Shirin Neshat - Between Different Worlds
By SHERIF AWAD
Iranian-born, New York-based visual artist Shirin Neshat was renowned for her work in photography, video, as well as film. Her series of photography, such as the Unveiling (1993) and Women of Allah (1993–97) in which she explored notions of femininity in relation to Islamic fundamentalism and militancy in her home country was her manner of coping in a way with the discrepancy between the cultures she was experiencing and that of the pre-revolution Iran in which she was raised. The Women of Allah series featured portraits of women entirely overlaid by Persian calligraphy emphasizing stark visual contrasts through motifs such as light and dark, black and white, male and female. In her artwork, Neshat addressed the social, political and psychological dimensions of women's experiences in contemporary Islamic societies by using Persian poetry and calligraphy to examine martyrdom, exile, and issues of identity and femininity. In her Soho studio, I met Shirin Neshat to discuss her artistic journey that recently led her to Egypt.
Neshat was the fourth of five children of wealthy parents, brought up in the religious town of Qazvin in northwestern Iran. Her father was a physician who, according to her, romanticized the West to the point that he enrolled his children in a Catholic boarding school in Tehran. He also encouraged each of his daughters to celebrate their uniqueness and individuality, to take risks, to learn, and to explore and see the world. “When I was growing up in Iran, everybody used to call me an artist although none of my family members showed interest in that field”, remembers Shirin. “When my father decided to send me and my sisters to study abroad, I landed at Berkley University, here in the US.
“My initial ideas about art were so romanticized, that it brought me to the point that I was the worst student. I think my early trials had weak content because I was exposed to mostly western arts in Iran and I had nothing personal to share with the whole world at that time. After moving to New York, it took me ten years of absence from the art scene to polish my thoughts and to launch my career in 1993 after a brief visit to Iran. I was thirty-one years old when art became my reason to live and a profound tool for me to communicate with the world and to express emotions related to human conditions without using words.
During her years of study in the US, the revolution in Iran took place, changing the country forever. “My family and I lived in Iran during the Shah’s regime but an uprising by the Iranian people was expected. Everybody felt that there was something boiling underneath”, she said. “I also remember that we used to listen to Khomeini’s speeches heard on an underground radio show that aired them from his fifteen years in exile from Iraq. So in 1979, the revolution exploded with the power of the young people of my generation. Islamist and non-Islamist, everybody gathered altogether against the Shah. Meanwhile, I was in the US planning to study and go back to Iran but the Islamists stole the revolution and took over the whole country. Many incidents and events consequently took place preventing me of doing so: the hostage situation of the Americans (The events depicted in the recent Oscar-winner film Argo), the war with Iraq and many other incidents”.
However, those series of events had a profound impact on Shirin who was feeling alienated; she was exiled for twelve years. Somehow, her art became the tools to connect her to Iran.
One of the aspects of the Islamization of Iran was forcing al-hijab (the veil) on women. Shirin reflected upon this issue in her photography. “Sometimes, veiled women are exotic to certain people”, she explained. “But for me, the veil became a metaphor that was a more complex symbol of women’s identity, imposed as it was by men in power who were trying to build a wall between the two halves of society. More importantly, one can better understand the nature and nuances of the Iranian revolution by studying women and their issues. It is about oppressive men who cannot control their sexual desires, which drives them to cover the female aesthetics”. Neshat also portrayed Iranian men in her photography to controversial results. “Men appeared in white shirts, buttoned all the way to the neck, but without a tie. It is a gesture by them to express rejection of Western style dress. Some who criticized these photos with women in black veil and men with buttoned shirts missed the whole point which wasn’t about a stereotypical orientalism but more of my interpretation as a conceptual artist with some exaggeration to highlight certain elements”.
After visiting many galleries and art biennials around the world with her videos and photography, Shirin started to experiment with video and moving images, which eventually led her to make a feature film. “It is healthy to navigate between different worlds, from a certain medium to the other and to sometimes rebel against yourself”, she said. Certain subjects drove me to reflect over them in a suitable form because I never had an obsession with a certain medium favoring it over another. I was trained as a painter but moved to photography and portraits which had its own limitations: being rigid, still and iconic. So I guess that filmmaking came in as a natural transition”.
It took her six years to realize her feature debut Women Without Men (2009), a film adaptation of a “Shahrnush Parsipur” novel that profiles the lives of four women living in Tehran circa 1953, during the American-backed coup that returned the Shah of Iran to power. Shot in three Moroccan cities: Casablanca, Rabat and Marrakech, standing in for Tehran. “I was a little bit naïve thinking that I can write a script and direct a cast and crew of many so easily just because I was a visual artist”, she says about the difficulty of switching to motion pictures. But the experience paid off and the film was screened to great international acclaim, securing the Silver Lion for Best Director at the 66th Venice Film Festival for Shirin Neshat. Both Neshat and Parsipur are banned from Iran to this day.
On Shirin Nashat’s agenda lie many new projects. There is a new video starring Natalie Portman and a collaboration as an art director with the Dutch National Ballet for a new production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Yet, Shirin Nashat’s next challenging project is to direct a new feature about the iconic Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. Known as Kawkab al-Sharq (Star of the East in Arabic), she is still widely regarded as the greatest Arab female singer in history more than three decades after her death in 1975, at age 76. Her funeral procession became a national event, with four million grief-stricken Egyptians lining the streets to catch a glimpse as her cortege passed.
Although there an acclaimed and popular Egyptian TV series in 1999 about Umm Kulthum’s life that was followed by an Egyptian feature film in the same year, Neshat is continuing the preparation of her project with the collaboration of several Egyptian directors on the working script and the related research. She is also keen to cast an Egyptian actress/singer in the leading role. “We plan to shoot next fall in Egypt if we receive the appropriate production fund”, says Neshat. “Umm Kulthum was and still very beloved in Iran. I used to listen to her in my teens and we were shocked when she left our world. My film about her will be heartfelt, emotional, and full of mysticism. It is part of my obsession about women have played a major role in our lives. Umm Kulthum was the mother of a nation as the story of Egypt can be told through her journey”.
Born in Cairo, Egypt, Sherif Awad is a film / video critic and curator. He is the film editor of Egypt Today Magazine (www.EgyptToday.com), and the artistic director for both the Alexandria Film Festival, in Egypt, and the Arab Rotterdam Festival, in The Netherlands. He also contributes to Variety, in the United States, and is the film critic of Variety Arabia (http://varietyarabia.com/), in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Al-Masry Al-Youm Website (http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/198132) and The Westchester Guardian (www.WestchesterGuardian.com).