It is difficult to write about someone whose work you love so much and question endlessly. Individuals like Shirin Neshat, Nan Goldin and Marina Abramovic steal your heart and soul, stretch your limit of core, and leave you empty – awestruck. They create magic, a poetry with their fragility and make you submit; make you pick your fragile self up to ‘be’. When you wake up to your usual banal world everything seems petty, and you feel tiny in the grand narrative of life. That’s the kind of impact I had when I stumbled upon Neshat’s work in 2007. Since then I have been tracing her foot print left on the web and in the galleries to understand her journey. Her ontological positions were beautifully translated into her work which is bound to grow on a keen audience.
I see Shirin Neshat’s ‘Women of Allah’ as a very personal narrative of ‘homecoming’. This work emanated from her experience of return to Iran after twelve years. Meanwhile Islamic revolution (1978-79) happened, Iraq-Iran war (1980-88) happened, which she only witnessed on television. She returned to a very unfamiliar Iran. Neshat was born (in 1957) in Qazvin during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi. The Iran she remembered was a secular one. She mentioned in one of her interviews that her doctor father and mother were liberal, privileged and completely westernized who were losing touch with embroiling politics of differences. Despite of all her privileges she was sent to America for studies, when she was seventeen. Like rest of the upper middle class parents, her parents didn’t find it safe to keep her at home. They were identified as a class enemy by the left and as well as Islamic clerics. While in USA, Neshat completed MFA from University of California, Barkley in 1982. She moved to New York and started to work at Store Front in 1983. She lived an uninspired life till she returned to Iran in 1990. It took her three years to process her reverse cultural shock and to create something meaningful out of it.
Shirin Neshat’s first body of work ‘Women of Allah’ was created between 1993 and 1997. She directed, enacted and executed the series with the help of photographer Bahman Jalali (Iran) and Larry Barnes (USA). All these photos are in large format, 40 x 60 sizes. She chose photography as an art form to ‘resolve personal dilemma’. The veil, the gun, the text and the gaze appears as the recurring theme of the series. Though her earlier work represented a mere emotional journey but soon it embodied the much needed politics. Her politics was less about documenting Iranian life rather about creating an artistic language which will talk about the complex politics in Iran. In her words, Neshat as an artist in exile chose to fight her battles in two fronts, one, critiquing the current regime; two, critiquing the perception of west regarding Iran and rest of the Muslim world. Hence, the unabashed, confident and straight gaze of ‘Women in Allah’ unsettles the audience. The black Chador clad women, dark kohl outlined eye tells not a story of oppression as ‘West’ would like it but of regimented bodies, of determined warriors and their heroic act. Women in Neshat’s work are used as metaphor and metonym of nation, who are not embracing the gun, a phallic symbol of power mindlessly. Their militant femininity, sexual entity transcends Persian to Islamic Iran, a fateful journey that had to be made, a transformation that had to be embodied as a nation. Evoking the memory of Fatima, Prophet Muhammad SWA’s daughter, Zainab his granddaughter in Qurbala, Prophet’s defender Nusaiba in Uhud battle field, juxtaposing it to the poetry of contemporary women writers of Iran in calligraphy, Neshat pays her due to her predecessors. She portrays women at an intersection of martyrdom, faith, crime and cruelty.
The binary of black and white, East and West, inner-outer, male and female dominated her work substantially. Neshat makes her transition from photography to video installations through ‘Turbulent’. This piece addressed the gender difference in Iran, specifically, the absence of female singer in public scene. It was designed as two channel projection; both screens were installed facing each other. One screen showing the performance of a public man, a singer performing (performed by Shoja Azari and sang by Shahram Nazeri) traditional Sufi song in front of auditorium full of men (showing his back, as if leading a mass in prayer), all dressed in white. In another screen Sussan Deyhim presenting a beautifully haunting and unique soundscape facing the empty auditorium, dressed in Black. Stationary camera for man and a panning camera for woman respectively represent the stagnancy in tradition/men where women representing the potential of dynamism, embodying changes. Neshat’s ‘Rapture’ and ‘Fervor’ are two other installations of trilogy which deals with the issue of gender differenc in Islamic Iran.
‘Soliloquy’, ‘Passage’, ‘Tooba’, ‘The Last Word’, ‘Games of desire’ and ‘Women without Men’ represents fragments of Shirin Neshat’s journey as an artist. In ‘Soliloquy’ she makes herself the subject of inquiry where she examines the oppositions of east and west, traditional and modern, history and memory, islam and Christianity and how these oppositions contours her entity. In her work men are represented as voice of power, where women are constantly searching their way to freedom collectively, as well as individually. Through her ambivalent visual poetry she builds a bridge between power and fragility without asserting it to a particular group. Her first feature film ‘Women without Men’ (based on magic realist novel by Shahrnush Parsipur) provides ambivalence a whole new meaning. This film is about four women and their parallel lives who witnessed the British-American-Israeli led coup in Iran toppling democratically elected president Mossadegh. This political piece brings in erotic in a dispassionate manner; these women desired to transcend and leave behind the social, cultural and sexual oppression and eventually reached a secret sanctuary of peace and solace.
In Abramovic letter to Neshat she mentioned both of them as ‘a nomad of Post modern kind’. Perhaps she is right. Being uprooted from her land Neshat has been looking for a space which she could claim as her own. Having a family and workspace in New York did not automatically translate into home for a wanderer like Neshat. She may be away but Iran doesn’t leave her. It resides very much within her. Through her work she expressed her longing. She embeds herself into a difficult conversation between her memory and Iran’s history. Embattled by the experience of Iran she lived in, and Iran she returns to made her create a surreal space which can only exist in her art.
This year’s Chobi Mela is going to bring ‘Turbulent’ for the first time in Bangladesh. A day we all have been waiting for.
Links to some of her interviews and work:
I am indebted to Nurul H. Rashid for our years of conversation regarding Shirin Neshat, and her invaluable gift – a complete work titled ‘Shirin Neshat’ edited by Arthur C. Danto and Marina Abramovic. She has been constant source of encouragement in my writing, a partner in crime with whom I watched ‘Women without Men’. Thanks to Munem Wasif for sharing the same passion and make me write about Neshat; And Imtiaz Ilahi for being the enabler and accompanying me to the galleries everywhere to find her.