About a month ago, the Hirshhorn museum in Washington, D.C. held the closing of Shirin Neshat’s Facing History, an art exhibit that portrays many important, and inherently controversial, aspects of Iranian culture since the revolution of 1979.
Although the exhibition’s title situates the artworks in the past, this collection emerges during a longstanding dispute between the United States and Iran regarding potential nuclear threats that make the show all the more critical to our understanding of the Middle East. In revisiting photographs of Iran’s revolutions and juxtaposing them with modern portraiture, Neshat is contributing to a political dialogue that transcends modern politics and arrives at the center of Iranian culture.
Shirin Neshat, born in Iran in 1957, decided to come to the United States as a teenager to complete her education at a time when Iran was in the midst of its White Revolution, a 15-year-long attempt to westernize the country. Iran has since seen more revolutions and political conflicts that have made it difficult for Neshat to return to her country since the 90s. Her status as artist-in-exile is one that she holds with great responsibility as her art reaches audiences both in the U.S. and overseas. Facing History comprises a collection of black and white portraits as well as short films that contribute to today’s Iranian socio-political discourse by emphasizing the role of art and culture in Iran and by exploring questions of gender and martyrdom in Iran after the 1979 revolution.
These powerful themes have an even greater effect once you see one of her films or portraits in person. The photographs range in sizes, but most are life-size or larger, and tend to resemble stone or marble statues. Visitors disperse inside each room, slowly walking up to meet each frame, quietly mingling with the photographs. Portraiture is an incredibly challenging way to tell a story, but collectively, portraits have a louder message, and as you walk into a room full of adult Iranian faces that have lived through a revolution, you hear this message. Neshat’s photographs range from posed images of soldier women to cropped photos of women’s bodies with 13th century poetry written over them. She says you can “read the structure and the ideology” of a country by studying its women. In fact, the act of reading, itself, is very prominent in her photography as several of her pictures incorporate or are accompanied by poetry. For Neshat, women are the carriers of culture, and we see this message in the way she merges language and gender to present current power dynamics in Iran.
The presentation of her short films similarly reflects such distinction between men and women in the country. Turbulent is a 10-minute film divided into two separate screens that face each other in the same room. The audience stands against the two empty walls in the room while many are forced to stand between the screens and turn their heads left and right, as if viewing two different films. On one side, we see an auditorium filled with Iranian men dressed in western clothing– white collar button-downs and trousers– and one of them is on the stage, singing with his back to them as he faces us, the real audience. On the other side, we have a woman dressed in a traditional Iranian chador, but she faces an empty auditorium and is almost hidden from her actual audience. Both approach their microphones and begin to sing, first the man, then the woman. He sings a traditional Iranian song, and when he finishes, turns to the men in the auditorium and bows as they clap and cheer for his performance. As the noise dies down, it is the woman’s turn to sing and another song begins to play, but this time, the song is unknown and unintelligible– a combination of humming and gurgling sounds– so beautiful, yet completely undecipherable, that the men on the first screen are left wide-eyed and open-mouthed during the entire performance. More than confused, they seem scared of what she sings because they cannot understand it.
The film leaves us with many questions, but it is clear that the men are preaching Persian tradition as they sing this famous song, all the while exercising their liberty to dress in modern western attire. The woman, however, is completely shielded from her American audience in the gallery until she begins to sing, but although she does not sing a traditional song, she leaves a greater impact for her apparent wisdom and invented language, even if the meaning is somewhat lost among her audiences.
The use of language, therefore, is perhaps one of the most striking elements of Neshat’s exhibit. In many of her photographs, she uses verses by Rumi and tattoos them onto her photographs, so that from a distance, the script is reminiscent of ornate henna tattoos. Symbolically, these verses point to traditional Persian culture that is still embedded in Iranians today. For those who cannot read the original Persian script, Neshat also features modern poetry in English translations before each room in the exhibit as a prelude to her photographs. One of the themes in these poems was martyrdom, and Neshat’s selection by Tahreh Saffarzadeh and Mehdi Akhavan-Sales offers different views on the matter. In one poem, martyrdom is revered while in another it is criticized for its uselessness.
Neshat’s choice to include opposing beliefs and binary representations of culture is precisely what renders her artwork both a narrative and an open dialogue. This is because rather than telling her audience what to think, she provides a multidimensional reality that encompasses the Iran of the past and that of today, allowing you to be as engaged as you choose to be when forming your own opinion; she shows us clear cultural reference points from which the audience can create the spectrum.