My Soapbox: Sheida Soleimani, photographer

While other kids in Indianapolis grew up hearing bedtime stories about princesses and warned to beware the bogeyman under the bed, Sheida Soleimani of Clifton learned about lepers and political prisoners in Iran.

The daughter of Iranian medical professionals—her father is a doctor, her mother, a nurse—Soleimani developed an early fascination with science and the stories of their homeland. Her fascination informs much of her photography, the latest of which--Panjereh (Window)—is featured at Prairie Gallery in Northside starting this weekend.

Though she was born and raised in America, traveling from the Midwest to the East and West coasts before settling in Cincinnati, Soleimani’s mother’s stories of Iran under the Ayatollah Khomeni were always important elements of her identity that she has worked to reconcile with the Western culture surrounding her.

As she graduates from UC’s College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning this month, the fine arts photographer and Loveland High School graduate puts the finishing touches on her third solo exhibit while managing Third Party Gallery, a space in Brighton she co-founded last fall.

This summer, the 22-year-old will be teaching ArtWorks’ apprentices in Findlay Market. She’ll run Third Party for the next year, then hopes to attend graduate school at Yale University, where she could work and study with one of her favorite photographers, Gregory Crewdson, known for his photographs of elaborately staged scenes.

Soleimani spoke with Soapbox about her art, her life and her affection for Cincinnati.

Soapbox: When did you decide you wanted to be a Fine Arts major?
Soleimani: My senior year of high school. My dad is a doctor and my mom is a nurse. I grew up studying biotechnology. I’m interested in it, but I don’t love it.

I didn’t think being an artist was a real job. My hobby was taking photos. It was secretly my way of letting off steam. Then I was not doing my science homework and was doing my art things. I’m definitely interested in things scientifically, though, and a lot of that is in my work.

SB: What is your favorite type of art to make?
Soleimani: Photography is my absolute favorite. There’s the process of developing the film and making the prints and looking at the images that you’ve taken. Your lens becomes your frame of reference in setting up a story or a tableau. It’s like this weird cinemagraphic process that I’m interested in. It’s way more hands on and direct than painting.

SB: How did going to DAAP impact your development?
Soleimani: I realized halfway through my freshman year that I needed to be ambitious and go out there on my own. When I was 18 years old, I interned with David (Rosenthal of Prairie Gallery), and I started the gallery in Brighton in September.

School taught me that you have to go out and get things on your own because it’s not going to be handed to you. That’s a really important lesson.

SB: How did you come to co-found a new gallery before you even graduated from college?
Soleimani: I had my first solo exhibition at Semantics in Januray 2011. Then Semantics asked me to start curating. What’s great about Cincinnati is that it allows that kind of opportunity. The scene here is smaller and really welcoming. Brighton is really affordable. It was easy to go down there and do it. Each gallery in Brighton offers a different niche.

SB: Why call your space Third Party Gallery?
Soleimani:We were kind of thinking of how as creators we are not making the work but we are interested in curating in general. This process of deciding how the art fits into a socio-political standpoint. We wanted to bring in artists who addressed sociopolitical issues in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

SB: Panjereh (Window) is your second large-scale photo exhibition. What inspired it?
Soleimani: Last year, when I was doing a show at Semantics, I was creating dioramas, 12-by-8 tableaus. They were related to stories that I heard growing up, stories of my parents’ lives as political refugees.

After making that work small scale, these works are what I’m calling large-scale dioramas. I put an 8 by 8 by 8 white cube in the middle of the woods in my parent’s yard in Loveland. In the past year, I’ve been taking pictures of it, putting things in human scale inside of them. Each story is a reference to a story that my mother told me as child.

My parents escaped during the revolution. The Ayatollah was out for my dad’s head. He went into hiding and escaped through the mountains on horseback. Then they came after my mom. She didn’t even know where my dad was. They didn’t believe her and put her in prison twice. They tortured her.

After the second time they put her in prison, she escaped with my sister, who was little at the time. My mother told me their stories--they were my bedtime stories. What I appreciate about it is that it was really honest. I didn’t have a boogeyman; all the things I was scared of were real. I was confronted with them at a very young age. It’s this weird cultural duality.

That’s what a lot of the work addresses. Being here and seeing that there are these different perspectives.

SB: What should people expect to see at the Prairie show?
Soleimani: My hope is that people will come into the space, view the photography, see that there are reoccurring symbols and assign their own ideologies to the work. It doesn’t have to be exactly how I see the memory. I’m really interested in seeing how people fashion these scenarios to their own senses and what they make of them.

Photographs by Scott Beseler

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