Thursday, May 10, 2012

Shirin Neshat: Visionary Iranian Artist

By Kelsey S.
Shirin Neshat, an Iranian-born artist educated at Berkeley, is best known for her provocative 
photographs and films that depict the complexities of challenges faced by women and their 
relationship with traditional Iranian culture. 
     Shirin Neshat was born in Qazvin (approximately 100 kilometers northwest of Tehran, the Iranian capital) in 1957.  She was one of an affluent family with five children, and her father was a physician, whom she described as a “very educated and progressive man” ("Shirin Neshat: Iranian Exile & Artist").  Her mother was “a more typical Iranian woman” who, having received almost no education, was committed to family and domestic life (MacDonald).  The Neshat family supported the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, whose goal was to modernize and westernize Iran so that it could become a global power along with the western nations.  

     The Neshat family wanted their children to receive a Western education, so Shirin was was sent to the United States at the age of 17 ("Shirin Neshat: Iranian Exile & Artist").  She attended high school in Los Angeles to graduate high school and then attended college at the University of Berkeley in California.  Neshat stayed at the university through her BA, MA, and, in 1983, her MFA in painting.  Her two sisters abandoned their education, returning to Iran and eventually marrying (MacDonald).  

     During about the same time, the Islamic revolution in Iran began.  Ayatolla Khomeini introduced a theocratic government and took power away from the Shah, giving it instead to clerics ("Shirin Neshat: Iranian Exile & Artist"). Because of the revolution, Neshat was unable to return home and instead moved to New York.  

     Instead of working on art, Neshat became director for “The Storefront for Art and Architecture,” a non-profit art gallery in SoHo (MacDonald).  Her husband at the time, Kyong Park, was a Korean-born architect and concept artist who owned the gallery.  The gallery was dedicated to bringing people together from different practical and theoretical backgrounds of architecture, and Neshat said that she was exposed to “great minds from various fields,” such as artists, architects, philosophers, culture critics, and scientists.  Being an Iranian exile in the United States filled her life with conflict and allowed her no room for creative or artistic activity, and she dropped painting for the time being, she said (MacDonald).

     “I felt that my ideas were confused and simply not strong enough,” she said. “When I moved from California to New York, I felt further intimidated by the contemporary art scene in New York City and found that I had neither the maturity nor the desire to become an artist” (MacDonald). 

     Khomeini died in 1990, and Neshat was again able to visit her birthplace.  The Iran she left was relatively westernized and a largely secular society, but political, social, religious and cultural change had created a war-torn Iran with a divided population and with women in a place of marginalization.  Women, who used to be able to participate in out-of-the-home activities were now limited to the domestic sphere of the home, and men and clerics controlled the public arena. Women were required to wear traditional Iranian chador, which is a black dress that covers the entire body save the face, hands, and feet ("Shirin Neshat: Iranian Exile & Artist").  

     Neshat has called her trips to Iran “the turning point of my art career” (MacDonald).  She returned to Iran several more times and felt ready again to work as a creative artist in 1993 - ten years after she had stopped painting. Instead of returning to the medium she had a degree in, she explored the realm of photography.  Later, she would explore film. 

Shirin Neshat, "Seeking Martyrdom," 1995
     Much of Neshat’s art focuses around the physical and mental distance she feels from Iran; some of the thematic issues she explores focus on feminism, identity, and Islam.  Her art is often conflict-filled and complex.  Much of Neshat’s work is heavily influenced by Islamic cultural identity markers.  Her earlier works, including one of her most well-known works, “Women of Allah,” feature Farsi calligraphy overlaid on black and white photographs of herself as the subject of the art, dressed in the traditional chador.  The photographs were taken by her husband, Park, and Larry Barns.  She overlays images of ancient Persian poetry verses and of poetry written by Iranian women-writers (MacDonald). Most of her works feature traditional Islamic imagery of the woman’s veil (which may represent both a symbol of repression and as liberation against Western influence), and she also uses images of guns to suggest the ideological issues that surrounded the revolution of Iran and the current roles of women in society.  

     Neshat currently lives and works in New York City, and she is represented by the Barbara Gladstone Gallery (MacDonald).  She now focuses primarily in film, which she began working on in 1998 ("Shirin Neshat: Iranian Exile & Artist").  Her 16mm films are often organized so that the viewer stands between two individual projections that face each other or appear next to each other, suggesting a face-to-face confrontation or a sense of separation.  Most of the videos focus on the separation of sexes in Islamic culture, so often one man or a group of men are projected on one side of the gallery where a woman or group of women are simultaneously projected on the opposite wall.  Her films explore the links between and the tension that exists among traditional and modern practices for Iranian women, and it also explores the relationships between men and women due to that tension. 

Scott MacDonald, who interviewed the artist, explained her work as the following: 
Neshat's work suggests an ongoing transformation. "Women of Allah" reveals Neshat's anger at the traditional suppression of her gender and her willingness to express this anger. The two-screen installation works reveal a woman and artist rendered schizoid by her diasporic identity and torn between heritage and aspiration. The more recent, single-image films suggests Neshat's developing identity as a film director, certainly still empathetic with the struggles of women, but now in control of her own life and career, less torn and more ambitious.
     Neshat has won many awards for her work.  She received in Infinity Award for Visual Art from the International Center for Photography in 2002, was an Honoree at the First Annual Risk Takers in the Arts Celebration given from the Sundance Institute in 2003, received a ZeroOne Award from the Universität der Künste in Berlin (also in 2003), won the Fine Art Prize from the Heitland Foundation in Germany in 2003, was awarded from the Hiroshima City Museum of Art in 2005, won the Lillian Gish Prize in 2006, and won a Cultural Achievement Award from the Asia Society in 2008 (ArtNet).   Recently, she won three awards from the Venice Film festival in 2009.  Nashat's work has been exhibited around the world. 

     Overall, Neshat’s work suggests the ongoing transformation of women’s roles in Iranian society. 

Works Cited


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