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Shirin Neshat

Two new film installations by the Iranian artist in an exhibition in Berlin and Salzburg (Austria).
By Britta Schmitz | Oct 2005

Nationality, religion, ethnicity, gender are just some of the "collective identities" to have increasingly become the focus of academic research in art history, cultural studies and the social sciences in recent decades. Indeed, in exhibitions and symposia this term has witnessed a veritable discursive boom, while simultaneously giving rise to virulent opposition on grounds of its alleged uselessness as an analytic category. [1] Kwame Anthony Appiah remains undeterred by such criticisms of the concept of identity, affirming in his recent book that "identity is central to human existence. It is an essential source of our values," he concludes, that individuality is predicated on sociality. The author is moved by the question of how we can mediate between liberalism and multicultural visions. He advocates a "deep-rooted cosmopolitanism" which, according to Appiah's definition, in no way overrides the diversity of human identities. The individual does not suffer on the basis of difference, but rather approaches that very difference with openness and creativity. Appiah proffers an impressive strategy for coming to terms with many different loyalties, showing that the world can hardly be divided up into the "West" and the "rest", or "locals" and "cosmopolites". [2]

Shirin Neshat, who works from the perspective of two very divergent cultural backgrounds, focuses the visual discourse in her projects on the social developments of contemporary Islam, or specifically on conditions of life in Iran. Although she explicitly brings out culturally specific phenomena in her work, she simultaneously succeeds in subtly striking the tenor of a more universal language; not only does she present a nuanced image of her country of origin but also delivers a revealing insight into "Western" modes of perception. The question of how she approaches these aspects in her work is answered by Neshat as follows: "For me it is vital to portray a theme from within in order to create something that is pure and not to succumb to the pressure of drawing parallels between two cultures." [3] Hamid Dabashi notes in his contribution to this catalogue that her works can be read "site specifically" and that Shirin Neshat does not merely reach a limited audience. [4]

Shirin Neshat left Iran at the age of 17 to study fine art in the USA. During the regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi it was nothing out of the ordinary for parents with sufficient means to send their children off to the "West" in order to further their education. Many years later, in 1990, she returned to Iran for the first time. It was a brief return to a country she scarcely recognized. The first Gulf War between Iran and Iraq, which lasted eight years, had just drawn to an end. The war had decimated a large part of the male population, women in chadors or burqas dominated the cityscape, monumental images of martyrs were displayed on most buildings, the Islamic Revolution had altered the country completely, and the Islamic regime had come to determine every aspect of the lives of the people, right down to the question of what people ate and drank and wore. During this period the country had been barely accessible to journalists from the West and was almost exclusively associated with fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism.

For Shirin Neshat the encounter with this land she had once called home brought about a decisive turning point in her life, fundamentally changing her relationship to her current home. In coming to terms with these new impressions she began her photographic series "Women of Allah" (1993-1997), which can meanwhile be called iconic. The series was highly successful on the Western exhibition circuit from the start and attracted a great deal of attention, for Shirin Neshat had touched upon, indeed instigated, several levels of reception at once. Discussions surrounding the decolonization of global culture and hence an interrogation of images of the Orient have been being conducted since the early 1990s by artists and curators alike, and Shirin Neshat established the associated (re)politicization of the image with such an incredible force that the echo of this early body of work can still be heard in the works of many artists since. [5] By photographing herself draped in a chador holding weapons, and by writing contemporary poems in Farsi on the remaining bare surfaces, she links several discursive levels. On the one hand there is the interface between the private and public spheres; public space is regarded as male, private space as female. A prominent, albeit incrusted symbol of Islam, the chador marks the interstice of cultural difference and is thus a sign of intercultural perception or image production, whereas the ornamental script, which further enshrouds the images, underscores the distance from reality characterizing perceptions of conflicts and culture in the Middle East. "There's a strange coexistence here of femininity and violence. My pictures show women as 'militant' and 'armed' and at the same time as strangely 'innocent' and 'spiritual'; they commit a crime because they love God, and this devotion brings violence with it." [6] The warrior bearing a chador and Kalashnikov is also an embodiment of the anti-Western aggression underlying politicized Islam.

The photos and the film and video installations to emerge in the years that followed similarly point towards the complex paradox of a society founded on traditional values and an archaic religion and representing one of the major world cultures that cannot turn its back on modernity altogether and must observe the dissolution of the contours behind the laws governing dress. Since 1997 Shirin Neshat has been telling powerful stories with her black-and-white films, stories that immediately inscribe themselves upon our memories. Her films and scenic videos are all excellent examples of the communication of socio-political content on a visual level which without words manages to arrive at a narrative interplay on the basis of their suggestive sound. The music underscores the universality of the works and transgresses all cultural boundaries. The dual-screen projections featured in most of her works result in a strong formal and thematic dualism; a fictitious communication is evoked, a communication of the kind that is painfully missed due to the rigid gender separation. [7]

The dual-screen projection "Rapture" (1999) on show in the exhibition draws its suspense from the polarity and energy between men and women and a tight cinematic linking of ambiguous actions. In this, as in previous works, Neshat includes crowd, or mass scenes, thereby referencing Siegfried Kracauer's conception formulated in 1927 of the "ornament of the masses" according to which individuals (in capitalist societies) only appear as an ornamental general picture and human life itself gradually takes on the features of such ornament, [8] as underscored by the standard black chadors worn by the women and the uniformity of the men clad in white shirts and dark trousers. The restrictive laws in Iran during the 1980s allowed little room to move as far as individuality was concerned and every deviation in clothing or behavior was interpreted as a criticism of the regime. The political and religious, moral dimensions, which the Islamic government ascribed solely to women's clothing, augmented their significance way beyond the typical symbolic value of clothing. It became a semiotic language with political meaning and against the backdrop of the proscribed codex, Iranians made statements based on their equally subtle and demonstrative deviations from the codes as to their views on the regime, their sense of social belonging and their approach to gender issues. In an encoded form, Shirin Neshat implies this with her film "Rapture". Towards the end of the film the ornamental overview of the women dissolves as they individually head towards the sea and climb into a boat together in order to travel away. Neshat's most recent works, "Mahdokht" (2004) and "Zarin" (2005), constitute two independent sequences of what is to become a five-part feature film entitled "Women without Men". The novella of the same name by Shahrnush Parsipur was published in 1989 in Tehran and subsequently banned. Today the author lives in exile in America. [9] The book comprises several metaphorically related short stories about the lives of five different women who are suffering from their respective situations and run away. They ultimately find themselves in a garden where they seek to form their own new society. Writing in a feminist, mythological terminology, Shahrnush Parsipur describes the cultural and religious social pressure facing women, which often leaves them with no other resort than to go mad or commit suicide. The book proved to be an immense provocation to the Guardians and Administrators of the Revolution under Khomeini.

Following the election of President Khatami in 1997 life in Iran changed; and even the rules governing the wearing of the chador are now observed with increasing carelessness. [10] With each millimeter that overcoats have become shorter and tighter-fitting, Iranian women have gained new ground in terms of self-determination. Color permeates the cityscape, the provocative game of concealing and revealing is flourishing, as is a nascent fashion industry devoted exclusively to the veil and chador. Satellite television and the Internet are essentials for city-dwellers without being considered a sign of "Westernization," but rather posing questions as to a unique, non-Western identity.

Since the attacks of 11 September 2001 in New York, many things have changed in the USA as well. The declared "clash of civilizations" has changed the land of individual liberty and the culture of critical faculties. Shirin Neshat's response to these changes has been seismographic. As an artist with a transnational education and consciousness located within Western discourses, who has played an important intermediary role between Western and Iranian, or Islamic, culture, she has an unusually clear view of the vulnerabilities of a particular society.

In a certain sense, "Mahdokht" and "Zarin" are strange and new in her oeuvre, since Shirin Neshat refuses to fulfill any "orientalist" expectations. Both films are produced entirely in color; Zarin is structured like a feature film and includes spoken language. The frequently cited dualisms of black and white, male and female, are abandoned by Shirin Neshat in favor of a style closer to magic realism.

In "Mahdokht" the camera emerges from graywhite surroundings and travels along a clear and lively stream, passing through an opening in a clay wall into a luxuriant, green garden. At the beginning and again at the end she is shown floating, like Ophelia in a white gown, dead upon the still and shallow water as though sleeping; swathes of mist cover her like a veil. Children and the young Mahdokht play in a fertile, paradisiacal landscape and Mahdokht is consumed by the thought of knitting an inordinate amount of children's garments with yellow wool. She wishes she had a thousand pairs of hands in order to carry out her mission. At an almost crazy speed she knits with the yellow yarn strewn throughout the surrounding landscape while hordes of children frolic around. "Mahdokht" features an almost surreal ambiguity, though it refers to an infertile civilization in search of revitalization - here in the image of a woman (Mahdokht) obsessed by fertility. Mahdokht, the mother of civilization, Mother Earth and the vitality of the garden, has drawn the wrong threads together and ha departed from life in a state of despair. What remains are lichen and seeds with which she will spread herself across the world.

In the novella by Shahrnush Parsipur Mahdokht wishes she could turn into a tree: "She wanted to grow on the riverbank with leaves... She would give her new leaves to the wind, a garden full of Mahdokhts... She would become thousands and thousands of branches... She wanted to, and it is always desire that drives one to madness. [11]

The central place in both the novella and the film is the garden, for the garden is a motif of major importance in the Islamic world. Islam and Iran are renowned for their gardens which embody a stark contrast to the seemingly infinite expanse of the desert and offer something of a reflection of the garden of paradise. The idea that a human being in a garden can become a tree is a widespread metaphor in Iranian mythology which stands for the human being's rootedness within the community. The transformation of a woman into a tree would allow her to found a new society, a female society and to be included in a community. She would not be coerced into adopting a passive role, or forced into a private, shielded domain of society. Rather she would become the active figure in determining her own way of life.

Zarin is a young woman who has been working as a prostitute since childhood and who suddenly sees her clients without faces. Afraid of going crazy and of being punished for her sins she flees the brothel, in order to wash herself clean at the hamam. But here she finds no redemption and runs off again veiled in a light-colored chador through the town to a mosque where the Ashura rituals are taking place. [12] "But prayer does not help her either and she runs out of the city into an uncertain future. The portrayal of Zarin is, in view of the almost schizophrenic situation in which she finds herself as a (child) prostitute serving countless clients in a country in which the concept of the Islamic state keeps women sequestered behind the chador, since they are not supposed to display their feminine charms, and are supposed instead to adhere to the strict rules as interpreted from the Koran in their facial expressions, gestures and behavior, a highly taboo subject.

As with all of Shirin Neshat's works, the "Women without Men" cycle has been and will continue to be produced in close collaboration with her Iranian friends. The backward glance is not always easy. Every exile or immigrant carries an extraordinary sense of loss inside her- or himself and the memories have a certain life of their own. Those who have left their cultural homeland carry it inside them and have a very individual perspective on the country they inhabit now. And because they bear several identities at once, they are also able to contribute special points of view. Shirin Neshat has made a considerable contribution towards creating an atmosphere in which the rules of play concerning identity have been changed - because she has always maintained a fine balance between loyalty towards and the confession of the roots of her work without becoming ethnographic. With each new work she has developed a new and adequate language which can be understood throughout the world because she takes up profoundly human issues and transports universal values. With her doubts about civilization as implied in "Mahdokht", Neshat takes up a global, highly topical discussion which cannot be divided along according to "West" and "East".


  1. Lutz Niethammer, Axel Doßmann, "Kollektive Identität. Heimliche Quellen einer unheimlichen Konjunktur", Reinbek bei Hamburg, 2000.
  2. Kwame Anthony Appiah, "The Ethics of Identity", Princeton University Press, Princeton, Oxford, 2005, pp. 217-18.
  3. "Shirin Neshat", exh. cat., Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna 2000, p. 10.
  4. Cf. Hamid Dabashi, "Women without Headaches". In: "Schirin Neshat", ed. Britta Schitz & Beatrice E. Stammer, exh. cat., Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof - Museum für Gegenwart - Berlin, Berlin, 2005, pp. 67-84.
  5. One only has to look at the numerous book covers or title pages or feature stories in some of the better journals published over the past ten years in the German-speaking world alone, journals in which the "Orient" plays even the smallest role, in order to recognise that illustrations from the "Women of Allah" series seem to be indispensable.
  6. Shirin Neshat in conversation with Octavio Zaya, quoted from . "Inklusion Exklusion: Kunst im Zeitalter von Postkolonialismus und globaler Migration", exh. cat., Künstlerhaus Graz, Graz 1996, p. 289.
  7. Cf. Ruth Noack, "Produktive Dualismen", in; "Shirin Neshat", exh. cat., Kunsthalte Wien, Vienna 2000, p. 30-40.
  8. "Ornament und Abstraktion. Kunst der Kulturen, Moderne und Gegenwart im Dialog", exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basle 2001, p. 218.
  9. Shahrnush Parsipur, "Women without Men", trans. Kamran Talatoff & Jocelyn Sharlet, The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, New York 2004.
  10. Shirin Neshat has meanwhile been able to exhibit her work in Iran. "Mahdokht" was shown as part of a group exhibition entitled "Gardens of Persia: Old Wisdom, New Visions" held at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Tehran in 2004.
  11. Shahrnush Parsipur, "Women without Men", op. cit., pp. 11-12.
  12. Ashura processions take place on the anniversary of the death of Hossein. Hossein was murdered in an unjust war by an Arab tyrant in the year 656 near Karbala. Hossein's martyrdom plays a vital role in the Shiite Islamic tradition. During the three-day ceremony mourning elegies are recited, and people sleep overnight in the vicinity of the mosque. The women cook and distribute food among the needy. The vision of Hossein's redeeming suffering has been used as the symbol of Iranian fate since the 16th century.

Britta Schmitz

Senior Curator at the Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin. She has worked for the National Gallery since 1983 with a focus on art after 1945.

© Text: Britta Schmitz.
Published with the friendly permission of the author. The text appears in the exhibition's publication:

1 October - 4 December 2005

Hamburger Bahnhof

Museum für Gegenwart - Berlin

Invalidenstr. 50-51
10557 Berlin


Dr. Britta Schmitz

Beatrice E. Stammer



"The Photographic Orient"

5 November 2005

10 am - 6 pm

Hamburger Bahnhof


Concept: Britta Schmitz & Alexandra Karentzos



Shirin Neshat.

Ed. Britta Schmitz & Beatrice E. Stammer, Berlin and Göttingen, 2005. See the data below the text.

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