Shirin Neshat is considered one of the leading, active contemporary artists working on concepts derived from the world of women and political crises. She came to prominence especially through her artistic experiments in fields of film directing film, video art and photography, with works that revolve around the equivocal relationship between Eastern and Western cultures, and the way each views the other in semi-stereotypical types.
Neshat was born to a rich family, her father was a doctor and her mother was a housewife, devoted to looking after her home. Neshat received her primary education in a Catholic boarding school in Tehran, which influenced her early assimilation of a lot of Western values, which mixed with religious and traditional Eastern values that were transmitted to her through her maternal grandparents. However, Neshat's maturity and awareness was nurtured generally thanks to her extremely culturally open-minded family, as her father was open to Western culture and its inherent values and concepts, and was keen that his daughters continue their higher university studies to the same educational level as their male siblings. He also showed a good understanding of the ideas of Western feminism, which led him to encourage his daughters to study, travel and explore the world. This was clearly manifested in the family's decision to send Neshat at the age of seventeen, in 1974, outside Iran to study fine arts in the United States. Back then, such practice was not common within the entire Iranian social milieus.
Neshat started her studies in Los Angeles, in a period that coincided with the outbreak of the Iranian Revolution later on. By 1980, she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to study in Dominican College, and from there to University of California Berkeley to obtain a BA and MA and then MFA. During the 1980s, Neshat benefited from the time she spent at Storefront for Art and Architecture, a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1982 by the curator Kyong Park (b. 1955), who was of Korean origin, and who Neshat married and helped run the organisation. This contributed to her exposure to numerous contemporary art concepts and to her gaining experiences that had significant impact in forming the main aspects of her artistic style.
In 1990, Neshat returned to Iran for a brief trip which was considered a turning point in her personal and artistic life. She was in deep shock when she was confronted by comparing the reality of the Iranian society she knew earlier and the profound transformations it underwent during the years after the Islamic Revolution. These transformations also lead to changing individuals in their appearances and behaviors and triggered the widespread of a fundamentally oriented ideology throughout the whole society. Such experience was a great source of inspiration for Neshat’s initial works, which she created using the photographic medium. The first work was the collection Unveiling (1993) and Women of Allah she created between 1993 and 1997, which turned the attention of Western artistic circles to her, and which received significant success in several exhibitions. These series of artwork reveal her ability in working with symbols and social projections in personal portraits that appear at first glance to be documentary but that include at the same time significant discrepancy between feminist values and extremist fundamentalism, in the context of the prevalent discourse in her hometown as she perceives it. As a result, the discrepancy becomes manifested in the contradictory relationships between photographs of faces and the handwritten Persian writings which Neshat executes meticulously with Chinese ink over the images to cover its main spaces. The combination between the handwritten Persian texts and photographic printed images expresses existing tensions between the characters represented in the works and the concept of the text. The handwritten texts are considered as an authority with many meanings and many faces aimed at reconstituting the identity of women. Neshat's use of some of the feminist poems that were written in Arabic and Persian letters, caused confusion of some viewers as to the intended meaning of these texts. Some associate these texts with the concept of the sacred Islamic text, based on the common notion that generally views Arabic writing as an essentially religious text.
Neshat’s early photographic experiments coincided with a wave of new consciousness in the 1990s. Many Eastern artists, intellectuals and activists have proposed several, profound arguments, which benefited greatly from the efforts of theorists such as Edward Said, and which aimed at wiping off the influence of several classical, Western and Orientalist concepts and researching the representations of the east and document it.
Neshat’swork stems from two completely contradictory cultural backgrounds, one of which, is an Eastern, traditional semi-fundamentalist, and the other Western contemporary which is open to all concepts, and which breaks all intellectual barriers. In the visual framework of her artistic experiments, she focuses on the social developments in Islamic contemporary societies, especially those related to the situations of the everyday life in Iran. Although she proposes certain cultural models in her work, she adopts a universal visual language that does not exclusively propose a traditional image of her country of origin. Neshat's work revolves primarily around notions like martyrdom, femininity, exile and threatened identity, as they are concepts that link together all her experiments in film and photographic media. In that context, it becomes clear the importance of what Neshat established, strongly re-politicizing the image. This is evident through how widely influential her photographic experiments are, and whose echoes still reverberate in the works of several young artists in the Arab world. These artists were influenced by her photographing herself, wearing the Iranian chādor or chādar (Persian: چادر) and holding a gun.
Neshat combines several symbolic layers, at the forefront of which, comes the overlap between the features of a masculine world, and what is spread in its midst of violence and authoritarian practices, and the features of the traditional, Eastern, feminine world, and what it entails in the tendency to complacency and submission in most cases. This is what happens in the context of the many contradictions, existing complexities between the codes and the social, religious, and cultural meanings, in turn letting femininity coexist with violence, on the one hand, between innocence and spirituality, and on the other, the idea of aggression. Neshat's complex, symbolic mixture with its multiple levels allows the assimilation of certain moments of the history of armed political conflict in the region. One of these key moments was the Iranian-Iraq war, which some critics, including Nada Shabout - see as an important context to understand the image of women for Neshat, considering it as a reaction and visual reference to propaganda and counter-propaganda, through which there was an investment in the images of women as victims of violence and as being the mothers of martyrs. Some of the main visual motifs that are repeated throughout her work include black clothes, writing over the body, tattoo, henna, seals, shadows, meditative poses, fire arms, desert, the sea, dust and blood.
In executing her work, Nishat relies on using black and white, which gives her the opportunity to condense a lot of meanings and visual values equally. It also allows her to show the idea of opposition and contradiction which always appears in her works, between masculinity and femininity, light and darkness, violence and tenderness, as well as between loud and whispering voices in her films, in black and white are predominantly used. Consequently, the majority of her work convey an atmosphere of mystery and a sense of estrangement. She also relies in the treatment of her films in displaying pictures that are taken from a nearly fixed camera, and moving them by linking them with each other, in an observable and measured pattern, that is governed by a sonic rhythm matching the visual effect of the scenes.
Persian poetry plays a major role in deepening the expressive and visual content in Shirin Neshat's works, especially epic and Sufi poetry, which is clearly manifested in some of her important experiments. These include Turbulent, a video installation that she executed in 1998, using in its sonic elements, a chant from Jalāl ad-Dīn Rūmī's (1207- 1273) poetry. Rūmī's, the founder of the Mewlewī/ Mevlevi Sufi Order, is known as Mevlana or Mawlānā, and as the author of The Masnavi/ Mathnavi, (مثنوي معنوي), in Persian Masnavi-I Ma'navi/Mathnawi Ma'navi.
The poetry component was also part of Neshat’s work the Logic of the Birds, a film she produced between 2000 and 2001. Its title appears directly linked to the title of a famous Sufi book of poetry, carrying the same name in Arabic and Persian, Manṭiq-uṭ-Ṭayr. The title also carries overlapping meanings with her work when associated with its famous English translation, The Conference of the Birds/ Speech of the Birds. It is one of the works of the famous Persian Sufi poet Farīd ud-DīnʿAṭṭār (1145 - 1221). This also becomes clearly evident in the photographic collection The Book of Kings, which she made in 2012, using tattoos on the bodies of her subjects, and traditional drawings derived from the most famous Persian epics. The epic carries the same meaning of its title in Arabic Kitab Al-Muluk كتاب الملوك, or in Persian (The Shahnameh/ Shahnama) Šāhnāmeh, composed by Abu'l-Qāsim Ferdowsī (935 - 1020). It is considered one of the references for Modern Persian language, a foundation for Persian nationalist thinking, and one of the most important sources for the study of Persian myths and heritage.
Shirin Neshat exhibited her works widely in many countries in the world, and participated in a large number of group exhibitions in different continents. In her exhibitions and artistic projects, she is especially active in the city of New York, and particularly the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA). She also exhibited in the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens, and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in New York. In addition, her photographic work appears regularly on American magazine covers. Her acquired works can also be seen in a number of important museums, including Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. She lives in New York, USA.
Solo Exhibitions2014 Shirin Neshat: Afterwords, 9 November 2014 – 15 February 2015, Mathaf: Arab Museum
of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar
2014 National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, South Korea
2013 Written on the Body, Espacio Fundación Telefónica, Madrid, Spain
2012 The Book of Kings, Gladstone Gallery, New York, United States of America
2011 Women without Men, Palazzo Reale, Milan, Italy
2010 La Fabrica Galeria, Madrid, Spain
2009 Games of Desire, Gladstone Gallery, Brussels, Belgium
2008 Gladstone Gallery, New York, United States of America
2007 Zarin, Galeria Filomena Soares, Lisbon, Portugal
2006 Secret of the Veil, Espoo Museum of Modern Art, Espoo, Finland
2005 The 6th Hiroshima Art Prize, Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, Hiroshima, Japan
2004 Through the Eyes of Shirin Neshat, Auckland Art Gallery, Toi o Támaki, New Zealand
2003 Tooba, Asia Society Museum, New York, United States of America
2002 Rapture, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Bilbao, Spain
2001 Musée d'Art Contemporain de Montreal [traveled to: Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, Texas; Miami Art Museum, Miami], United States of America
2000 Matrix 187: Turbulent, Matrix Gallery, Berkley Art museum, Berkley, California, United States of America
1999 FOCUS: Shirin Neshat, Rapture, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, United States of America
1998 Turbulent, Whitney Museum of American Art, Philip Morris Branch, New York, United States of America
1997 Photographs/Video Stills, Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco, California, United States of America
1996 Women of Allah, Marco Noire Contemporary Arts, Turin, Italy
1993 Unveiling, Franklin Furnace, New York, United States of America
Awards and Honors2014 Crystal Award of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland
2009 Sliver Lion for Best Director in the 66th Venice Film Festival, for her film, Women without Men
2005 The 6th Hiroshima Art Prize, Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, Hiroshima, Japan
2006 The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize
2000 The International Gwangju Biennale Prize, South Korea
KeywordsFeminism, Photography, Video Art, Contemporary Iranian Art, Contemporary American Art, Cultural Identity, Persian Culture, Art and Power, Art and Violence, Representation of Eastern Women, Image and Text, Patriarchal Society
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