Iranian filmmaker Shirin Neshat has addressed a packed hall at the American University in Cairo for her first public speech in a Muslim country. She drew parallels between the Iranian and Egyptian revolutions and dissected her identity as an artist.
Neshat has received worldwide acclaim for her poetic films and photographs, which are often subversively themed and probe questions around religion and gender roles in contemporary Iran and the Middle East. Her debut feature film entitled Women Without Men (2009) earned her a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
The work of Neshat is submerged in two dichotomous elements. On the one hand, it cannot escape the political undertones dictated by her roots and her life in exile, and on the other, it mirrors the culture of poetry and mysticism typical of her Persian culture.
“The conflict between poetics and politics…that is what my work is about,” Neshat says.
“Poetry is the most subversive way to communicate,” she adds. And that sense of aesthetic rebellion is transferred into the artist’s visual language.
During the talk, Neshat screened two of her films, and talked the audience through the evolution of her artistic career.
One of the films is called Turbulent. In black and white, the screen is split in two, with on one side a man singing with vigour, his back to an audience. On the other is a woman, veiled from head to toe, with her back to the camera and empty chairs. After a rapturous performance by the man, the woman is given a chance to perform. But she does not sing. What comes out of her lips is more like a hymn or a wail.
This highly stylised and poetic yet minimalist video tackles the cultural exchange (or the lack thereof) between men and women. As Neshat explains, “it attempts to trigger the question, how does a woman find a way of musical expression without an audience… since women are not allowed to perform in public in Iran.”
Neshat feels that she does not have the luxury to choose, like Western artists do, whether to be a political artist. Yet she is not entirely bound by politicised narratives. Her work is autobiographical in a way, and entrenched in poetry.
After working with photography for years, juxtaposing her black and white images with calligraphy from poetry, the artist discovered filmmaking. “It was eye-opening…I moved to a realm of possibilities where photos could move,” she says.
In moving pictures, Neshat tackles taboos in Iranian society such as questions of desire, temptation, and sexuality.
Neshat emphasised the importance of being an artist in today’s turbulent world, declaring that it is the work of artists, not politicians that goes down in history. “Art is about maintaining the human spirit,” she says defiantly.
The artist says Iranian and Egyptian politics and culture have an “uncanny similarity,” especially in light of the cultural wealth emerging in the aftermath of the Green Revolution and the January 25 Revolution respectively.
“Any country that has gone through tremendous political upheaval, you see great art is produced…as a form to inspire people, to provoke argument and to mobilise them.”
Neshat says her work is deeply personal: “If you take the personal part out of it, it is meaningless.”
Her body of work is adorned with questions, and reflects her ongoing struggles as a woman, an Iranian, and an artist. She basks in the opportunity to constantly reinvent her art, which she attributes to the multi-media world of today.
“I am nomadic,” she declares. The artist travels from one country to the other, and experiments with one medium then another in pursuit of her art, and in pursuit of a home.
Neshat is currently taking refuge in Cairo while working on a film about the iconic singer Umm Kalthoum. The Iranian artist speaks of her with undeniable adoration. “It’s a story that has to be told,” she says.
Neshat has been inspired by how Umm Kalthoum was universally loved, and her ability to move people towards spiritual ecstasy.
Despite the strong artwork she produces, Neshat admits that she often feels fragile. Being separated from her home may have boosted her artistic career, yet it is a constant source of melancholy.
The Iranian artist says she creates art in black and white because “colour is too pretty.” She smiles, “I’m into duality, opposites…and black and white captures that.”
But there is another aspect that influences her monochromatic art, and shaped her identity as an artist. “After the Islamic Revolution in Iran…there was no colour left on the street.”