04
Jun

Shirin Neshat Exhibition Provokes Reflection for Iranian and Western Viewers

June 4, 2015, Washington D.C. – The artwork of acclaimed Iranian artist, Shirin Neshat, is making its first solo appearance in Washington, DC at the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum. The exhibition, entitled “Shirin Neshat: Facing History,” tells the story of definitive moments in recent Iranian history through Neshat’s iconic portraits and haunting short films, provoking both Western and Iranian audiences to reflect on the meaning of the artwork.

The exhibition begins with Neshat’s most popular collection, the “Women of Allah” series, completed in 1997.These black and white portraits of veiled and sometimes gun-clad women explore the theme of womanhood following the Islamic revolution and the Iran-Iraq War. The calligraphy painted on their hands and faces adds a layer of complexity to Neshat’s artwork by forcing the viewer to take a closer look at the portrait and read their faces.

Long-time friend and lauded poet, Roya Hakkakian, argues that Neshat’s calligraphic portraits create a bridge at which Eastern and Western viewers meet. According to Hakkakian, Neshat’s calligraphic portraits force the Iranian viewer, who is typically not as comfortable with the visual arts as with literature, to pause and reflect on the writing on their faces. In the same vein, the writing upon the faces compels a Western viewer to think more deeply about the images of the veiled women which they are more likely to passively dismiss upon first glance.

“The bridge that Shirin made was to make space for a generation of Iranians that could otherwise be abandoned by the visual arts, creating a mélange of two genres – of words and of images – so that we can be hooked by the images,” said Hakkakian at the Wilson Center panel discussion in May.“The same “trick” works on a Western audience but for completely different reasons. A Western viewer can look at an image of a veiled woman and completely dismiss her but now can no longer dismiss her because upon the pages of her face there are scripts that the viewers cannot read. The Iranian viewer gets hooked and becomes comfortable through the familiar to then understand the unfamiliar. Whereas the Westerner, who is more comfortable with the visual imagery but can easily dismiss and walk away, is now somewhat intimidated or hooked in a different way by the mysterious codes that are there upon the image.”

The Smithsonian exhibition also features portraits from Neshat’s more recent artistic ventures such as her “Book of Kings” series, a tribute to the Iranian Green Movement of 2009, and “Our House is on Fire” recalling the Egyptian revolution during the Arab Spring. Spliced between these collections are features of Neshat’s black and white short films exploring gender issues and socio-cultural norms in the Islamic Republic.  

For Neshat, art is the answer to understanding the new Iran that emerged following the 1979 Islamic revolution. Neshat was born in Iran, but moved to the United States when she was seventeen years old. After finishing her education in the US, she was able to visit her homeland during the early 1990s.

“It was probably one of the most shocking experiences that I have ever had,” said Neshat in an interview with Linda Weintraub, author of several books on contemporary art. “The difference between what I had remembered from the Iranian culture and what I was witnessing was enormous. The change was both frightening and exciting; I had never been in a country that was so ideologically based. Most noticeable, of course, was the change in people’s physical appearance and public behavior.”

Neshat used her artwork as a medium in gaining a better understanding of the dramatic socio-cultural changes she saw in her country. Her artistic expressions, layered in complexity and nuance, have captivated Iranians and Westerners alike for decades.

Shirin Neshat: Facing History will be on exhibition at the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum until September 20, 2015.

Click here to learn more about the exhibit.

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