Artist Shirin Neshat Captures Iran's Sharp Contrasts In Black And White

May 18, 2015
Originally published on May 18, 2015 11:22 pm

Shirin Neshat, the most famous contemporary artist to come from Iran, is playing with her rambunctious Labrador puppy in her airy Manhattan apartment. "Ashi, Ashi, come here!" she calls.

The puppy is black. Neshat's apartment is white — white floors, white bookshelves and a long, white leather couch. Black and white defines much of Neshat's work. Her photographs capture the stark contrast between women in long black chadors and men in crisp white cotton shirts. Neshat left Iran as a teenager in 1974 to attend school in Los Angeles. She did not return until 1990.

"When I went to Iran, I was not an artist yet," Neshat says modestly. In truth, she'd been deeply involved in the art world. After studying painting at the University of California, Berkeley, she co-ran a well-regarded nonprofit space for art, architecture and design in New York.

But Neshat's sense of herself as an artist changed after going back to Iran, 11 years after the Islamic Revolution transformed her country. Men no longer made eye contact with her. Cosmopolitan Tehranian women who'd worn mini-skirts during her youth had become graphic shapes on the street. Neshat processed her complicated feelings through a series of striking, staged photographs showing women in chadors, some holding guns. Neshat was not the photographer, but she conceptualized and directed the Women of Allah series, and appeared in many of them. She says it's meant to explore the dichotomy between religion, politics, violence and feminism.

That's exactly why Melissa Chiu decided to mount a Shirin Neshat retrospective as her inaugural exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Chiu is the museum's new director.

"In order to be a 21st-century museum, we have to think about the world in different ways," Chiu says. The Hirshhorn is Smithsonian's home for contemporary art. She wants it to reflect contemporary realities encompassed by Neshat's art and experience.

"This idea of being born in one place, living and working in multiple places — that is a condition that will only increase," Chiu says.

Associate curator Melissa Ho, who helped organize the exhibition, says, "Shirin really believes in the power of the artists' voice to enact change, to unsettle the powerful" — and to protest.

She points to one of Neshat's best known works of video art, Turbulent, which is featured in the Hirshhorn show. There are two screens, and you stand between them. One features a man singing a classical poem before an adoring all-male audience. On the other, a woman on an empty stage sings a wild, guttural and language-less song. It leaves the men on the other screen completely stunned.

"Her music and her presence in this room represents something rebellious," Neshat explains. "... This is indicative of how I feel about women in Iran. In the way that they are so far against the wall, but they are far more resilient and protesting and they're much more of a fighter than the men because they have much more at stake."

The same themes play out in Neshat's movie, Women Without Men, about four Tehranian women from very different class backgrounds who find themselves in a mystical garden. It's set in 1953, when the CIA helped overthrow the country's first democratically elected leader, Mohammad Mossadegh. The film earned Neshat a Silver Lion for directing at the Venice Film Festival in 2009.

"The female characters are the nonconformists," says curator Melissa Ho. "Sometimes only quietly or maybe out of sight, but they resist, and they sort of take control of their story, and they decide to defy the rules."

Much like Neshat. Her art at first was made just for her, a bridge from a place of exile. "And I never imagined that my work someday would be looked upon as a form of dialogue, larger than my own personal life," she says.

"I am not a practicing Muslim," she adds. "I consider myself a secular Muslim. I do have my faith and certain rituals that I do, and I go to mosque when I can, when I'm traveling in that part of the world. I love the sound of the Quran."

Neshat's been working in Egypt recently — shooting a new feature film about the singer Umm Kulthum, and creating a newer series of portraiture — simple, shattering shots of working-class parents in Egypt whose children were killed or arrested during the Arab Spring.

"It's really about the question of people versus tyranny," she says. "And people who fight power versus people who hold power."

Neshat wants to leverage her current considerable power in the art world to bring more voices from Iran and the Arab world into the global cultural conversation.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

An art museum on the National Mall here in Washington is turning its gaze to Iran. For her first exhibition, the Hirshhorn's new director has decided to focus on a woman who's made her home country's turbulent history the subject of high art. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more on the artist Shirin Neshat.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: She's the most famous contemporary artist to come from Iran. And right now, she's playing with her puppy in her airy Manhattan apartment.

SHIRIN NESHAT: Ashi. Ashi...

ULABY: The puppy is a rambunctious black lab. The apartment is white - white floors, bookshelves and a long, white leather couch. Neshat's most famous images contrast women in black chadors with men in crisp, white cotton shirts. Neshat left Iran as a teenager in 1974 to attend school in Los Angeles. She did not return until 1990, 11 years after the Islamic Revolution transformed her country.

NESHAT: When I went to Iran, I was not an artist yet.

ULABY: Culturally, politically, visually, Iran was completely different. Men no longer made eye contact. Women who'd worn miniskirts had become black shadows in the streets. Neshat processed her complicated feelings through a series of striking staged photographs of veiled women, some holding guns.

NESHAT: It's about this dichotomy between religion, politics, violence and feminism.

ULABY: Neshat collaborated with others to take the pictures, but she conceptualized, directed and appears in many of them. Curator Melissa Ho picked one as the show's opening image.

MELISSA HO: And it's this stunning close-up of her eye with calligraphy written on it.

ULABY: Calligraphy's often layered on the people in Shirin Neshat's photos. It falls over them like veils or it tattoos their skin. Text, says Ho, gives these silent faces a kind of voice.

HO: Shirin really believes in the power of the artist's voice to enact change, to unsettle the powerful.

ULABY: And to protest. Iran's revolutionary history defines Shirin Neshat's life and much of her art.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WOMEN WITHOUT MEN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As protesters, chanting in foreign language).

ULABY: That's from a movie Neshat directed called "Women Without Men." It follows four Tehranian women it from very different class backgrounds in 1953 when the CIA helped overthrow the country's first democratically-elected leader. The movie earned Neshat the top directing award at Venice Film Festival in 2009 and helped cement her reputation in the art world.

HO: She's a big art star (laughter).

ULABY: Hirshhorn curator Melissa Ho.

HO: It's not every artist who's featured, you know, in Harper's Bazaar looking incredibly glamorous.

ULABY: Neshat is a master of image, says Ho. She points to one of Neshat's works of video art in the exhibition. It's two screens. You stand between them. On one, a woman's on stage in a completely deserted theater. The other shows a theater filled with applauding men.

NESHAT: A man comes in, a typical Iranian man with white shirt, and he sings this very passionate classic music.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "TURBULENT")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).

ULABY: When he finishes, the woman on the other screen starts singing in her empty theater.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "TURBULENT")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing).

ULABY: Her music lacks language. It's wild and guttural. Women are not allowed to sing in public in Iran. The men on the other screen seem completely stunned.

NESHAT: Her music and her presence in this room, it represents something rebellious by having a voice that is victorious to the man. So to me, this is kind of indicative of how I feel about women in Iran and the way that they're so far against the wall, but they're far more resilient and protesting, and they're much more of a fighter than the men because they have much more at stake.

ULABY: Women in Shirin Neshat's work are the nonconformists, says Melissa Ho.

HO: Sometimes only quietly or maybe out of sight, but they resist, and they sort of take control of their story, and they decide to defy the rules.

ULABY: Much like Shirin Neshat. Her art at first was made just for her, a bridge from a place of exile.

NESHAT: And I never imagined that my work someday would be looked upon as a form of dialogue larger than my own personal life.

ULABY: Instead, it's found audiences across countries and ideologies. That's why the Hirshhorn Museum's new director, Melissa Chiu, chose Shirin Neshat for Chiu's first major exhibition.

MELISSA CHIU: This idea of being born in one place, living, working in multiple places - that is a condition which will only increase.

ULABY: And Neshat's take on globalism, gender and power makes a statement about Chiu's vision for the Smithsonian Institution's home for contemporary art.

CHIU: In order to be a truly 21st-century museum, we have to think about the world in different ways.

ULABY: Even though Shirin Neshat's artistic path was sparked by a response to theocracy, Chiu says she doesn't see Neshat as an Islamic artist. Shirin Neshat agrees.

NESHAT: I am not a practicing Muslim. I am a - consider myself a secular Muslim. I do have my faith, and I do have certain rituals that I do. And I go to the mosque when I can when I'm traveling in that part of the world.

ULABY: A recent series shows simple, shattering portraits of working-class parents in Egypt whose children were killed or arrested during the Arab Spring.

NESHAT: It's really about the question of people versus tyranny and people who fight power versus people who hold power.

ULABY: Shirin Neshat wants to leverage her power in the art world to bring more voices from Iran and the Arab world into global conversations. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.