A Trigger for Thinking

A Trigger for Thinking

Art by Sheida Soleimani Essay by Cassie Packard

Sheida Soleimani’s photographic series Medium of Exchange exposes the lethal geopolitics of oil in the anthropocene

See Artwork
Slideshow | See 10 images
Collage; US politician and CEO holding hands and wearing hundred-dollar bills as towels, leaning and sitting on a barrel of oil with a backdrop showing oil infrastructure.

Former Vice President and Secretary of State, United States & Halliburton CEOs, 2017

Collage; a nude figure painted green laying on a scene with oil pipelines, a football field, and a jersey cow pattern.

Dukhan Field, Qatar, 2018

Two figures wearing masks of US former president Jimmy Carter and UAE oil minister in bed together holding a yellow model airplane. Discarded peanut shells litter the scene with a collage backdrop of oil rigs in water.

Minister of Petroleum, UAE & Former President of the United States, 2018

Closeup of a black stiletto stepping on a yellow model plane covered in oil and peanut shells, with an oil rig collage in the background.

Carter Doctrine, 2018

Closeup photograph of various hands holding an oil smeared golden trophy with an engraving that says "Cutest Couple GCC & U.S Est 1981" with a collage backdrop.

GCC Trophy, 2018

A figure wearing a mask of US politician with a black, oil-smeared hand reaching for his face in front of a collage background of an oil field.

Director of Central Intelligence Agency, United States and Iraq, 2017

A hand holding a glass of milk spills it on the ground with a soccer ball balanced upon additional glasses of milk covered with oil. A milk jug stands in the back upon a collage background of grass, jersey print, and sand.

Arab Blockade, 2018

Closeup of a hand covered in gold paint and black oil, wearing two large diamond rings and holding an additional gemstone between the middle fingers.

GDP, Angola, 2018

Collage backdrop of oil pipes among an orange and beige landscape and blue skies, with green spray-painted palms and x's drawn upon it. The foreground has a communist logo and "MPLA" spray-painted in yellow.

Dalia Field, Angola, 2017

Eagle wearing a kufiya scarf covering its face and wearing an Arabic diamond-encrusted gold necklace that reads 'Allah'.

Minister of Mineral Resources and Petroleum, Angola & Former Secretary of State, 2017

< Back to article

Speaking in Dallas in May 2022, former US president George W. Bush made a lapsus that quickly went viral. As he attempted to condemn Russian president Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression on Ukraine, Bush decried “the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq”. “I mean, of Ukraine,” he corrected himself, mumbling, “Iraq, too.” A sprinkling of nervous laughter rang through the audience. “I’m 75,” he said, framing his slip-up as that of a good-natured grandfather rather than a war criminal responsible for hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in Iraq. A few more laughs. We were all in on the brutal joke, catapulted into the deplorable chasm between what the United States claims to be and what it is.

In the wake of this charged geopolitical moment, which much of Western media described inadequately as a gaffe, I found myself stuck on the nebulous interplay of humor, violence, and resistance. The politics of humor, generally speaking, are slippery, and hinge upon who’s laughing, why, at what, and from where, not to mention whether that laughter is sanctioned by authority figures. But maybe humor’s gut-punch can function like a rupture that jolts us to mutually acknowledge all manner of contingencies, contradictions, and hypocrisies that riddle consensus reality. Maybe the meeting place of that rupture, if electrified with vision, care, and a call to action, can be a place to start. In any case, to pinch an unequivocal line from Walter Benjamin’s 1934 “The Author as Producer,” an address given at the Institute for the Study of Fascism: “there is no better trigger for thinking than laughter … convulsion of the diaphragm usually provides better opportunities for thought than convulsion of the soul.”

Sheida Soleimani’s biting Medium of Exchange is one such trigger for thinking. The Iranian American artist’s photographs of staged still lifes and narrative tableaux, several of which also appear in a scripted film intercut with an increasingly oil-slicked game of Snap, interrogate the unctuous networks of political corruption and exploitation—and likewise, the rampant human rights abuses and environmental destruction—that link OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) member nations, which are concentrated in the Middle East and North Africa, to Western ones. Soleimani eschews a sentimentalizing documentary lens or a chilly bureaucratic one. Instead, she exactingly crafts layered geopolitical allegories that perform, educate, and skewer, the bluntness of their organizing logic verging on slapstick. Dripping with signification, printouts of found images, like New Topographics-style aerial shots of oil fields or photos of drill rigs, play backdrop to a host of pointed props: consumer goods made from synthetic rubber, flaccid oil pipes, contentious agricultural exports, and fish dead from petroleum-related pollution.

Humans, treated as disposable, can also be props, things, or meat. In one tableau, wallpapered with photos of a Qatar oil field and a soccer field, a naked woman painted green—a color commentator?—lies prone on the ground amid a soccer ball, oily glasses of milk, and dollar-store cow-print pennant string flags. With the economy of a one-liner, Soleimani’s image pictures an intricate and far-reaching tangle of real-life absurdity. Qatar’s government has put its weight behind undertakings like hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup—with bribery greasing the wheels—and building a massive air-conditioned dairy farm in the desert with thousands of airlifted cows—a project that received state funding amid the Qatar diplomatic crisis—instead of addressing the rampant human rights abuses experienced by migrant laborers (including those building the World Cup stadium) under the Kafala system of sponsorship.

For scenes pantomiming the actions of particular players in the political-petroleum complex, amateur actors—queer people in the artist’s circle from the country to which the specific scene refers—wear oversized paper masks depicting the relevant officials’ faces, mined from mass media or OPEC’s website. The actors stare or speak out of crooked holes in corrupt politicians’ noses, cheeks, and chins. Literalizing the fetishization of oil and oil-based commodities, Soleimani campily likens geopolitical power plays to romantic or sexual liaisons. In one tableau, a BDSM scene, former Saudi energy minister Khalid al-Falih presses an acrylic high heel into ex- UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon’s bare torso as he flirtatiously pushes him to expunge Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations from the UN’s blacklist. In the filmed version of the scene, al-Falih drips oil onto Ban’s chest with a monotonous pronouncement that human rights are safeguarded; a subsequent close-up of the oil-slicked chest is paired with an audio clip of a Saudi executioner discussing his work. “His sword delineates the border between seriousness and play,” explains a reporter. We stand on that knife’s edge.

In her 1975 essay “Jokes,” British anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote that “a joke is a play upon form… [that] affords opportunity for realizing that an accepted pattern has no necessity.” In a formal play of her own, Soleimani artfully uses a high f-stop to collapse and compress her built tableaux to the extent that they masquerade as flat photomontages, evoking the cut-up mass media photocollages that Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann made to challenge the Weimar modus operandi. (Writing in 1934, Höch would note that the form, which Dadaists employed for anti-war critique, could be traced back to the practice of German grandmothers gluing photographed heads of soldiers in the family onto preprinted musketeers.) As Soleimani’s viewer, ensnared by the ludicrousness of her scenes, gradually pieces together their splintered iconography, the phenomena depicted become dimensional, fleshed out, real; the violent flattening and distortive fragmentation that occur when geopolitical events filter to us through mass media are parodied and, through the work of active spectatorship, undone. The engagement that Soleimani’s Medium of Exchange deftly needles out of us and the thought that it triggers in us are, I imagine, part of a much larger project.

Sheida Soleimani (b.1990) is an Iranian-American artist who is based in Providence, Rhode Island. Soleimani makes work that combines photography with sculpture, collage, and film, to highlight her critical perspectives on historical and contemporary socio-political occurrences. Her work has been recognized internationally in both exhibitions and publications such as Artforum, New York Times, Bomb Magazine, Interview Magazine, VICE, among many others. Recent solo exhibitions include include Hotbed at Denny Dimin Gallery (New York, NY), and Medium of Exchange at Harlan Levey Projects (Brussels, BE) and Edel Assanti (London, ENG). She received her BFA from the University of Cincinnati, MFA in Photography from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Photography, and is currently Assistant Professor of Photography at Brandeis University.

Cassie Packard is a Brooklyn-based art writer with bylines in publications including Artforum, ArtReview, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, frieze, and Los Angeles Review of Books. She is the author of Art Rules (Frances Lincoln, 2023). She has contributed to a number of art books and catalogs and is the recipient of critical writing fellowships at Momus and Recess. She holds an MA in Art History from University College London and a BA in Art History from Brown University.

We welcome your questions, comments, and suggestions. Please share any thoughts to artsinstitute@brown.edu.

Further Reading