Arts·Video

How do you reckon with female self-immolation? For Rah Eleh, it meant reimagining how she makes art

Although Eleh often uses camp and humour in her work, to handle such a serious subject she turned instead to scifi opera and metaphor.

Although Eleh often uses camp and humour in her work, for this she turned instead to scifi opera and metaphor

How do you reckon with female self-immolation? For Rah Eleh, it meant reimagining how she makes art

CBC Arts

2 months agoVideo
9:19
Although Eleh often uses camp and humour in her work, to handle such a serious subject she turned instead to scifi opera and metaphor. 9:19

For Toronto-based video and performance artist Rah Eleh, camp and humour make regular appearances in her practice. In her 2018 video installation SuperNova, Eleh plays three futuristic game show contestants: a white supremacist, an exotic caricature and a anti-colonial dancing alien named Coco. While aspects of her work can be considered funny by some, the underlying themes around race and gender are not.

"I think of an artist like Kent Monkman.... His work is funny; it's drag," says Eleh. "You see humour in it; you also see the atrocities of colonization.... There's a lot of tension there."

Rah Eleh playing three characters in her futuristic game show SuperNova. (Rah Eleh)

Her latest work, #BlueGirl, leans deeper into the seriousness of its subject matter: it's an operatic video project about the experiences of survivors of self-immolation in the Middle East and Central Asia. In 2016, sociologist Zahra Hazrati found Iran had the highest rate of female self-immolation in the Middle East and around 40 per cent of suicides in the country were by self-immolation.

In this short doc by filmmaker Gabrielle Zilkha, Eleh looks at self-immolation as an act of protest and talks about why it was important for her to take on this issue after hearing the tragic story of Sarah Khodayari, an Iranian soccer fan who died after setting herself on fire. Khodayari was arrested last year while trying to enter a stadium that effectively banned women.

Behind the scenes of filming #BlueGirl. (Note, this video was shot before the pandemic.) (CBC Arts)

"I was raised in Iran," says Eleh. "During the war, my parents fled, and we came to Canada as refugees. And my parents were activists, so we spent a lot of time going to demonstrations.... Activism was always a part of my experiences."

Find out more about #BlueGirl on Rah Eleh's website.

A scene from Rah Eleh's #BlueGirl (Rah Eleh)

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