Seduction of Power and The Medium of Exchange
For two nights only, the Contemporary Arts Center downtown held screenings of artist Sheida Soleimani’s debut film titled Medium of Exchange, which the CAC commissioned. After the performance was over, the artist was given the opportunity to talk about her work and answer questions.
Soleimani is a first generation American artist, born to Iranian parents. The subject matter of much of her recent work has focused on Iranian women who have endured violence; giving them a narrative agency, which otherwise might have ended with their disappearances.
In her debut film, Soleimani delves into the intricacies of power dynamics between OPEC countries, and critiques western affiliations in these countries’ exports. The film was prefaced as “provocative” by the Contemporary Art Center’s Performing Arts Director, Drew Klein, and his description did not disappoint. What followed was a half hour of an exploration into the intricacies of western and OPEC relations, with obvious over-the-top and at times comedic interpretations by the artist. Soleimani has managed to create a work that is erotic but nuanced; using the film as a call-to-action for the viewer to further educate themselves on the status of western relations with the now fourteen OPEC nations.
In every scene the artist includes a recurring motif of oil. Actors are dressed as key players in the relationships between western countries and leaders of oil-producing countries, dousing each other with the viscous liquid. The Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources of Saudi Arabia and chairman of Saudi Aramco (formerly the Arabian-American Oil Company) Kahlid Al-Falih is shown dripping oil onto the bare chest of UN leader Ban Ki Moon, demonstrating the lengths that a leader is willing to take, in order to gain access to their resources.
Soleimani’s central point, seems to be a critique of western affiliations in these cartel countries. In her four-act film, the actual raw, crude oil is messy and fluid, becoming even bodily when paired with the actors. It completely encompasses the human figures which creates visual confusion, but also gives the oil an overbearing quality. Soleimani manages to take notorious leaders, such as Donald Rumsfeld and Henry Kissinger, and turn them into caricatures, adorning her actors in large, pixelated paper masks and soaking them entirely in oil.
In the post-screening Q&A hosted by Klein, Soleimani stated that placing these characters into hypersexualized scenarios was her interpretation of the relationships between those in command. She cast a queer woman to play former American leader Henry Kissinger proposing to Angolan Minister of Oil, Jose Maria Botelho, and begging for a taste of their resources. In one scene, the artist dresses up her femme-identifying actors like the President of Iran and the King of Saudi Arabia competing as contestants in a game-show like setting, where they have to eat ice cream with only their tongues--a scene which is a step away from reading as blatant pornography. Soleimani seems unafraid to push the boundaries in the fetization of these historical relationships, and sees the importance in how the history of relationships with cartel countries play out in current western and middle-eastern politics.
However, through these scenes of fetization, Soleimani is passionate in the objectivity of the facts she presents in the work. She explains in the post-screening interview that her research has brought her to archives, media coverage from all sides of the political spectrum, and even the CIA’s website to unearth crucial texts and documents. Most of the dialogue in the film came from the public record, including speeches and recorded conversations held by leaders and critics of the Iraq war. The way the artist incorporated these verbal exchanges into the work is a clear sign of her understanding of the history that those viewing may not possess. Knowing exactly which boundaries to push due to the understanding of these relations gives the film an interesting and intelligent interpretation of events.
From Soleimani’s conversation after the screening of her work, it is clear her intent for this piece and eventual series was not only to provoke, but to catalyze discussion over the events that transpired after the creation of OPEC in 1960. She does not want the conversation of how these events play out in politics to end when her piece is over, and she does not want the audience to be intimidated by their lack of historical knowledge.
The artist said that it is not necessary for a viewer of her work to know all the nuances of the oil trade, but wants her film to raise questions. Her criticism of media is that it tends to lean very favorably to the west, giving the world a eurocentric bias. Soleimani hopes to displace this bias by raising awareness and interest in the history of OPEC, and how the decisions made by its leaders not only affected the leaders of the Middle East, but the people living there as well. In all, Medium of Exchange, brings a new light into the power western culture has on world media coverage, and the ignorance that eurocentrism creates when discussing the lives of individuals living in cartel-controlled countries.
Sheida Soleimani’s premiere of The Medium of Exchange screened for two nights at the Contemporary Arts Center on Thursday, March 29 and Friday, March 30. For more information about the event, visit http://www.contemporaryartscenter.org/calendar/2018/03/29/sheida-soleimani-medium-of-exchange.
Written by Annabel Biernat
Read Maria Marotta's interview with Sheida Soleimani here.