As a brave, bold and elegant artist, Sepideh Salehi has been merging various visual languages and processes to explore the notions of home, family and cultural history. Born in Teheran, Iran, Sepideh’s artwork is profoundly soaked in her experience as a young Iranian woman during the authoritarian regime of the Islamic state, which has institutionalised the segregation of women and men, to this day, in what is now known as gender apartheid.

The concepts of covering up, hiding and privacy have thus underpinned the layers of collage, photography, painting, printmaking, calligraphy that the artist has combined to explore the relationship between the inner and outer vision of female identity. As well as this, Sepideh is interested in exploring how one’s environment, memories, belonging may be intertwined with their personal narratives to reimagine realities and propose new visions. In the obscured faces of her photographic collages, such as the iconic Mohr Portrait, the connection between identity, landscape and unknown is dissected and reconfigured to understand how women are wrongly perceived in their society and to question how the female self-perception is conditioned by its environment. As a sign of protest, her faces are covered, unrevealed, obscured from the viewer to allow for their identity to mature in secret. For this reason, Sepideh merges post-1979 Teheran cultural history with elements of her own past, in order to depict the struggles of female oppression against the injustice of abusive political regime, and to bring together a new, unknown gaze beneath the layers of one’s identity.


Sepideh, how did your journey as an artist begin?

From a very young age, I was interested in painting and drawing. When I was seven, the Islamic revolution happened, following eight years of war between Iran and Iraq. My life changed dramatically. The country was changing from monarchy to a very extreme Islamic state. I have many memories from that time. Lots of anger and violence were happening in the streets of Tehran, and I remember the image of executed people in the newspaper! So many rules changed, and I had to cover myself from top to toe as a little girl and woman! I was scared and didn't want to go outside or to school. But my love for art helped me survive those hard days. I had my sketchbook with me, where I could be myself without feeling the pressure of my surroundings. From that time, I knew art was the goal of my life. 

I attended Iranian artists' lessons in Tehran but eventually moved to Florence, Italy, to study art at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze. That was when my journey began as a visual artist. My art is influenced by my experience growing up as a woman in post-revolutionary Iran, followed by migration to Italy and eventually to the United States. In my work, I explore the idea of memory, identity, and belonging. This could be why I use various media and techniques to create my artwork. Photo-based images and photography are one way I employ to create my artwork.


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 Many of your visual works, as the War and Peace Series, are intertwined with language and words. Could you tell us a bit more about your creative process and how you combine these elements?

Storytelling is an integral part of my work. Utilizing language and text is one way I find my imagery. I make these works using Persian calligraphy. These drawings emerge from a union between the immediacy of line and the literal properties of writing. The War and Peace series depicts my memories of the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. Each drawing represents an event and begins with one word. Using bright and solid colours, I attempt to shed a spotlight on those events. 


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What is peace, to you?

Peace for me can be many things, such as ending wars and poverty and protecting our planet and its natural resources. Still, something occupies my thoughts the most and keeps me worried: ending the gender apartheid in Iran, Afghanistan, and many other places in the world.


What is the most vivid memory you have of home? How does this theme emerge in your works?

I have many good memories of my home, my family, and our life in Iran, but my most vivid memories are from growing up under the dictatorship and the eight year long war between Iran and Iraq. As a child in Iran, I witnessed many changes in our daily lives. We were no longer allowed to do some of the most simple things, especially in school. For instance, using a walkman, painting our nails, or even wearing colourful socks. These themes emerged in the School series. We had two kinds of life in Iran: private and public. In our private life inside our house, we could be ourselves with no pressure, but in public, we had to obey the rules of the Islamic state and be somebody else. All of these influenced my art and made me work in layers, negative and positive, silhouettes, inverted, to cover my figures or turn them upside down, and many more.


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In your Mohr Portrait Series, amongst others, women are represented by means of various layers, as they cover their eyes and faces from the external observer. How does this relate to the female experience of the self? What is womanhood, to you?

Through the image of the veil, I adopted an Iconography that led me to work in layers. The concepts of covering up, hiding, and privacy fascinate me. In Mohr Portrait, I photographed Iranian women I knew personally and asked them to move in a way their faces were covered or hidden. Then, I transformed the work through deconstruction to create complex ambiguity. 

In this work, I explore the relationship between the inner female and the outside world through critique and protest of how women have been presented across society. These brave women say no. They turn their faces to injustice and violence. This is the manifestation of the feminine voice based on my experience and my interpretation and reception, affected and influenced by my surroundings but not as a victim: rather as someone who can control and tries to create my own voice.


How does your experience as an Iranian woman fuel your creative work?

I recollect my experiences growing up in post-1979 Tehran by incorporating storytelling and letter-writing aspects. I weave personal narratives and cultural history into my work, reflecting on the ways I navigated the shifting social and political landscapes and to make sense of identity in our surrounding worlds.


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The current demonstrations against female oppression in Iran have received much support from women across the world. In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges to the development of female solidarity across societies?

These solidarities are good and, at the right time, can have a good effect, but more is needed. World leaders need to take action beyond their condemnation statements. Solid and unified international pressure is needed before more lives are taken.


What above all gives you strength and hope, in the times we are currently living? 

Thinking about succession and freedom for the Iranian people and all women in the world is one thing that fuels my strength and hopes all the time. There is no time for being a victim and mourning. It’s time to fight.