These days, much of the visual imagery we have of Muslim culture comes from news publications. They are by turns tragic and heart-breaking, gruesome and bloody. These are images of death, destruction, and violence from a region of the world that most of us only know through its conflicts.
But that is not the world that Shirin Neshat knows. Born in Iran, Neshat emigrated to the United States in 1974 at the age of 17, and today has photographs, films, and videos in museum collections across the country. The Iran she knows is filled with poetry and mysticism; the Islam she practices is one that celebrates beauty. In her haunting photographs of women, their faces scrawled with Farsi calligraphy or who wear hijab while holding guns, or in films such as Turbulent (1999) where a woman ululates before an empty theater, we see an amalgam of the beauty she recognizes and the political realities of the day.
Through this balance, she has given voice to two traditionally silenced populations: the women of Iran, whose means of free expression are exceedingly limited (Neshat herself is barred from entering her native country), and the Muslim community in the United States, which has become increasingly maligned and misunderstood in the past several years. Below, the award-winning artist tells the story of her artwork and her culture.
LAYERS OF MEANING
Even though on the surface, my work seems to be an investigation or a dialogue about the Muslim community, women, etc., it’s evolved from a very personal angle. My work was developed based on my experience as a young Iranian coming to this country, and trying to identify my own way of expression.
Naturally, being Iranian, being Muslim, being a woman, I pursued certain things that were relevant to me. But my work has never been reactionary work that was trying to respond to something. Rather, I’m trying to pioneer a kind of work that both helped me in a visual language say some of my own issues while also being a forum or dialogue about a whole community. My work goes into bigger questions about the sociopolitical historical issues of my country, yet there’s something very personal about it, very emotional.
GIVING THE VOICELESS A VOICE
I look at the question of oppression, and how those who are living in a repressive situation such as in Iran and subversive ways of being vocal, and I take off from that. For example, the music in my films is a voice; the calligraphy on the photographs is a voice. They show the emotional and intellectual capability of this woman. The images are very silent and very quiet on the surface, but then these writings suggest that the people behind the images are in fact very defiant and vocal and have a lot to say. That’s how I feel about Iranian women at large: that although they have lived for so many years under a repressive situation and governance, they have always found a way to break out of that parameter.
The Iranian people come from a very ancient country and history of mystics and poets and all kinds of incredibly creative imaginations. Yet in contemporary times, we are known to the world as some barbaric, fanatic country full of mullahs. It’s in full contradiction with our ancient history. I think a lot of Iranian people feel conflicted between the past and the present. That mysticism, as we know it in relation to Islam or Persian history, it’s about poetry, it’s about a reinterpretation of Islam in a way that is not political. Actually, the idea of beauty is central to spiritual Islam. So many Iranian people intentionally go out of their way to celebrate that tradition to keep it alive, to maintain that even if they live in Iran. My work is always trying to talk about this kind of contradiction, the people of poetry but the people of fanaticism. This is the biggest dilemma for Iranian people I think: their identity of Persian culture versus the Islamic Republic of Iran.
CHANGING AMERICAN PERCEPTIONS
The violence around the Middle East by extreme radical fanatics is reducing everybody else—who have absolutely nothing to do with that thinking—and putting us all in the same basket. It’s extremely dangerous. After September 11th, we went through this and the American community became up-to-date somewhat—I felt like we really came a long way. But in the last several years, with the creation of ISIS and all the developing violence, I feel that negative imaging and racial marking has returned in the highest degree. I’m really frightened, because I think the majority of Americans don’t understand that even Muslims are terrified and are against that kind of activity. I think this is really a dangerous time.
My work, while it reiterates the political problems and all the stereotypical things that we know about that part of the world, complicates things because it also shows dignity and beauty and a mystical, spiritual quality. So we understand the complexity of the society, and we’re able to see through to the humanity of these people that goes above and beyond the government.
This is the balance that I try to keep while trying not to become a form of propaganda just defending Islam. I think the best way to describe it is that while the work is very political, it’s also very mystical, and that is a very big part of the Islamic tradition that people overlook. My intervention manages to neutralize some of the negative things that we think about [Islam]. You can’t go without being moved because the music is so powerful. Yet it’s coming from that part of the world, and we identify with it. So it comes home, and we realize that we have a lot in common.
I think that the general public, in many ways, might benefit from any work of creative imagination that somehow gives another sight into this complex issue. But again, I think that any work of art that is biased or didactic is useless. So it’s a very delicate balance for an artist to make art that is informative and helps these complex issues we’re facing without risking being didactic and obvious.
THE POWER OF ART
When I go look at a film or a work of art, what I look for is to be charged. I think works of art—any form of culture—have the capability to give people a certain hope and passion and belief and conviction that nothing else can. I think there is something about creativity and the imagination that is ultimately very primal, and it can be incredibly moving and provoke people in all the right directions. I’m so happy when I see a film that moves me. That’s what I live for: something that is beyond everyday life, the mundane. It just gives me some form of faith that art can be a transformative experience like religion. That’s the way I look at it. When I make art, I not only enjoy it, I feel like I’m contributing to the world even if in a quiet way. So I take art very seriously as a major way of contribution to the people.
Being pulled into a part of the artistic practice that is beyond art galleries and museums and the commercial market, it’s sort of liberating because you feel like what you’re doing is truly meaningful and your voice is heard and it counts and it inspires people. There’s a certain amount of responsibility in terms of how you articulate your message in a work of art or in public, how you speak about it. So I try not to do that too often by speaking publicly, but I have on the behalf of the Iranian people or artists. It’s always a mixed blessing because a lot of people are not really familiar with art language. They look at your work in a way you may not want; it’s more about the political message they think you have as opposed to the real quality of the work. But at the same time, you feel that you’ve elevated beyond just a studio artist. You feel like your voice counts, and that’s a major thing that I appreciate about being an Iranian artist today.