History’s rebel girls – Shirin Neshat

Shirin Neshat, born in Iran in 1957 and now living and working in the United States, is a visual artist (video and photography) and filmmaker. Her work to date has focussed on contemporary Islamic cultures and identities, primarily exploring the experience of being a woman in Islam. Her artistic approach aims at creating a dialogue which identifies and explores some of the negative and stereotypical characterisations of Muslims, particularly Muslim women.

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Neshat grew up in an Iranian household that was open to western ideas and was encouraged by her father to seek out new opportunities and experiences. She studied Fine Art in the United States where she trained as a painter. Her first stint in the US coincided with the Islamic Revolution which took place in Iran in 1979. The revolution replaced the regime of Mohammad Reza Shah with that of the Islamic Republic led by Ayatollah Khomeini. While the Sha’s regime was authoritarian and repressive, it also introduced a number of reforms which included the extension of voting rights to women. After the revolution the Islamic government imposed strict rules on women’s appearance for example.

Given the politically unstable situation in her home country, Neshat decided to stay in the US and moved to New York in 1983 where she helped to run the non-profit experimental art gallery The Storefront for Art and Architecture. At that point though Neshat wasn’t working as an artist herself, as she felt she hadn’t yet found a unique and original artistic expression.

This changed when she returned to Iran after an almost twelve year absence. Neshat was struck by the transformation of her country from Persian to Islamic culture and she became interested in the impact this transformation had on the lives of Iranian women. As part of a process of reacquainting herself with her home country, Neshat began travelling to Iran more frequently in order to better understand the changes that had taken place and to explore current dynamics.

The result of this re-acquaintance can be seen in her earlier work such as the photography series Women of Allah (1993-7). This series of black and white photographs uses the visual elements of the black veil, modern weapons and written text to contemplate the status and psyche of women in traditional Islamic cultures.

Iranian art in exile
Women of Allah by Shirin Neshat
Iranian art in exile
Women of Allah by Shirin Neshat
Iranian art in exile
Women of Allah by Shirin Neshat

Unlike a traditional photographer, Neshat doesn’t work the camera herself but instead conceptualises and directs the images in which she often also appears. The texts, mainly poetry, used in Women of Allah are taken from the works of Iranian women writers and serve as a form of calligraphy which infuses with the image. Neshat sees the poetry as a ‘literal and symbolic voice of women whose sexuality and individualism have been obliterated by the chador or the veil.’

Like Women of Allah, Neshat’s video installations also reflect on the paradoxical realities of Muslim women – beauty and innocence on one hand and cruelty, violence, and hatred on the other, contradictions, which Neshat argues, coexist within the complex structure of Islam itself.

An image from Rapture by Shirin Neshat
An image from Rapture by Shirin Neshat

Her video installations Turbulent (1998) and Rapture (1999) won her the International Award of the 48th Venice Biennale. In both installations two videos are projected onto opposing walls, one showing men and the other showing women, focussing on the separation of the sexes in Islamic culture and the different ways in which this separation is expressed.

In the 2000s Neshat moved on to filmmaking and produced an adaption of the novel Women without Men written by Iranian woman writer Shahrnush Parsipur. Released in 2009, the film won her the Silver Lion for best director at the 66th Venice Film Festival. Women without Men follows the lives of four women in Tehran, taking place against the backdrop of the 1953 coup d’état which was orchestrated by American and British forces and toppled the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh in order to reinforce the power of the pro-Western Shah.

Iranian art in exile
Parsipur & Neshat at a screening of Women without Men in 2010

Parsipur’s as well as Neshat’s work are met with controversy in their native country. The novel Women without Men was banned by the Iranian government in the mid-1990s and Parsipur was imprisoned several times under the Shah’s regime as well as under the Islamic Republic. Neshat’s work is also not shown in Iran but nevertheless, her adaption of Women without Men flourishes on the black market there.

Although Neshat has always insisted on being an artist first and foremost and not a political activist, she changed her attitude with the contested 2009 elections in Iran which saw a landslide victory for the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, subsequently accused of rigging the results. In July 2009 Neshat took place in a three day hunger strike at the UN headquarters in New York to protest the election.

As an Iranian artist in exile Neshat sees herself as a translator between two cultures which to her aren’t just different but completely contradictory. She says that her work has helped her to focus on the cultural differences, in the areas of religion and equal rights for example, but also allowed her to address ‘the universality of basic human events that take place in the world simultaneously, like the revulsion that comes from being controlled by governments — social, political or religious codes — and to address the bottom line that we all have emotions which are less cultural than natural.’