Shirin Neshat: Facing History exhibition in Washington

Friday 24/07/2015
Women of the Revolution

Washington - The pictures and installa­tions of Iranian-American artist Shirin Neshat at Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum remind the visi­tor of Iran’s omnipresence in Wash­ington these days. But it is a differ­ent Iran that Neshat presents to the US public.

An Iranian exile who has lived in the United States since her early teenage years, Neshat explores Iran through the relations of power, gender, coups, war and the revolu­tion that obliterated her life and the lives of millions of other Iranians. The result is a haunting story told — and not always in a positive way — by camera and verses interwo­ven about a people and a place that is perplexing the Middle East and much of the world.

The exhibit surveys 20 years of Neshat’s work. It follows a histori­cal sequence, starting with the coup against prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953, through the Ira­nian revolution of 1979 and the green revolution and “Arab spring” of this century. Neshat treats the popular uprisings in the Arab world and the Iranians’ green revolution as one; she says the green revolu­tion led to the “Arab spring“.

More than 60 years of Iranian his­tory are revealed through pictures and poetic text, interwoven to tell the story of how theocratic Iran changed its people, especially its women.

In Neshat’s Women of Allah series, Forough Farrokhzad’s poem My Heart Grieves for the Garden is dis­played as visitors are told by exhibit material that the “garden” is an im­portant symbol that can “stand for captivity or freedom, exile or sanc­tuary, a transitional space or the country of Iran itself”.

In Divine Rebellion and My House is On Fire, Neshat pays tribute to the pro-democracy movements across the Middle East, especially the green revolution of 2009. The excerpts are based on the epic poem of Abol-Qassem Ferdowsi in the Shahnameh, or The Book of Kings . She says, “My work focuses on con­temporary narratives of political up­heavals, revolutions, patriotism and the fall of the tyrants.”

In men of power in the pictures are shirtless and menacing, with tattoos of battle and war all over their bodies. The museum reminds visitors that the pictures are taken from the Shahnameh, “a text that emphasises the cynical nature of rulership — and thus also serves as a reminder that no reigning power lasts forever”.

In My House is on Fire, the faces portray “the elderly and disadvan­taged in the aftermath of the 2011 Egyptian revolution”. Neshat tries to show the human dimension of the revolution: haunting pictures of the bottom of bare feet come with inscriptions of poems along with identification tags of those killed during the revolution hanging from their toes.

The accompanying poem Lament by Mehdi Akhavan Sales says:


“We are broken, and we are weary

“And instead of us you are the vic­tors

“May this defeat and this victory be wholesome to you

“However you mock our cause

“Whoever you capture, whoever you torture,

“Whatever you pillage, whatever you plunder

“Is our by your might, may it be wholesome

“But at least bury this noble body.”

Soliloquy, 1999 reflects Neshat’s personal cultural alienation and displacement. Neshat says, “Once you leave your place of birth, there’s never a complete sense of centre. You are in the state of in-between and nowhere feels completely like home.” This out-of-place alienation and lost identity are represented by a two-screen video installation with one woman travelling “between contrasting landscapes”, a meta­phor to the two worlds that shaped Neshat and tore at the base of her identity.

The Women of Allah is Neshat’s way of dealing with the Iranian theocracy that she encountered in 1990, after living abroad for 11 years. She gives a glimpse of the women of Iran and how their lives were affect­ed by the revolution. The pictures of the Women of Allah range from pow­erful to vulnerable. Neshat explains: “How a viewer, Iranian or Western, perceives the work depends to a great extent on his or her personal background and experience with Is­lam and Islamic cultures.”

Neshat commented on how “many people assume that because my work frames issues of religion and Islam, I am supporting the Ira­nian government. The opposite has also happened; some religious Irani­ans are suspicious of many images. Case in point: My work isn’t shown in Iran.”

In describing the Iranian nation, Neshat said: “We are divided into poetry and politics. We are a civi­lisation of culture and poetry, and now we are known to the world as barbarians and dictatorship.” For Neshat, the latter part is what drove her away to inhabit two disconnect­ed worlds. In her life and work this is what she faces every day.

Shirin Neshat: Facing History is at the Hirshhorn through September 20th.