Shirin Neshat

Shirin Neshat was born in Iran, but traveled in 1974 to the USA to study art at Berkeley. Due to her criticism of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in 1979, she now lives in exile in New York. These conflicting cultural poles have led her to explore notions about the Middle East from both Eastern and Western perspectives. Her films, video installations, and photos express her own personal, philosophical, and feminist viewpoint. She is critical of Western clichés regarding Islamic culture, while maintaining her searing criticism of Iran’s Islamic revolution, in particular its treatment of women. In various ways her works examine how the lives of women in Islamic Iran are controlled by cultural, religious, and social rules devised by men. Neshat first gained recognition for her photos of women covered in Persian calligraphy. Martyrdom, femininity, and the life of the exile are other subjects that she has broached. Without becoming polemical Neshat identifies the injustice and double standards of a society in which female sexuality is strictly controlled. Implicit in her works is a criticism of the concept of “purity,” in which loss of honour brings shame not only on the individual, but on all family members. All her female protagonists have in one way or another been “rejected” by their society. The segregation of the sexes creates a situation where the man is a potential assailant, and the woman a victim. The consequences of living in a society that excludes women would seem to be separation and isolation. Both sexes are imprisoned in their own societies. However, the women that Neshat depicts all have, each in their own way, an exit strategy – fleeing the country, going mad, or offering active resistance. Neshat has experimented with both multi-screen projection and traditional single-channel film. While one can say that her techniques and methods are Western, her themes are deeply rooted in the East. Her aesthetic comes to the surface in her taut visual style, in which black and white contrasts, symmetry, and a sculptural use of architecture are recurring elements. In her beautiful, poetic, and magical visual universe, she utilizes both sweeping, panoramic vistas, and reflective, close-up portraiture to convey despondency or intensity in an emotionally gripping way. Through depth of field and long takes she allows viewers to become absorbed, and to draw their own conclusions. She works on a level of association through which the women’s inner condition is suggested, while the viewer is allowed to remain on the outside as an observer. Nevertheless, she encourages a dialogue through which the viewers are able to place themselves in the same condition or situation as the women she is depicting. A deep seriousness underpins Neshat’s stories, which are simultaneously political, mystical, feminist, and deeply poetic. Although her films and video installations might be inspired by historical or contemporary events in Iran, they often have a timeless quality. Her point of departure is her own Islamic background, but the values and ideas she highlights – the conflicts between nature/culture, power/powerlessness, conformity/action, East/West, tradition/modernity, collective/individual – are universal, appealing to and inspiring a large following across the world.