surrogate. She’s done it many times for orphaned and injured birds, bandaging wings, teaching them to fly and setting them free. The bird is totemic in much of her work, including her solo exhibit Panjereh (Window) at Prairie Gallery.
Her intimate knowledge of birds caught my attention at Third Party Gallery where she is one of the directors. I was there in November to discuss her curatorial work, but her life began spilling out like a page-turner, now illustrated in the eight photographs of Panjereh. Then she demonstrated the birdcalls she knows. She puckered her lips and twirled her tongue to elicit these remarkably convincing sounds.
With Panjereh opening Saturday, I arrive at her apartment for an interview. Three inquisitive felines wait at the door. Plants lay claim of the available windows. Bugs are tacked to the wall and skulls are buried on the bookshelf. Soleimani wears a flower in her hair. She serves tea and lays out digital prints of her work.
They read like a young girl’s diary of fetishes and fears. They are also rooted in a past that is painful, poetic and not entirely her own. Much of the source material in Panjereh is her parents’ memories. But they shape her character so profoundly that they have become shared experiences.
In 1979, when the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran, her family was in danger.
Her father was a doctor, but also rallied against the regime. When her mother was pregnant with her older sister, Ghazal, soldiers came to the door looking for her father. They didn’t find him but left with a warning, “teekeh teekhash mekoneem”: If we find him, we’ll tear him apart limb by limb. He went into hiding for three years. After Ghazal was born her mother was imprisoned for a year. One narrow window, or panjereh, let a sliver of light into her cell. The family reunited in America, all before Soleimani’s birth.
Now these memories unfold in a kind of large-scale diorama or three-dimensional tableau she constructed in her parents’ Loveland backyard. Inside this white room characters and scenes change with the seasons. From fall to spring, she composed fabricated environments like Ansel Adams composed the natural world, snapping shots with a large format 4x5 bellows camera.
Leaves begin to turn colors on the trees and her first photo, “Maman” (mother in Farsi), is born. A woman veiled by hair hangs over the white wall peeling oranges. Flower-shaped peels hang on the walls. Halves of orange and grapefruit scatter on the floor. Her mother used to leave orange-peel flowers in her lunchbox.
This portrait of Maman harks back to an earlier series, My Mother’s Daughter. In both Panjereh and the earlier work, Soleimani stands in for her mother. In one image she is veiled in black below a portrait of the Ayatollah, representing her mother’s oppression under the Supreme Leader. In another image she wears a gardenia under her chador, a cloak covering the head. A banner reads “when the spring comes” in Farsi. Soleimani tells me this was her mother’s response to Ghazal asking when her father was coming back. The gardenias bloom in spring, so Soleimani associates them with her mother waiting for her father. As she plays the role of mother, these photos become self-portraits as much as portraits of “maman” and her mother’s memories become her own.
Night falls in the photo “Suri” and a purifying ritual begins inside the diorama. A white gown suspends above three small fires like a spectral beauty, dangerously close to igniting. The flames represent the festival of fire, Chahar Shanbeh Suri, which Soleimani celebrates with her father. He lights small fires in their driveway, and they leap over the flames chanting “give me your sickness, I’ll give you my health.” The fire may symbolize good health but this is lost on the neighborhood association as they leave burn marks on the driveway.
The dress with a sheer tulle skirt is also a reconstructed memory. Soleimani hung a wedding gown over her bed as a child, and hatched butterflies under the tulle. When they died she tacked them to the wall. The cycle of birth, death and resurrection persists in “Suri.”
Winter arrives bearing gifts from the West in “First Christmas.” Soleimani was born in America but didn’t learn to speak English until age 6. With the language came the mingling of cultures, to comic effect. In the photo, a palm tree decorated with balloons embodies this early attempt at American integration. Soleimani hangs some of the dead birds she has collected, to represent the family’s pet parakeets. She recycles the dead, preserving sparrows, doves, even a turkey vulture. Friends post dead birds on her Facebook page and drop the deceased on her doorstep in carryout boxes. As for the palm tree, it is her mother’s idea of a Christmas tree, but the pet birds pop the balloons and the uprooted tropical plant spills dirt on the floor. Christmas is lost in translation on a family uprooted from their homeland.
The tableau is ever-changing but the past remains. Soot from her father’s fire stains the floor and orange peels decay in the corners. The past imprints on her psyche. As a final record, Soleimani brings remnants of this fabricated room into the gallery, along with photographs, so that her story may leave its imprint on you.