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Medium of Exchange

June 5 – July 14, 2018

Sheida Soleimani





Vernon Church

Executive Director

Katie Cercone

Theodore S. Berger Thomas G. Devine Thomas K.Y. Hsu John S. Kiely Vivian Kuan

Rachel Maniatis

Corina Larkin

Beatrice Wolert-Weese Deputy Director

Shona Masarin-Hurst Programs Director

Christen Martosella

Eva Elmore

Kyle Sheahen

Lilly Hern-Fondation

Aliza Nisenbaum Brian D. Starer Lilly Wei

Gregory Amenoff, Emeritus

Development Coordinator Programs Assistant

Polly Apfelbaum Lynn Crawford Ian Cooper

Michelle Grabner Eleanor Heartney

Trenton Doyle Hancock Pablo Helguera Paddy Johnson Deborah Kass

Sharon Lockhart Juan Sรกnchez

Irving Sandler Lilly Wei

Andrea Zittel


CUE Art Foundation is a visual arts center dedicated to creating essential career and educational opportunities for artists of all ages. Through exhibitions, arts education, and public programs, CUE provides artists, writers, and audiences with sustaining, meaningful experiences and resources. CUE’s exhibition program aims to present new and exceptionally strong work by under-recognized and emerging artists based in the United States, and is committed to exhibiting work of all disciplines. This exhibition is a winning selection from the 2017-18 Open Call for Solo Exhibitions. The proposal was unanimously selected by a jury comprised of panelists Larry Ossei-Mensah, independent curator and cultural critic; Kate Shepherd, artist; and Shannon Stratton, Chief Curator at the Museum of Arts and Design. In line with CUE’s commitment to providing substantive professional development opportunities, panelists also serve as mentors to the exhibiting artists, providing support throughout the process of developing the exhibition. We are honored to work with Kate Shepherd as the Curator-Mentor of this exhibition.


Medium of Exchange

Sheida Soleimani

Medium of Exchange investigates the complex relationships between the all-male leaders of OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) countries and the West, finding both complicit in warfare that has come as a result of oil interest. Investigating the ties between these powerful figures, the photographs and screenplays in Medium of Exchange use the tactics of theatre and humor to scrutinize the corruption stemming from the oil trade, while suggesting a new way to view the codependence of leaders. Portraits of OPEC Oil Ministers and Western government officials propose an interplay of love and sex between those in command; fetishes guide their exchanges, which result in drastic global turmoil—frequently at the expense of civilians from the OPEC countries. Characterizations of each figure play out amongst backdrops of oil fields and refineries that dot the landscape of the resource-rich region.


These portraits are accompanied by a series of short screenplays, adapting narratives from records of public speeches and conversations between government officials and top-ranking officers. Pulling from archives, media photographs, official documents, and conflicting news stories, Medium of Exchange expounds upon the role of petroleum trade in concert with inadequacies of governments to provide for their citizens. Sheida Soleimani (b.1990) is an Iranian-American artist who lives in Providence, Rhode Island. The daughter of political refugees who were persecuted by the Iranian government in the early 1980s, Soleimani makes work that melds sculpture, collage, film, and photography to highlight her critical perspectives on historical and contemporary socio-political occurrences in Iran and the Greater

Middle East. She focuses on media trends and the dissemination of societal occurrences in the news, adapting images from popular press and social media leaks to exist within alternate scenarios. Soleimani’s research and work critically references the Eurocentrism that pervades the study of art and art history. She is specifically interested in the intersections of art and activism, as well as how social media has shaped the landscape in current political affairs and uprisings. Her work has been recognized internationally in both exhibitions and publications such as Artforum, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Interview Magazine, VICE Magazine, amongst many others.


Kate Shepherd Curator-Mentor

They say that learning to read relies on a priori knowledge. In this way, Sheida Soleimani’s audience is the ignorant reader; her sculptures, video and prints deal with the dark inner workings of the oil industry. It’s a hard thing to navigate without being overly didactic because she juggles information about power, international relations, immorality and violence. She implicates politicians in the industry and how petroleum is distributed. For Americans, the Middle East is so culturally different: the dress codes are foreign as are the alphabet, the landscape, the roles that women play. The more I don’t know, the less I put the pieces together. In her show at CUE, Sheida includes large standing photos of colorful make-shift theater sets. Comprised of elements chosen for their accuracy of actual events and personages in situ, they make an ebullient mockery of malevolence: men who are complicit in their interconnections as sellers and buyers. When the players are unequal powers they wear the signs “D” or “S” on their costumes (dominant and submissive) as a wry way to suggest parallels to BDSM culture. The masks in Sheida’s photos make a mockery while showing “serious business”—they are printed to be disproportionately large and worn by queer actors whose eyes peer through misplaced holes. The oil


she pours all over the scenes is disarmingly visceral, animate, even sexy. This black substance is the currency that binds while the narrative seems upside down. Sheida’s mother was tortured and imprisoned – and in her household this was normal to discuss. During the Iranian Revolution, her father spent three years in hiding finally to escape by horseback through Turkey. They were separated for four years, then settled in the United States before Sheida was born. For her, this story is familiar territory and is at the core of her work. In 2016, her focus was the abuse of women, but of late she has broadened her scope to examine a maledominated industry rife with cronyism and human rights violations. Bring your notebook if you ever hear Sheida talk about the politics of oil trade; she is incredibly wellversed. When I first met her, I wondered at what age she learned all this. No one coming to this subject late in life could ingest it with the simultaneous expertise and levity that she does. I asked many questions and learned that at bedtime, her mother told stories of the horror women suffered in hiding, being tortured. But the tales did not scare Sheida. Rather, she feared that an imaginary leper was under her bed, having been

made aware that her mother had worked in an asylum that housed them. Descriptions that horrified Sheida most were that of skin turning black, facial features falling off. It’s magical and logical that as a child she mis-called the illness “lippery.” Now she prints photos of key characters in order to make masks wherein noses and mouths are violated, cut, to allow her actors’ tongues to pierce through the paper, suggesting that the perpetrator is being harmed in the way that she—as a child—imagined. This artwork is political but also shares personal trauma—disfigurement is one of the roots in Sheida’s expression of empowerment and retribution. How better to get back at evil doers than to inflict your own childhood nightmares upon them? All pieces in this show are playing parts as in a collage of political and sexual theater, one that is both playful and deadly serious—literally. Being somewhat of an expert in the field, Sheida is free to "throw in the kitchen sink” as long as the elements adhere to a narrative and counter narrative. When I look at Sheida’s work, I feel that my hand is held, in order that I understand enough to be horrified and enlightened.

Kate Shepherd is an artist who lives and works in New York. Trained in both art and architecture, she creates subtle depictions of space in a wide range of mediums, including painting, installation, printmaking, and sculpture. Some large-scale works include a stone amphitheater in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and an immersive installation at 56 HENRY, New York, that paid homage to provisional structures found at construction sites. Shepherd has had extensive residencies at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas, and Lannan Foundation, Santa Fe, New Mexico. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for the New York-based magazine Triple Canopy. Shepherd’s work can be found in numerous museum collections, including the Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland; the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts; the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Menil Collection, Houston, Texas; and the Seattle Art Museum, Washington. She is represented by Galerie Lelong & Co. and Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco.


Minister of Mineral Resources and Petroleum, Angola & Former Secretary of State, United States, 2017 Archival pigment print 60 x 40 in.



LEFT Minister of Petroleum & Hydrocarbons, Gabon, 2017 Archival pigment print 60 x 40 in.

RIGHT Minister of Petroleum, Iran, 2017 Archival pigment print 60 x 40 in.



Minister of Agriculture, Iran, 2017 Archival pigment print 24 x 20 in.



LEFT People's Minister of Petroleum, Venezuela, 2017 Archival pigment print 60 x 40 in. RIGHT Ghawar Field, 2017 Archival pigment print 60 x 40 in.




LEFT Former Vice President and Secretary of State, United States & Halliburton CEOs, 2017 Archival pigment print 60 x 40 in. RIGHT Director of Central Intelligence Agency, United States & Iraq, 2017 Archival pigment print 24 x 20 in.


Medium of Exchange, 2018 High definition video 40 mins, color, sound



LEFT Sanctions, 2018 Archival pigment print 24 x 18 in.

RIGHT GDP Angola, 2018 Archival pigment print 24 x 18 in.



Minister of Petroleum & Hydrocarbons, Ecuador, 2017 Archival pigment print 60 x 40 in.



LEFT Trapping Season, 2017 Archival pigment print 24 x 20 in. RIGHT Inauguration: United States, Iraq, 2017 Archival pigment print 60 x 40 in.



Liquid Assets, Lubricants:

Sheida Soleimani’s The Medium of Exchange Emily Watlington


Sheida Soleimani’s photographs and videos are both acerbic and illegible. The oil, the Shell logos, the hijabs, the keffiyeh, the doms, the subs, the queer bodies, and the caricatured faces of politicians: together, these referents speak to power dynamics at once gendered and geopolitical. Many of these cultural motifs read, to most Westerners at least, as pan-‘Middle Eastern,’ and while the specific actors and scenarios remain elusive, the sort of corruption and abuse of power the photographs embody is all too familiar. In Medium of Exchange, Soleimani considers relationships between Western military leaders and leaders of oil-rich countries through a series of photographs and screenplays. The latter are pictured by way of their official portraits on— OPEC is the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and includes Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Qatar, Indonesia, Libya, United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Nigeria, Ecuador, Angola, and Gabon. The organization’s mission is to unify member countries to defend the price of oil. In Soleimani’s work, the small, official portraits are printed larger-than-life and worn as masks by anonymous,

androgynous bodies that reenact and exaggerate various historical scenarios between OPEC Oil Ministers and leaders of non-OPEC nations involved in oil-trade conflict. In her studio, Soleimani translated for me each specific person and scenario reenacted, reprinted, and reconfigured in Medium of Exchange. This essay on the series could easily be one of explication, a didactic text explaining each scene and figure, but I chose instead to meditate on the productivity of the images’ illegibility, which speaks more broadly to our heavily mediated and fragmented experiences of political narratives. Her images are illegible in two ways: first, at times, it is difficult to discern exactly what you are looking at and surprising to learn the works have not been digitally collaged. Instead, the artist prints out images—many sourced online, from the news, from, and the like—and refashions them as objects, which are staged in tableaux. The viewer is often faced with pictures of pictures, interspersed with pictures of live bodies and three-dimensional objects before Soleimani’s own camera.


Soleimani’s formal technique is unique to our current technological moment in that it is enabled by the easy and rapid proliferation of digital image files online. This is not to say it is without precedent: Adrian Piper, for instance, re-photographed and re-printed images of women from Ebony magazine with an analog camera as part of her video installation Out of the Corner (1990). Soleimani’s technique is also in dialogue with her contemporaries in photography. Daniel Gordon’s work, for example, includes photographs of objects wrapped in photographs of themselves. Lucas Blalock creates similar worlds in a digital space. Blalock’s still lifes layer parts of an image over itself, using Photoshop to create entirely new compositions that don’t have to obey the laws of gravity or the ordering of real space. Gordon and Blalock take as their subjects the medium of photography and issues of representation, but avoid any overtly political content associated with such issues. Soleimani’s work asserts that the mutability of representation is always political. Several of the photographs succinctly refer to photographic representation as an always-already political act: by


putting red X’s on aerial photographs of oil fields, Soleimani evokes both marks on a battle map and the red crayon marks photographers put on contact sheets to indicate which negatives they don’t want printed. Tactical decisions for plotting a battle plan are thereby equated to the editorial choices for printing images. One “battle field” adorned with red X’s is Ghawar Field—the largest oil field in the world, located in Saudi Arabia. The richest OPEC nation, Saudi Arabia is also home to severe human rights violations. When confronted by the United Nations about such violations, Saudi Arabia has denied the allegations, or defended them as “traditions.” Saudi Arabia threatened to cut off its oil supply if the U.N. failed to remove it from their watch list, and the U.N. acquiesced.1 Accordingly, in her photograph Minister of Energy, Industry & Mineral Resources, Saudi Arabia & UN Secretary-General, Soleimani has figured Saudi Arabia as a dom and the U.N. a sub—succinctly capturing how, often times, with money comes power comes abuse.

Minister of Energy, Industry & Mineral Resources, Saudi Arabia & UN Secretary-General, 2017 Archival pigment print 60 x 40 in.


Another sense in which Soleimani’s work is productively illegible is in the untranslatability of its symbols, including unknown figures and unfamiliar cultural referents. The scenarios portrayed are extensively researched by the artist, meaning that her own experiences of the scenes she represents tend, like her viewers’, to also be mediated and fragmented. Soleimani was raised in the United States by two Iranian political refugees. Her parents were persecuted for their pro-democracy actions—her father for his activism against Ayatollah Khomeini's totalitarian regime, and her mother while he was in hiding. Soleimani herself has never been to Iran, and will likely never go—the critical nature of her art has been met by death threats from members of Basij, a voluntary militia. It is not simply that some of the referents might be unfamiliar to a Western audience; the artist also explores her own mediated relationships to the stories and power dynamics she depicts. She takes on scenarios too complicated and too poorly represented in mainstream media, to be simply illustrated; Soleimani opts instead for a more fragmented representation. Her own highly-mediated research process is made visible through her printed,


marked-up, and pixelated images; her relationship to the content, like ours, is revealed to be one at a remove. The title of the series, Medium of Exchange, reframes oil as a form of international currency. It is “black gold,” a liquid asset in the literal, material sense. The substance slithers across geopolitical contexts, but our experience charting its path is a mediated one—experienced through fragments of news bites rather than as a clear and direct narrative. Looking at the work, I can’t help but thinking of the black oil as a lubricant—a substance enabling global promiscuity and complex power dynamics, resulting in pure joy for some but utter abuse for others. 1 Lewis, Kayleigh. "UN ‘blackmailed’ into Removing Saudi Arabia from Blacklist after Just a Week." Independent,

June 9, 2016. middle-east/un-saudi-arabia-blackmail-blacklist-removedafter-one-week-a7073046.html.

This essay was written as part of the Art Critic Mentoring Program, a partnership between AICA-USA (US section of International Association of Art Critics) and CUE, which pairs emerging writers with AICA-USA mentors to produce original essays on a specific exhibiting artist. Please visit for more information on AICAUSA, or to learn how to participate in this program. Any quotes are from interviews with the author unless otherwise specified. No part of this essay may be reproduced without prior consent from the author. Lilly Wei is AICA’s Coordinator for the program this season. Emily Watlington is a 2018-2019 Fulbright Scholar. Previously, she was the curatorial research assistant at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, where she contributed to the exhibition catalogs Before Projection: Video Sculpture 1974-1995 (2018), and An Inventory of Shimmers: Objects of Intimacy in Contemporary Art (2017). Her art criticism has appeared in numerous publications including Frieze, Mousse, Art Review, The Brooklyn Rail and Art Papers. In 2017, she received Vera List Writing Prize for Visual Arts. Mentor Nancy Princenthal is a New York-based critic and former Senior Editor of Art in America; other publications to which she has contributed include Artforum, Parkett, the Village Voice, and the New York Times. Her book Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art (Thames and Hudson) was published in June 2015. She is also the author of Hannah Wilke (Prestel, 2010), and her essays have appeared in monographs on Shirin Neshat, Doris Salcedo, Robert Mangold and Alfredo Jaar, among many others. She is a co-author of two recent books on leading women artists, including The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium (Prestel, 2013). Having taught at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College; Princeton University; Yale University, RISD, Montclair State University and elsewhere, she is currently on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts.


CUE Art Foundation's programs are made possible with the generous support of foundations, government agencies, corporations, and individuals.

MAJOR PROGRAMMATIC SUPPORT PROVIDED BY The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Anholt Services (USA) Inc. CAF American Donor Fund Compass Group Management LLC Compass Diversified Holdings Lenore Malen and Mark Nelkin The Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation, Inc. The Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation New York State Council on the Arts with the support of

Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts


All artwork Š Sheida Soleimani. Catalogue design by Shona Masarin-Hurst.


137­ West 25th Street New York, NY 10001


Sheida Soleimani: Medium of Exchange. Curated by Kate Shepherd  

Catalogue accompanying June 5 - July 14, 2018 exhibition at CUE Art Foundation.

Sheida Soleimani: Medium of Exchange. Curated by Kate Shepherd  

Catalogue accompanying June 5 - July 14, 2018 exhibition at CUE Art Foundation.