In Shirin Neshat’s Worlds

Atiyyah Khan
Shirin Neshat working on The Book of Kings. Photo David Regen

Since she began making visual art, Shirin Neshat’s work has spoken about injustice first and foremost. The Iranian artist is known for art that addresses the political situation in Iran and, in particular, the plight of women there.

With the most recent uprisings in Iran that ignited in September 2022, Neshat has been inundated with requests for commentary, and to be a voice for her people. Though this is undoubtedly a very exhausting position to be in, the artist carries this duty with grace.

Speaking over the phone from her studio in New York, Neshat is calm, soft-spoken and humble, and generously shares anecdotes about her artistic process.

Born in the city of Qazvin in Iran, Neshat moved to California in the United States in 1974 when she was just 17 to study art. She left Iran just before the Islamic Revolution took place. She currently lives in New York in exile as it is unsafe for her to return to Iran. Her art journey began with photography and video, but she has made three feature films and now spends a fair amount of time working on opera. Common themes in her work include the female body in Islam, the struggles of women, freedom, landlessness and religion.

In 2020, Neshat was one of the five women artists in Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South at the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF). Each artist offered work that examined ways of representing the female body. Neshat’s works were the photography series, The Book of Kings (2012) and the video work, Soliloquy (2009).

The Book of Kings

The Book of Kings is a multi-layered work of black-and-white images of Iranian youth during the Arab Spring movement of 2012. Neshat’s photographs here, as in her later works, Home of My Eyes (2015) and Land of Dreams (2021), follow a particular theme in order to make sense of the context around the work. She explains, “When I work, I go after a theme and then a collection of images becomes a part of that narrative. These different themes often have a lot to do with history and political turmoil.” This has been true of her method since her first work, a powerful series called Women of Allah about the Islamic Revolution of 1979, created between 1993 and 1997.

Shirin Neshat working on The Book of Kings. Photo David Regen

In a similar way, in The Book of Kings, Neshat tries to capture the spirit of patriotism and nationalism in Iran. Here figures are represented as “Patriots”, “Masses” and “Villains”. For instance, Nida, one of the figures in “Patriots”, is portrayed with her hand on her heart, as a gesture of honour and a symbol of love. Pictured across from the ten images in “Patriots” are 40 images of young men and women in “Masses”. These represent the youth in Iran who are bystanders to the uprising. Finally, there are the “Villains’, comprising three images of men on which Neshat illustrates scenes of war painted onto their chests.

The series is about the contradictions in patriotism: that people love their nation and sacrifice for it, and yet violence and atrocities intersect with these actions and emotions. Neshat explains:

I was really interested in this idea of brutality and violence, and love and devotion – the hand over the heart or the very vulnerable faces of the masses and then this very strong image of these three men who are wearing illustrations of scenes of war where people are being beheaded.

As in much of her other work, the series borrows from ancient history. The title is taken from an epic poem known as Shahnameh (Book of Kings) written by the poet Ferdowsi between 977 and 1010. The poem comprises 50 000 couplets and tells stories of Iran’s history from the creation of the world to the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th century.

The photographs are layered with sections of the poem handwritten in calligraphy over the subjects’ hands and faces. According to Neshat, Ferdowsi’s writing is about “the Arab conquest of Persia, with long poems about the heroes who were beheaded and murdered in their love for their nation. For me, it was like how history repeats itself. And now again, we have these beautiful young men and women who are being murdered because they love their nation.”

“The series is about the contradictions in patriotism: that people love their nation and sacrifice for it, and yet violence and atrocities intersect with these actions and emotions.”

Neshat refers also to the Green Movement of 2009, a major protest movement in Iran aimed at bringing about democracy in the country, but which was suppressed by the government. She also alludes to the recent Women, Life, Freedom protest movement that began in Iran in September 2022, but which has also since gone to ground.

Soliloquy

Soliloquy (1999), displayed as a two-channel video installation, explores the theme of Neshat in exile and the connection between Islam and Christianity. Beautifully shot amidst Islamic architecture and deserted scenery, Soliloquy presents a protagonist (played by Neshat) who moves between Iran and the US. Neshat observes that this work, “is about another kind of paradox. It’s about the theme of immigration and being a woman caught between two worlds, and the two worlds are not just different from one another, but in complete conflict with each other.”

What is constant in the two works is a woman dressed in black and silhouetted against the different landscapes. The video is highly stylised. Neshat says, “It was shot in a beautiful old city, Mardin in Turkey, because I couldn’t go to Iran. It had this beautiful mosque dome.” The other part of the film was shot in Albany, New York. One world in the film represents capitalism and projects a sense of power through intimidating and overwhelming architecture, while the other has beautiful Islamic architecture. Both, however, are claustrophobic and the subject is caught between them:

I think this was the most personal work, because it really touched on people who are caught in between these worlds. They’re never really whole. I use architecture in a very precise way to reiterate the difference between the logic of East and West, orient and occident, Islam and Christianity. It’s a work that still seems relevant because those conflicts are perpetuated today.

Poetry and calligraphy

Calligraphy and poetry are present in much of Neshat’s works. She comments that calligraphy was not something she learned during childhood:

I don’t come from a creative background. I’m not a trained calligrapher but I found my own style. Back when I started as a visual artist, I started to use inscriptions on photographs. It was a very conceptual approach [because] the women that I was portraying were passive and silenced.

Shirin Neshat, Rapture series (1999). Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery

This poetry became another way to use voice in her work. On closer examination, much of this textual integration refers to her upbringing in Iran. The way text is used, Neshat points out,

goes back to the history of Iranian, Islamic and Persian art, and architecture, whether it’s a sacred text or poetry incorporated into architecture, carpets, vessels. This integration of text and image is a fundamental part of both Persian and Islamic art. For me, it was more intuitive, like a contemporary adaptation of some of the ideas that are really classical but come back to very contemporary images.

Speaking of the connection between her images, poetry and text, Neshat says,

My images are very minimal. They’re very symmetrical. There’s a lot of abstraction that borrows from both Persian and Islamic art. This was not a strategy, but I grew up always looking at how text is included in everything, even our jewellery. Whether it’s a Quranic text or just poetry. Some of that found its way into my images. The images that I make are often very politically charged and disturbing. Yet there is the idea of using calligraphy or something beautiful.

She points out the contradiction between oppression, violence and discrimination, and the rich legacy of Iranian history:

Even my compositions are carefully composed and orchestrated [but with] this contradiction – dark, disturbing, sometimes very violent, and at the same time, beautiful. It’s at the very heart of my work. Whether it’s photography, video, film or opera, I’m very interested in things that are being pulled apart.

It relates to my own culture. We have two different histories. One is the current history of fanaticism and oppression and a very brutal fascist government, [the other] is this incredible, rich history of mystics and poets. The images embody that kind of contradiction in my own culture, the old and new.

Shirin Neshat, Rebellious Silence, from Women of Allah series (1994). Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery

The text in Neshat’s work is poetry written in Farsi transliterated into Arabic. “I’m very careful about what poems I use, which writer, which poet, what period, what is the meaning of the poetry. There’s a lot of research and work that goes into it.”

These nuances in her work, however, are often lost in translation when she exhibits to Western audiences:

This has been an issue for me from the beginning, because a lot of people in the West think that the text is from the Qur’an and galleries don’t always provide the translations. The work translates very differently to the people from Iran than to people in the West. Some people in the West think it’s just decorative, but it’s not […] That goes back to how much an artist can facilitate translation of a work that is very culturally specific but, at the same time, has universal value.

Similarly, if I make a music video, like ‘Turbulent (1998), which became very popular among Westerners as much as anywhere else because people fell in love with the music. They had no idea that the words were by Rumi and what they meant. I can’t translate all of that. My feeling is that different people will pick up different ideas from the work and the artist can only do so much in a translation.

Iran has a long relationship with poetry. Neshat talks about her own background with the medium:

I think that Iranian people read poetry much more than anywhere else I can think of in the world. It’s just such a major part of the culture. It has been in the past, and it is today. People read poetry at home to each other. Often in gatherings, they use lines from a poem by Hafez or another poet to express something. So it’s very much part of our culture.

I left when I was only 17 but even at school I was always exposed to literature. And later, I became fixated on women, contemporary and modern poets and writers. I made a movie called ‘Women Without Men‘ (2010) based on a magic realist novel by an Iranian woman who is still living. I have done a lot of work and studied the significant women writers and poets. Even today, you see a lot of young people writing poetry.

Current work

In a video interview in April 2023 with NPR, Neshat expresses some of the pain of having not been able to return to Iran, and how the move to the US was never her choice. Her current relationship with Iran is that she hasn’t been back since 1996. “It’s not advised for people like me to go back, but every day I speak with my mother and with my sister.”

Neshat has a new body of work that will be shown at the Goodman Gallery in London in October 2023, and which has been travelling all over the world. The exhibition, titled The Fury, explores the female body as an object of violence:

The video and photographs called The Fury are about the sexual exploitation of women in prisons in Iran. But it’s very stylised. The images for the first time are all of nudity, and the video is of an Iranian woman who plays the main role who is dancing naked in front of a military man. It’s a very tough subject.

Neshat is also working on Aida, for the Paris Opera House, to open in 2025. This will be a revision of work she has made before. In addition to this, the indefatigable artist is currently spending her days writing a story for a new movie. The past year has been spent preparing the photographic and video work for The Fury, but now Neshat has time to focus her attention on film and opera:

Right now I’m working quietly on writing the movie script. I have no idea how long it will take for it or if it will ever materialise, but I’m really enjoying it because it takes off from where I left the video of ‘The Fury‘ with the idea of turning that into a feature film. With opera, I’m dealing with dramaturgists and music so it’s a very interesting challenge.

Commenting on her favourite medium to work with, Neshat says that video installation is the easiest, but that “I love movies, because I love the movie audience. I like the idea of making films that are for theatrical release, that go to film festivals and can be artistic, but still very accessible. I love opera because it’s live, there’s something powerful in that.”

With her movie and opera work, she often works in huge teams, but for her calligraphy and photography it’s usually solitary work, which she finds very satisfying too: “When you’re thinking of ideas, writing down a story or working on a single photograph, there’s something very satisfying about being alone and being with your imagination.”

We end our discussion with some valuable insight into artistic inspiration:

I always tell myself that you have to find your obsession and that’s unstoppable. That’s where ideas come from. Art should be about the internal world of a human being, and how and why that imagination or that internal world is significant enough for other people to stop and to pay attention to. I think it’s the only way – and also not to be intimidated by the art world – to trust yourself and your own intuition, your own obsessions, your own internal world, because the only basis for being an artist is your imagination, and being honest with yourself.

Biography

Atiyyah Khan is a journalist, arts and culture writer, researcher, storyteller, DJ, sound archivist, record collector and events curator based in Cape Town. For the past 15 years, she has documented arts in South Africa and her work has been published in major publications in South Africa and abroad. She is the co-founder of the music collective Future Nostalgia, which brings together “collectors, selectors, deejays and diggers” and hosts regular listening sessions around Cape Town. She has worked extensively in radio and podcasting, experimented with sonic lectures and other sound work, and run radio shows on Worldwide FM (UK) and J-Wave (Japan). Common themes in her work are spatial injustice, the untold stories of apartheid, jazz history and underground art movements.


How to cite this article:
Atiyyah Khan (2024), "In Shirin Neshat’s Worlds" in JCAF Journal: Interdisciplinary Knowledge from the South No. 1. https://jcafjournal.org.za/in-shirin-neshats-worlds/. Accessed 24 April 2024.