If you ask politicians, Iran is a dangerous enemy with fundamentalist ideologies that oppress its people and threaten the West. I rarely ask politicians anything, though, because I don’t really trust a bunch of old white men who rely on fear-mongering to continue their careers and their paychecks. How about we ask someone who has lived in both Iran and America? Someone who has over fifty years of navigating between the two countries and their evolving cultures and who experienced Islam as an Iranian woman and as an American woman? That seems to make more sense than listening to Lindsey Graham or Donald Trump ignorantly spout off about terrorists. Fuck that. How about we learn about Shirin Neshat and her art?
Shirin Neshat was born in Iran in 1957. Her parents raised her Muslim, but were open to Western ideas as well as Islamic ones. Neshat even attended a Catholic school in Tehran. Her parents encouraged their daughters to become what they wanted to be and do the things they wanted to do. Go, mom and dad. In 1974, Neshat moved to California to study art at U.C. Berkeley. She completed a BA, an MA, and an MFA. Go, Shirin. In 1990, she returned to Iran for the first time in 16 years. After this visit, Neshat began to focus her art on the social climate created by modern Islam and the impact on women. Her first solo show was in 1993 at the Franklin Furnace in New York. From 1993 to 1997, Neshat created a series of photos called “Women of Allah.” They are striking black and white pictures of women wearing the traditional chador and holding weapons. The skin that is visible is covered in poetry written in Farsi by Iranian women poets. These photos play with the ideas of femaleness and violence (usually associated with masculinity). She released many videos during those years as well. In 1998, Neshat began a three-part video series that utilized dual projection to emphasize the contrasts between men and women, and public and private spaces. Neshat won First International Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1999. In 2006, she received the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. For her film “Women without Men,” Neshat won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2009. That same year, she participated in a three day hunger strike at the U.N. Headquarters protesting the Iranian presidential elections. Neshat has had two retrospectives: one in 2013 at the Detroit Institute of Arts and one in 2015 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Neshat work has been shown in solo shows across the world from Mexico City to South Africa to Denmark to Singapore. She participated in multiple film festivals and has been artist in residence at two American art centers.
Neshat’s work is provocative and intended to open a dialog. She uses photography and video to highlight contrasts: men and women, femininity and fundamentalist Islam, personhood and society, control and freedom, the West and Islamic culture. She also addresses the ideal of martyrdom. Neshat stated that “art is a weapon. Culture is a form of resistance.” By showing varying ideas, both conflicting and coexisting, Neshat allows the viewer to examine them. She asks the viewer if they can be reconciled, if there are inequities, and if they are oppositional or complimentary. Answers are not necessarily the point; the discussion is Neshat’s goal. Neshat has turned her experiences, heritage, and observations into conversations about the many issues that relate to modern Islam and modern Iran. And she’s done a beautiful job of it.