Video and installation artist Shirin Neshat (Iranian,1957) explores the political and social conditions of Iranian and Muslim life in her works, particularly focusing on women and feminist issues. Neshat was born in Qazvin, Iran, and left the country to study art in the United States at 17; she graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with an MFA in 1982. When she returned to her home country in 1990, she found it barely recognizable from the Iran before the 1979 Revolution, a shocking experience that incited the meditations on memory, loss, and contemporary life in Iran that are central to her work.
Her Women of Allah series, created in the mid-1990s, introduced the hallmark themes of her pieces through which she examines conditions of male, female, public, private, religious, political, and secular identities in both Iranian and Western cultures.
Shirin Neshat’s development as an artist
You grew up in Iran, and studied at University of California (UC), Berkeley. Could you describe your background and the development of your vision as an artist?
Shirin Neshat [SN]: Growing up in Iran, I was always interested in art, but I had no idea about it because where I lived, in a small Iranian town, I never had access to any form of classic or modern art. In fact, my family has never entered to this day an art museum. In general, in Iran the concept of visual art is still a very new concept. I had the inclination to be an artist, but it was childish and premature. When I came to UC Berkeley, I naturally wanted to study art and signed up for undergraduate and graduate school. It was then I quickly found that there was a naivete in my passion for art.
My education, my time in school, was not the most fruitful; I didn’t produce the best work mainly because I didn’t have the mental capacity to create great work. So, I went to school, but when I finished my education I abandoned art all together.
I went back to making art when I moved to New York, after years of gaining a certain level of maturity and intellectual capacity to have ideas that are worth expressing, and also discovering my own aesthetic. My upbringing and my interest as a young child in art and later my education in art have nothing to do with what I do today. Since I finished my education that I really started to put the dots together, and why I want to make art, and in what fashion I want to make it. The beginning for me was 1990s, I was already 32 or 33 years old, not before then.
What made you begin to be an artist then? What triggered you to have that moment?
[SN]: I feel that to be an artist, you have to have ambition, have something really urgent and pressing, and I didn’t have that until then. But at the age of 32, I finally had a chance to visit my country, not having been there for good 12 years. That visit had a profound impact on me. Not only I hadn’t seen my family, I also did not have a sense of how it’s like to be in my country after the Islamic revolution.
It was the subject of Islamic revolution that really became compelling to me, as an Iranian who wasn’t there while it happened in 1979. My return to art then was [because] I was a mature person, and I had a subject matter that was very pressing for me and very interesting – the Islamic revolution – and the way in which the Islamic revolution transformed lives, but more specifically women’s lives. My first body of work started with the photography series, Women of Allah (1993-1997), about the Islamic revolution.
Our House Is on Fire? A visual poetry of personal and national loss
Could you talk about the works in this exhibition, Our House Is on Fire? How did you select the individuals in the photographs? How did the works for this exhibition come about?
[SN]: About a year and a half to two years ago I was approached by the Rauschenberg Foundation, who initiated a project where they would invite an artist once a year to come up with a concept. They would make a work of art that could be sold, but the profit could benefit a nonprofit organisation that the artist chooses. This is a real tribute to Rauschenberg’s legacy of donating and participating in humanitarian projects and causes. I really welcome the idea, I thought it was a wonderful opportunity.
Of course, I don’t produce work in this country [the United States], most of my work takes place in the Middle East, so I asked if I can develop an idea that takes place in Egypt because I happened to be travelling to Egypt a lot for another film project. They supported that idea and even the idea of donating the money to charitable organisations in Egypt especially since there’s a lot of need and a lot of poverty in Egypt.
I went in October or November of 2012 with my collaborator, someone who always takes the photos for me, Larry Barnes. I went with an idea to try to focus on the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution in Cairo, the Arab Spring, because I already created a series of works called “The Book of Kings” (2012) which mainly captured the euphoric energy of the Arab Spring. Now with the sense of defeat and despair that followed the revolution, I thought it would be important to go into a series of photographs that show the aftermath.
Now having said that, at the same time Larry had a personal tragedy where his young 22 year old daughter died very suddenly, two months prior to our departure. So he was also grieving, and this absolutely shadowed our journey because he is my very close friend, his daughter grew up with my daughter, and we were both grieving.
So it was a very emotional time for us. When we arrived in Cairo and were trying to follow my first interest and pursue the aftermath of the revolution, I realised that the most significant topic in my mind was the subject of loss, whether it’s a personal loss of a family who lost a child in the revolution or national loss, the feeling of despair and depression felt in Cairo, in the community, not just on the individual level.
So this way, I could even connect Larry’s sorrow with the Egyptian sorrow, and the universality of this kind of sorrow that transcends our differences, our class, national background, our age.
I have also decided that since the earlier works were about young people, the youth who brought the revolution. I wanted to now photograph older people who were the family, who suffered a lot, who weren’t the activist themselves but [felt] the consequence of them. So we set up a studio in downtown Cairo, in a not-for-profit organisation, and I reached out to an elderly who worked there and who spoke English, and basically asked him to help me facilitate introduction to some of people who are quite poor and on the street level. I wanted to capture people who were not so privileged.
As I started, we brought these people who were mostly 65 and above, and extremely poor, and gave them a little bit of money and a very wonderful exchange between human to human happened, and we told them stories including Larry’s story and asked them if they could share some personal tragedies. It was almost like a documentary except the camera was running, and we didn’t ask them to really talk about it but rather show in their gaze the emotions.
Could you tell me some of the personal stories behind the individuals in these portraits?
[SN]: Many of them lost children. And the ones that rang a bell to me the most, because we photographed women and men, the women were much more expressive in terms of crying really loud. Two of the women lost children in the revolution and the others lost young children at some point.
A lot of them, it was combined pressure of being extremely poor, barely having any access to medical health, and on top of it having these political issues on their back. So it was a really heavy burden on them from every dimension. Even if you look at the revolution, the majority of the people protesting were probably not the rich people. I’m sure there are some too, but like soldiers, majority of the people who fight, who are unafraid, don’t have much to protect or lose.
It was very painful to see that these people have been hit at from every dimension, and on top of it they were aged, so they really felt the passage of time so there was this existential pressure as well as emotional. It was really devastating. My friend who is the photographer is in his 70s, and he was also older and every time one of the people would come and cry, he would also cry, and I would cry so there was this intense humanity. I just have to say that we forgot about art and were in this experience that became above and beyond what we were working on.
Capturing emotion and moving audiences
In general, is it the emotional aspect that inspires you to create your works?
[SN]: I think in general, my works are emotional, and I think it communicates to the people in a way that it moves them. I’m not a documentary person so even if their story moves me, I would have been able to make a work that on its own didn’t move people. I had to, in the end, create artworks that transferred that experience from my subjects to the audience. It wasn’t something that I can write about, put their voices or make a film about, so I had to make sure that the way I photograph them, the way I talk to them, I was able to capture their pain, and it was going to be the tool to talk to the audience.
So yes, it had to be an artistic tool to get that out as a way of communicating. I think, to be very honest, in all of my work, there is that intention of making work that while it could have so many dimensions, political, moral, existential dimensions, it has to have an emotional dimension. I cannot make, it may be my cultural background, but I really like things that move me, and I like to move other people.
In this exhibition and in your photographic series there are powerful images of feet overlaid with Persian writing. What does this symbolise and what is the story behind this image?
[SN]: You are right in the sense that particularly in the “Women of Allah” series, which was the Islamic revolution, I reduced my use of the bodies to the hands, feet and the face really. In women under the veil those are the only things that can be exposed. I found tremendous possibilities through very few parts of the body, how you can be so expressive.
Through a simple gaze, hand or feet of a Muslim woman, so much can be told. We can often use body language in terms of movement, which can be very expressive. The bottom of the feet interested me particularly because it’s rather taboo in Islamic countries to show the bottom of your feet, which is the dirtiest part of the body. Yet, when people die, the images we see a lot even in Egypt, after a military attack, were rows of men who died, and rows of feet with just a tag between their toes. It was devastating to me that ultimately that’s what remained – they covered the body, and the tags became your identity.
Are the images of feet about execution and violent death?
[SN]: For me, the images of these feet became unforgettable, of young men who were revolutionary who were killed, and at the end their feet were in a tag that identified them. So in the context of this exhibition and context of why these people are crying, you have to have something that connects it to the political references, that this is partially outside of their own control.
Could you talk a bit about the Persian writing used in the images?
[SN]: It’s been my signature to use text over the body, mainly because I find this aesthetically very wonderful. Aesthetics is also a very big part of classical Islamic art, the way that text and image are often integrated in Islamic architecture, Persian miniature paintings, even crafts – in carpets, dishes, there’s this perpetual integration of text and image.
I guess somewhere in my past I was inspired, and yet within my themes when people are so introverted and so silent, the writing gives them kind of a voice and an intellectual strength. It’s a voice. Like in my videos, the music becomes the voice, here the poetry becomes the voice. But also in both cases, the poetry [or] the song adds an emotional dimension to the work that neutralises the political dimension of the work.
Of course, the theme of the poetry changes from series to series. For this series, I used a particular type of literature that’s revolutionary, people who described the chaos, poets in Iran who are describing similar images as it’s happening in Egypt. I translated one poem, “A Cry” by Mehdi Akhavan Sales, in the exhibition, just to give one example, to let the audience know the kind of literature that I’ve been using. The poems are by contemporary poets, some who have died recently but poets who are iconic in the Iranian community.
Could you talk about the poetry, novels and literatures that have inspired your works?
[SN]: It’s interesting because I’m not the kind of person who is extremely well read, but from the beginning since I started making art, the thing that has inspired me the most, that has provoked my visual imagination has been literature. Either poems or novels that I’ve read and loved.
In the beginning with the “Women of Allah” it was poetry. Then when I got into movie and video making, it became novels, but all by Iranian women writers, some of whom I was not only fascinated by their literature but who they were as people. And their position as women, feminists, mothers, as intellectuals, I just found them fascinating, and as I went into movies, Women Without Men, which was based on a magic realist novel by Shahrnush Parsipur.
Now I’m working on a ballet piece with the Dutch National Ballet on the Shakespeare’s Tempest, which is an up and coming new work. Iranian people have a strong affinity with poetry, more than other countries that I know. Iranian people depend on reading poetry to transcend time. They had difficult periods in history and Iranian people express themselves in poetry, and also read a lot of poetry almost as a philosophical guidance, so I think it comes naturally for Iranians. This passion and desire for both reading and also expressing themselves with literature.
Some of the writers I’m interested in are very visual; for example, Women Without Men is a visual realist novel. It’s a very visual novel. One poet whom I am obsessed with, Forough Farokhzad, she is no longer alive, but her poetry is extremely visual. And she wrote in metaphors, like when she talks about the garden, she is talking about the woman. She has this way of describing things that are visually tangible, so often I think my photographs are an embodiment of her poetry.
By Christine Lee
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