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Artfacts.Net Interview with Shirin Neshat

Guardians of Revolution (Women of Allah series), 1994 B&W RC print & ink (photo taken by Cynthia Preston)

Shirin Neshat is a recognized international artist within the contemporary world, Iranian and, above all, a woman. Her work is essentially feminine and deals with the struggle and the cultural and gender contradictions between two worlds: East and West.

She comes from the East but lives exiled in the West. At the age of 17, her parents sent her to the USA to study and she didn’t come back for 12 years. The Iran she found then caused her such a big impact that, as a revelation, she discovered how to focus her work and what she wanted to express with it. Her work refers to the clash between tradition and modernity.

Shirin Neshat feels she is surrounded by “a consumer and individualistic world where the collective rules and guidelines of religion hardly have a space”, a world full of wrong conceptions and prejudices about Islamic culture. At the same time, Shirin addresses her artwork to her people, “a community that makes an effort to maintain its moral and spiritual values by resisting foreign intervention”.

Artfacts.Net: Two decisive issues in Neshat’s life determined her career: first, leaving Iran, and second, going back. If I ask you where you are from, what would you answer? Or, in other words, where do you feel you come from?

S.N: I definitely would respond by saying that I come from Iran; as I believe the very constitution of who I am as a human being is far more rooted in the Iranian culture than that of American. Yet, I might also answer as vaguely as I come everywhere and nowhere; since I have lost the sense of ‘center’ or ‘home,’ a long time ago.

AfN: Iran is the cradle of many contemporary artists, who offer a combination of Persian symbols with a more modern perspective. Examples of this are Shadi Ghadirian’s photography, Farhad Moshiri’s paintings or Elahe Massumi’s videos. To what extent is your work affected by the feeling of being submerged in two very different cultures?

S.N: I think the experience of any Iranian artist living abroad as opposed to the Iranian artist living in their own home country vastly changes the kind of perspective and form of expression that one might expect from them. For example for those artists who live in Iran, they are closer to the ‘truth’, and to the reality of the Iranian culture today; but for us who live in the West, ‘fiction’ is the only way to delve into our culture. Living abroad for so long, I never felt that I held the necessary command to make art that is ‘purely’ Iranian or Western. I am well aware that my nomadic life has led to type of work that is polluted with diverse influences. This ‘impurity’ however can be on the one hand limiting yet on the other hand very helpful to form an expression that transcends the locality of specific cultures and find universal significances. Generally speaking, I feel emotionally and rationally divided in between the two cultures and I think this aspect is very evident in my work as it seems to navigate somewhere in between elements that belong to Classic Islamic and Persian poetry yet history of conceptual art in the West.

AfN: The artwork “Women of Allah” was created after your return to Iran in 1990. You portray women with rifles and deal with the theme of Islamic women participating in the military service, which is a paradox since, according to Islamic tradition, women are considered inferior human beings. Furthermore, the only uncovered parts of these women’s bodies are painted with texts from Islamic women poets. What do these poems talk about? What does this combination of text and images offer?

S.N: The texts I’ve applied to my photographs are mostly poetry or excerpts from of novels by iranian women writers. The idea of incorporation of the text with image, goes back to the roots of Classic Persian and Islamic. I grew up with looking at objects, architecture, carpets and even manuscripts that constantly mixed the image with various kinds of texts, sometimes poetry and at times the Quaronic text. For example if you study Persian miniature paintings, they are precisely illustrations of stories created by the mixture of drawings and text.

In my photographic series, the text inscribed on the female body suggests an idea of a ‘voice’ of the women who appear so silent and submissive behind the veil. Therefore, there is an integral relationship in between the use of image and the application of calligraphy, in the way that the images become the embodiment of texts. Most of the poems speak about the experience of being a woman in the Iranian culture, whether before or after the Islamic revolution. In some cases, I use texts by women writers who resist religious, cultural taboos and express a great deal of emotions and frustrations living under repression; yet in other texts such as in the “Women Of Allah“ series, they are poetry by women who feel liberated by the Islamic revolution and reveal strong solidarity with its ideology.

Shirin Neshat (Photo by Lina Bertucci)

AfN: In your photography and video artworks women have a voice. You show quite the opposite of western view of Islamic women: strong and commanding women. You said once „my artwork shows reality from a woman’s point of view“, even so, your work can be misinterpreted as feminist. Do you think you art has been stereotyped in service to feminism?

S.N: No I don’t believe so. But I do think that the nature of the work and my constant focus on women’s issues makes many people expect a clear pro-women, anti-men point of view from me, which I find problematic. In reality while I support the feminist movement, in principal I think that the Western idea of feminism is not universal and certainly it’s not one that all Iranian women comply with. Ultimately, I am against the any categorizations and reductive definitions. I always wonder why when men focuses on men’s issues they are not called a ‘masculinists’ but when women choose to focus on women issues they are immediately considered ‘feminists’.

AfN: After going back to Iran, you described your city as uncoloured, as if it was in black and white. What poetic or lyrical sense lies behind the use of black and white in your photographs?

S.N: I was very much struck by the severity that was brought to the Iranian culture through the Islamic Revolution of 1979; by that I mean how the country became so ideological and that how you could sense this ideology everywhere in the air, particularly visually as women became draped in black cloths; as banners went up with pro-government, anti American slogans etc. So when I began my photo series, and tried to capture the essence of this social transformation of my country from once the Persian to now a heavily Islamized culture; I could never imagine colour here which seemed all far too joyful; where use of black and white allowed me to reiterate the strong ideological and oppressive atmosphere that I sensed as fundamental to the Iranian society.

AfN: Later on, you discovered another way of presenting your art: on video. Apart from this technical change, you take a more subtle stance and your storylines take place in a more abstract and poetic context. What is the reason for this change of direction?

S.N: After producing a large group of photographs that belonged to the “Women of Allah” series from 1993-1997; it was in 1998 that I felt the urge to move on. I had become slowly infatuated by the art of ‘storytelling,’ by the idea that my short videos could become more narrative but all in a very subtle and allegorical way. For me this body of video work became a way to create highly stylized, symbolic and ritualistic work which although appeared Iranian on the surface, they resonated and functioned in a manner that the audience could forget the origin of the culture. This was all emphasized through an unusual use of choreography, music and narrative that didn’t quiet belong to anywhere or anytime. So I suppose this shift was the beginning of moving away from directly political to a far more universal and philosophical dialogue.

AfN: Yes, your work has evolved from your first photographs, which show a more direct political violence, I mean in a critical way, in your following works, has been expressed though more subtle messages, as you said in a allegorical way. Is that some kind of autocensorship?

S.N: No at all. I must explain that the basis of my work is rooted in the place of poetry and poetic language in the Iranian culture, which is quite monumental. For Iranians, poetry often functions as a form of moral, philosophical and spiritual guidance. But most importantly, one could claim that Iranians have always depended on the language of poetry to cope with endless list of dictators and regimes, which have imposed all sorts of censorship on them. Therefore in the absence of freedom of expression, poetry has always presented itself as the most subversive and effective way to communicate all that could be understood, yet transcend governments’ rules and codes. In my case, although I don’t live in Iran and I am not subjected to direct censorship, I inherently feel most comfortable with the allegorical and metaphorical language which is far closer to fiction than to reality.

AfN: Regarding to censorship, your video “The Last Word” talks about censorship and is based on a personal experience. What impact does your work have in your mother country?

S.N: Without a doubt, much of the younger generation of artists are aware of my work. There are criticisms and praise but most importantly the work is discussed seriously. I suppose the criticism is my point of view that they might find foreign and problematic, but on the other hand, there seems to be a lot of interest in the form of my work and in the way my art tends to redefine classic Islamic and Persian art and make it more contemporary.

AfN: In 2009 you presented your first film “Women without men”, which received the Silver Lion award at the Venice Film Festival. When did you decide to make the leap into cinema? What differences exist between the worlds of art and cinema? In which field do you feel more confident to express yourself?

S.N: By year 2002, after making numerous exhibitions and making photographic and video installations; I felt a certain amount of exhaustion from the art world and from my development as an artist. I decided to take on the challenge of moving on from the visual art field to the world cinema. Also over time having made many video installations I had slowly fallen in love with cinema and the narrative language. So in 2003, I started to develop the concept and the script for my first feature film “Women without men” and was able to finally finish the film six years later 2009. Based on a well know novel magic realist novel by Shahrnush Parsipur; this project proved to be extremely difficult and at times painful in realization as it was truly an epic and major historical film. But the process became invigorating as I felt that I was gaining a tremendous understanding and education about cinema. In terms of form, I learnt how to move from creating small conceptual videos to a truly narrative filmmaking; and the art of script writing instead of storyboarding. The experience of directing, working with large international cast and crew in Morocco was new but exhilarating. I learnt endless lessons from this experience professionally and artistically but to highlight a few; I must say that I truly appreciate how cinema connects to the grass root and to the popular culture. In many ways by making of WWM I was able to expand beyond galleries and museum walls and by entering cinemas, I was introduced to whole new audience and community. Finally, I suppose artists are more free in making their art, yet they are limited to the art world audience. Filmmakers may not be as free as they are bounded by the nature of cinema as a commercial industry; yet they enjoy the great luxury of access to the general audience.

AfN: You said once „I create art to find answers“. Which answers did you find throughout your career? Can your film open a new door?

S.N: I have come to the conclusion that art can be a very powerful tool to communicate and frame some of the most significant issues we face in the world. I’m therefore more than ever committed to making art that functions beyond an aesthetic exercise; art that is also socially responsible without being didactic. I can’t say that my film has offered any answers but I can easily say that my film “Women Without Men” spoke both to Iranians and to the Westerners about an aspect of our history that has been largely forgotten and should be revisited as it marks a criminal pattern in the American foreign policy. But most importantly I suppose the film tried to establish that, it is possible to tell a story that is at once philosophical, emotional and lyrical but also deeply political.

AfN: “Women without men” could not be filmed in Iran and is therefore located in Casablanca. If you do art to find answers and as you said films to approach the maximum number of people, how do you feel about the fact that an important part of the audience can’t watch the film because it is banned in Iran?

S.N: Actually although banned in cinemas, through the power of piracy the film has been widely distributed in the black market in Iran and I have many reports from Iranian friends and family living in Iran that they have watched the film, so I can surely say that I did succeed in reaching a maximum number of people among my Iranian community inside and outside of the country.

Interview by Isabel Valencia

Shirin Neshat is represented by Gladstone Gallery


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