Iranian Shirin Neshat: Our artists are at risk
Shirin Neshat has lived much of her life outside her native Iran. Her photographs and films offer a glimpse of the cultural, religious and political realities that shape the identities of Muslim women worldwide.
In December 2010, TED posted this talk by Shirin Neshat in which she illustrates the challenges she faces as well as the stimuli from which she draws empowerment and inspiration as an Iranian woman artist living in exile.
“If you’re living in Iran, you’re facing censorship, harassment, arrest, torture — at times, execution. If you’re living outside, like me, you’re faced with life in exile — the pain of the longing and the separation from your loved ones and your family. Therefore, we don’t find the moral, emotional, psychological and political space to distance ourselves from the reality of social responsibility.
Oddly enough, an artist such as myself finds herself also in the position of being the voice, the speaker of my people, even if I have, indeed, no access to my own country. Also, people like myself, we’re fighting two battles on different grounds. We’re being critical of the West, the perception of the West about our identity — about the image that is constructed about us, about our women, about our politics, about our religion. We are there to take pride and insist on respect. And at the same time, we’re fighting another battle. That is our regime, our government — our atrocious government, [that] has done every crime in order to stay in power. Our artists are at risk. We are in a position of danger. We pose a threat to the order of the government.
But ironically, this situation has empowered all of us, because we are considered, as artists, central to the cultural, political, social discourse in Iran. We are there to inspire, to provoke, to mobilize, to bring hope to our people. We are the reporters of our people, and are communicators to the outside world. Art is our weapon. Culture is a form of resistance. I envy sometimes the artists of the West for their freedom of expression. For the fact that they can distance themselves from the question of politics. From the fact that they are only serving one audience, mainly the Western culture. But also, I worry about the West, because often in this country, in this Western world that we have, culture risks being a form of entertainment. Our people depend on our artists, and culture is beyond communication.”
Shirin Neshat has lived in the United States, in exile from her native Iran, for most of her adult life. This experience, of being caught between two cultures, dominates Neshat’s creative work: each of her pieces offers a glimpse into the complex social, religious and political realities that shape her identity – and the identities of Muslim women worldwide. She explores the paradox of being an artist in exile: a voice for her people, but unable to go home. In her work, she explores Iran pre- and post-Islamic Revolution, tracing political and societal change through powerful images of women.
Neshat’s provocative photographs, videos and multimedia installations have resonated with the curators of many major international art exhibitions, including the XLVIII Venice Biennale, where she won the top prize in 1999. Her ﬁrst feature ﬁlm, Women Without Men, tells the stories of four women struggling to escape oppression in Tehran. It won her the Silver Lion for best director at the 2010 Venice Film Festival.
“Walk into a Shirin Neshat film installation and the images seize you: big, memorable, physically beautiful, exploring the role of women in Islamic society in terms of cinematic poetry, so that even the stifling chador becomes powerfully expressive.”
The New York Times, July 15, 2002