“Revolving: a family tale” — Sona Safaei-Sooreh
by Bahar Mohazabnia
Sona Safaei-Sooreh’s “Revolving: a family tale” (2021) tells the story of Iran’s unique semi-colonial history through caricatures and narrative. The term “semi-colonial” is used by Safaei-Sooreh to refer to how Iran faced a period of policy influence and regime change, instead of direct colonization, by the West. Presented as a single installation composed of newspaper comic strips, video, and light boxes displaying cartoon figures, Safaei-Sooreh narrates Iran’s contentious relationship with the West, catalyzed by the nationalization of Iran’s oil industry in the ’50s. A monitor mounted onto the wall displays scenes from Disney’s Cinderella alongside contrasting footage of a British Petroleum (BP) executive speaking on Iran. The split-screen video satirizes BP’s relationship to Iran’s oil industry, with Britain represented as Cinderella’s extractive, evil stepmother.
Safaei-Sooreh’s comic characters take direct inspiration from BP in-house cartoonist, Ronald Searle. Safaei-Sooreh depicts Searle’s imagined grandchildren. In a handout provided to visitors, Safaei-Sooreh includes a fictional Searle family tree, to bridge the past with the present, and fiction with reality. Members of this family are also displayed in stencilled drawings on the exhibition’s walls, where they smile for a family portrait prominently featuring the BP logo. Notably, the exhibition intentionally omits any representation of Iranian families. Instead, Western power is emphasized, as represented by the British familial unit. Safaei-Sooreh’s omission of the Iranian family emphasizes the profound impact of Western imperialism on the structure of Iranian families, including those lost to war, and those forced to leave Iran. This very present absence invokes the fracturing of Iranian families, which is itself a microcosm for how Iran as a whole survived the so-called War on Terror in seclusion, after being labelled as a terrorist nation in the “axis of evil.”
How can the exhibition’s negation of images of Iranian families nuance our understanding of Western imperialism’s effect on Iranian cultures? It is especially critical to address this question, considering the misinformation in mainstream media about contemporary Iranian culture, framed by orientalist imaginaries. Through this act of refusal, Safaei-Sooreh highlights how Iranians bear the burden of this Western intervention, while British families (like the smiling Searles) can remain blissfully ignorant. She refuses to offer an image of Iranian families, perhaps afraid that such a representation risks a reductionism that may serve the orientalist gaze.
On the gallery’s back wall, a large comic strip drawn in Searle’s trademark propaganda style portrays a group of gentlemen gathered at a cafe to discuss the news of Iran nationalizing its oil in 1951. In the comic, a frowning man with curly eyebrows is pictured responding to news of the nationalization, angrily declaring that the “British Government is going to fight against it.” Another man provides more context: “Obviously, this is favoring Persia with a better deal compared to the 1933 concession under which Persia received only 20% of the company’s worldwide profits.” Here, fictional characters stand in as figures of Western geopolitical influence over Iran. At the same time, the 20th century was marked not only by turmoil and uncertainty for Iranians, but also by resistance and resilience. Yet, in a manner similar to the Searle family portrait, Safaei-Sooreh’s comic intentionally avoids representing the resistance of individual Iranian subjects. Here, Safaei-Sooreh mobilizes refusal as a kind of anti-representational tool that accords a degree of opacity to the life of Iranians. In this attempt to negate the orientalist gaze, the act of looking is reverted onto the West. If the comic strip is a medium of mass information distribution, the omission of resistance narratives raises another set of questions: whose stories are shared? Who controls historical narrative? By solely focusing on a critique of Western resource extraction, 20th-century news media, and economic exploitation, the exhibition unsettles British imperialism as it places it under a microscope.
Safaei-Sooreh’s use of the comic-strip form to portray political events introduces a tension between history and popular media. This tension is furthered through her refusal to provide insight into Iranian culture, as she instead presents the audience with history laid bare: facts, historical information, and comically drawn figures of British men and women bring together this narrative of Iran’s history. This striking juxtaposition draws attention to the newspaper as a mode of information dissemination. The exhibition underlines the authority of Western news sources, which often present information to the public through their subjective colonial lens. While these political trajectories situate us in our present moment, we long for an alternative. We grieve for what was lost and what could have been, and yet remain grateful for what remains of our own family tale, outside of the Western gaze. At once fractured and resistant, the family unit becomes a metaphor for Iran.