Exhibitions take ages to arrange, and yet at times, they accidentally coincide with wider world events, and such a moment has happened at the Barbican with Soheila Sokhanvari’s Rebel Rebel.

The huge curve gallery has been transformed into a green space filled with Islamic geometric patterns, and dotted along the curving wall are small portraits of ladies from a time before Iran’s Islamic revolution sent women back indoors, behind the veil and under the birch.

These are paintings by Sokhanvari of 27 women all from the pre-1979 revolution, and all done in a traditional Persian miniature art form, in tempera on vellum.

There are no details about the ladies who are shown here, just a number that you can look up their biographies on the gallery guide, but mainly the implicit knowledge that these are ladies relaxing in a way that would be forbidden today. All the paintings are interpretive as they are based on black and white photos taken in the 1970s, and although the colours added are modern, Sokhanvari has preserved the appearance of 1970s fashions and colours.

The exhibition title, Rebel Rebel, borrows from David Bowie’s 1974 cult pop song and pays tribute to the significant courage of these 27 female icons, who pursued their careers in a culture enamoured with Western style but not its freedoms.

The title also serves as a lament to the fate of these women, after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the subsequent establishment of a conservative Islamic theocracy, left them with a stark choice: to renounce any role in public life, or be forced into exile.

At the far end, a glowing star is a home to long forgotten videos of the women in the exhibition. A soundtrack in the Curve gallery, composed by Marios Aristopoulos features songs by iconic Iranian singers from the period.

These are women who were hidden away after the Iranian revolution and told to keep quiet. Here at the Barbican, they get some of their voices back.

Hopefully, the same can happen in Iran as well.

The exhibition, Soheila Sokhanvari – Rebel Rebel is at the Barbican Art Centre until the end of February 2023 and entry is free.

Exhibition Rating


Barbican Arts Centre
Silk Street, London


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