Ahead of the largest retrospective dedicated to her work to date, exiled Iranian visual artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat is optimistic and joyful – and as unapologetic as ever.
Shirin Neshat is considering her critics; her pretty voice equal parts curious and relaxed – testament to her singular duality. “Some people see it as pure strategy on my part; to get Western attention,” starts the Iranian visual artist and filmmaker. “ That I’m capitalizing on women and Islam, and that I use those subjects because I believe they are provocative. But I didn’t have a career when I did a lot of this work,” she says. “I didn’t set out wanting to be an artist.” Neshat’s work, spanning almost three decades, will be celebrated at a retrospective at The Broad Museum in Los Angeles, opening this month. It is the largest exhibition dedicated to her art to date. Designed chronologically, it will feature more than 230 photographs and eight immersive video installations. Visitors will relive the now-iconic calligraphic photos of Women of Allah and video works like Rapture, Turbulent, and Passage, in collaboration with composer Philip Glass; along with The Book of Kings, The Home of My Eyes, and finally Land of Dreams. This latest ambitious work, encompassing a body of photographs and two videos, will make its global debut at the retrospective. While the exhibition will offer a mighty impression of the evolution of Neshat’s art, its fil rouge is that they are all works of fiction. “I’ve never tried to claim otherwise,” she says. “Accusing it of trying to portray reality is such a false interpretation.”
The artist’s original concept is always a combination of what she chooses to reveal from her personal life and what is happening in the world. “How can I seize this moment? Make a work that’s meaningful? To us? And also Westerners?” she posits. Land of Dreams features 111 portraits of people photographed in New Mexico, one of the poorest states in the US. The arid setting, however, could be Middle Eastern. “I didn’t want the audience to know whether they were in Iran or in the US,” she smiles. “I spoke with the people, we exchanged on our backgrounds; it was a wonderful human experience. I hope the rapport shows in the images.” The main protagonist is an Iranian woman who goes door to door to take pictures. Neshat underlines that it has been some time since she has made work about Iran. “This is is an American experience – in America. Over the years, I’ve removed myself directly from Iran. What has not changed is that I – an Iranian – am still the main protagonist.”
“It’s almost like a new beginning,” says Neshat in reference to her retrospective. “I started in LA and the city is home to the largest Iranian diaspora.” The exhibition is titled Shirin Neshat: I Will Greet The Sun Again. Despite her joyful rebirth, does she consider herself to be in the dark? “My work is always about tension between dark and light; optimism and pessimism; political reality versus existential inclination. Living here, in exile, I’m constantly, on a daily basis, feeling despair, living in a country that is becoming more and more problematic,” she says, adding, “Maybe everybody does to some degree; that’s the only way for survival. Immigrants are a little more vulnerable and feel it more than other people – that sense of complete security that is not there.”
Neshat moved from Iran to the US in 1975, at age 18. She studied art at the University of California, Berkeley, earning a BA, MA, and MFA. She visited Iran for the last time in 1990, and the new socio-political landscape rocked her to her core. Today, living in exile, Neshat is in perpetual contact with friends – artists, writers – who go back and forth or live in Iran. “I don’t feel like somebody who is sitting in a bubble,” she says. Iran is ever-present in her dreams. Her mother often appears in her subconscious. “I interpret the mother figure as my motherland. The anxiety of losing her speaks to the anxiety of losing my home. The degree of our nostalgia and how it appears in a visual form varies according to our political condition,” comments Neshat.
The gnawing feelings associated with displacement, while personal, are not, of course, exclusive to her. Serving to uplift and celebrate her fellow artistic countrywomen, Neshat has curated a show of post-revolutionary Iranian women artists, set to take place at High Line Nine Gallery in New York this November, in association with the Center for Human Rights in Iran. The 13 artists, like Afruz Amighi, Hadieh Shafie, and Shiva Ahmadi, all come from different generations. The women will showcase how the political situation in Iran defined and informed their art. Neshat reveals that some artists declined the invitation for fear of not being able to return to Iran.
Anahita Bathaie, an Iranian visual artist who left Tehran when she was 12, recalls studying Neshat’s work as a student in Paris. “Because of her, people started to look at art from the Middle East in general, in a different way. I also started to question the image that the West can conjure an Iranian artist and sought to look beyond the cliché. For me, her film Women Without Men (2009), which won the Silver Lion for best director at the Venice Film Festival, served as an artistic turning point. I believe that Shirin will remain an artist connected to the world and its problems, regardless of her great commercial success.”
“I see myself as this struggling artist, vulnerable and fragile, and with a huge passion to make art,” counters Neshat. In her eyes, she doesn’t consider herself to be a success story; merely someone who “survived.” She harbors sorrow and anxiety in equal measures, like any person. “I like the fact that I’m very grassroots; my work is not about making a bundle of money. What is important to me is that it matters to many people across the world.” Among her blessings, Neshat counts her husband, Iranian filmmaker and collaborator Shoja Azari, son, and studio that has become like a family. “Success is an illusion. I don’t need someone adoring me. I have to be convinced myself,” says Neshat. “I always ask more of myself than I can deliver and always think that I can do better, but that’s part of being an artist. I’ve never made a work that is perfect, but I’ve accepted the flaws.”
Serving as armor, for some 40 years Neshat has been drawing a thick line of kohl under her saucer-like eyes, reminiscent of the pharaonic style of Ancient Egypt. “I honestly can’t remember,” she laughs, when asked how her penchant for the liner – a blend of the darkest pencils from MAC and Lancôme – was born. “Iranians are very puzzled, but it defines who I am,” she says. Dressed in black, she adorns her wiry frame with tribal necklaces and earrings as large as her eyes collected from Morocco, Mexico, and Egypt. “That’s me and I stay true to that,” she remarks of her style, which, she says, affords her a sense of confidence in public.
To the thousands of women – Iranian, Arab, and otherwise – seeking to nourish their creativity and looking to this tiny titan for guidance, Neshat offers, “Don’t make art to build a career. Studying art and becoming an artist is a losing game; it’s a competitive world about markets, money, and business. Really good art is personal. Look within and discover what has an urgency on your part that you want to express. Make art because you feel compelled to share something with the world.”
Shirin Neshat: I Will Greet The Sun Again at The Broad Museum, Los Angeles. October 19-February 16.
A Bridge Between You and Everything: An Exhibition of Iranian Women Artists curated by Shirin Neshat and presented by The Center for Human Rights in Iran, November 7-24, 2019. High Line Nine, New York. Iranhumanrights.org
“Eyes That See” is originally published in the October 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia