Image by Chris Barbalis


Caterina Tridenti

Eyes permanently rimmed with traditional black kohl, bold jewelry and hair tightly pulled back into a copious bun, Shirin Neshat has frequently been compared to Cleopatra. The famous Iranian visual artist, photographer and film-maker is able to hold together harmoniously the ancient and the contemporary, tradition and innovation; this dichotomy reflects both in her looks and in her art. Shirin states, “my work is always about a balance: I use my own hands to write old-fashioned, traditional calligraphy. I’m very interested in this fusion between the old and the new”. 
The Iranian artist is well known for her oneiric, dream-like explorations of the roles assigned to women in society and for her provocative expression of Islam and gender relations. Dipping into her experience and roots to find inspiration, she analyses the political, societal and ideological divergence between the West and the Middle East. Through the beauty and romantic lyricism of her installations she conveys important messages and touches upon current controversial matters, mainly highlighting and underlining the figure of women under assault in a world dominated by men. She spares no critique to any type of society: from the Muslim one, which represents her roots and home, to the Western one, which has hosted her and embraced her disruptive artworks for over 44 years. 
Shirin Neshat grew up in a middle-class Muslim family on the outskirts of the conservative Qazvin, a small city 150 kilometers from Teheran and was brought up embracing the double identity of Persian and Muslim, celebrating the Persian heritage and cultivating the Muslim tradition. Shirin left Iran 1975 to complete her education in the United States. She had planned to return back home, not fully fitting in the completely different environment of California, but then in 1979 the Iranian Revolution and subsequent fall of the shah left her stranded in a society that she felt did not belong to her, unable to return home and separated from her family. This exile fueled a sense of longing and unhappiness, which she was able to channel into her artworks, where the tie to her tradition and origins remained strong and unalienable. 
She attributes her fist success to Women of Allah (1993 – 1997) a series of black and white photographs, depicting “shocking, highly sexualized images of veiled women holding weapons”, their skin covered with Islamic poetry written in Farsi: a visual union of Iranians’ dual identity as both Persians and Islamists. This first work generated much criticism and allowed her voice to become unmistakably relevant among artists and activists. Her provocative images, through an oxymoronic mixture of absurdity and hyperrealism, revealed how the 1979 Revolution had at the same time oppressed and empowered women. The artist states that people in the western world “have this idea that all Iranian women are poor, suffering victims. Actually, it’s the opposite: the women in Iran are the most radical, the most confrontational, the most vocal, the most challenging individuals in the community. The more you’re against the wall, the more creative and inventive you become in how to break the rules.” 
Recurring theme in her art is the battle between the interior dimension and the exterior norms and societal expectations, which women everywhere from the Middle East to the West are continuously fighting. Neshat introspectively analyzes this contrast by placing herself under the lenses in Soliloquy (1999), a split-screen installation in which Shirin herself adorned with a chador moves between two opposing cultures that are both inevitably part of her life: on one screen she navigates a Western country and simultaneously on the other screen she is in a Middle Eastern one. 
Shirin Neshat recognizes that her art is deeply and irrevocably influenced by her upbringing, her inner source of creativity is rooted in the Iranian culture: “There’s a culture of poetry in Iran, and we are all deeply poetic in the way that we express ourselves. There’s a lot of longing, there’s a lot of nostalgia”. 
The disruptive artist explores the place and role of women in modern societies, their search for freedom from repression, however she herself discourages the label “feminist artist”, as she states that there are uncountable male artists who choose to analyze and focus on the problems that men face, without being labeled in a certain way. Equally, she does not want to be defined or labeled as anything but an artist, “I focus on problems, on things unsaid that I know of and that I have lived through, but I do not accept labels”. 
Thus, without labels, hers is the story of a woman representing other women.