Color photograph

Shirin Neshat captures the weight of the soul in her portraiture, its conflicts, violence and virtue. Her subjects are Iranian and Middle Eastern people facing the impossible choice between remaining in a nation where their government oppresses them or fleeing to an environment that is unfamiliar. In stark black and white, their tribulations meet the viewer’s gaze through Neshat’s masterful works.

It’s no surprise that Neshat is continually pushing her photographic talent onto the silver screen. After numerous video installations such as the trilogy of Turbulent, Rapture and Fervor, she won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2009 for her feature Women Without Men. Now she is preparing to film another epic feature, The Voice of Egypt, about the iconic singer Umm Kalthum. She’s also embarking on an entirely new endeavor; Neshat has been collaborating with the Dutch National Ballet on The Tempest, which premieres June 18.

Last January, Neshat received the Crystal Award from the World Economic Forum. In the same month, she released a new series of photographs, Our House is on Fire, which focuses on families that lost loved ones during the recent Egyptian uprising. The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation presented these works in January, and the proceeds went to charity. Neshat knows how to keep busy.

Shirin Neshat is a radical artist with an unusually humble personality, one of many beautiful contradictions surrounding her work. She has not felt safe to return to her home country for almost 20 years. This self-imposed exile has lead Neshat into a nomadic lifestyle. Although New York is her home base, she travels frequently to Middle Eastern countries like Morocco, Egypt and Turkey, balancing her Eastern roots and Western experiences.

Can you talk about the opposites in your work? In your photographs, videos and films there are themes of black and white, male and female, individual and crowd.

Nature and culture.

Exactly. What is the power in these contrasts? Why is opposition such a central theme for you?
It’s something inherent in me. I see everything with a sense of duality. I don’t believe in absolutes. My work is a projection of who I am — the strength, fragility, masculinity, femininity. It comes from how I see the world.

Many of your portraits feature individuals who are very direct; they’re often breaking the third wall, and the expressions are really amazing. How do you work with your models to get the right emotion?

I look for faces that have a timeless quality; they’re both contemporary but could be really ancient. I try to capture an emotional simplicity, a gaze with emotions underneath. Not many people can deliver that. But since directing Women Without Men, it’s easier for me to coach people. It’s difficult to find models who are not just beautiful in terms of vanity but beautiful on a deeper level.

B&W RC print and ink (photo taken by Cynthia Preston) 

Do you like being photographed?

Actually, I really dislike it! It’s funny, because you wonder who you are, and then you see yourself in a photograph and you think, “That’s who I am?” And I get confused. When someone’s taking my photograph, I suddenly feel like I’m playing a role to look better. My narcissism and self-consciousness comes to the front. So, in a way, I think it’s better just to think of who you are but not to see it.

Your works often include a political element, like the photographs in Women of Allah, which depict models as the female revolutionaries who decided to take arms during the Iranian Revolution, but you’re hesitant to identify as an activist or a feminist. Why is that?

My work is a response to existential issues and experiences in my own life more than anything else. I’m a woman, so I make work about being a woman, and I don’t know if that qualifies me as being a feminist. Or, just because I touch the question of politics, does that make me an activist? I’m not ashamed of these things; I care deeply about both issues, but I feel it’s wrong to categorize myself in these ways because my driving force is not there. It’s from something primal and personal, nothing to do with the world. I’m not an ideological person. I’m not willing to point fingers or give directives, although it’s clear that I’m against the Iranian government.

So, you don’t want to get boxed in by these labels. Your work transcends them?

I really hope so, because I think that is the priority, that the work speaks for itself, but people want more! I would much rather be quiet and just speak through my work. 

You often incorporate Farsi text into photographs, and you’ve called it your signature. In your most recent work, Our House is on Fire, it appears much differently. It’s more engrained into their faces.

Yes. They’re tiny, tiny, tiny. In the photographs it’s hard to see, but it comes out when you see them in person. They took weeks to complete, but their faces were so powerful and emotional that I didn’t want the graphic text to be fighting with their expressions, so I purposely made it very small. For me, poetry is about the soul. I think the ego shows itself more in a rational state. My favorite poet is Forough Farrokhzad. She died when she was very young, but she’s amazing.

FERVOR, 2000
Production Still 

And now you’re taking on a new kind of text, Shakespeare’s The Tempest. How was it to collaborate with the Dutch National Ballet and work with dance as a medium?

I loved it because I always want to tell stories as much as possible without using language, and I’m a very nonverbal artist. I’ve often relied on human bodies and movements to tell my narratives. The choreographer, Krzysztof Pastor, specifically chose The Tempest because of the nature of my work. It is about a place of exile, invasion and colonization. There is so much magic and mysticism. Prospero sees the good and bad, the devil and the angel, within himself. They often say Shakespeare wrote this as an autobiographical text. We’ve expanded the narrative with film components and sometimes as many as five screens on stage at a time; it complements and mirrors the dancers. I don’t know if it will be good. I hope it will be good! But we’ve just done our best.

It sounds like an amazing project. And you’ve also been working on material for The Voice of Egypt for some time. Do you know when you’ll start filming?

We will start filming in early 2015. You have to move a mountain to make a movie! I’ve poured four years into writing and pre-production, and now we hope we will get all the financing.

I love the inspiration for the film. Why do you think Umm Kalthum was able to break so many boundaries? Her fans came from all different countries, economic backgrounds, religions and were united in their love for her.

First of all it’s her music, the power of her voice, the poetry in her lyrics. Her fans have a very special experience; it’s something primal, like a high, a state of ecstasy. People just fell apart at her concerts — they cried, they [were] speechless, they [didn’t] know where they [were] — so that’s the first thing. Secondly, she was a woman in a very male-dominated society, and a woman who was a nationalist. She lived through tough times in Egypt when there was war and revolution, and she was a healer for the society. Through her music, she raised money for her country, so she was a symbol for peace. And it’s amazing that there was no tragedy in her life. I was just watching a

documentary on Billie Holiday and ladies who sing the blues, and I thought it was terrible how much the film concentrated on her addictions. She did have a tragic life, she died at 44, race was a big issue for her, and men abusing her. Umm Kalthum didn’t have any of that, she didn’t have a tragic ending, and she didn’t get abused. Her popularity transcends even the stars in America because she never got broken down.

It’s popular to see female icons as fallen.

Yes, beautiful and abused. But even Michael Jackson — it’s so sad the way that Western culture builds up these myths and then destroys them slowly. And they all die young! What’s up with that? Of course a lot of artists are destructive, but in Kalthum’s case it was a really amazing phenomenon.

A bit different than the inspiration for your last film Shahrnush Parsiput, who wrote Women Without Men and was incarcerated for five years. How do you find her and other artists with banned works?

Of course there are writers who are not banned, and their work is published. My family always brings me books when we meet in Europe. There are many existential works about being a woman in Iran that have a slight sharp knife but still escape censorship. Those authors chose not to focus on politics, although there are plenty who cannot avoid it. The filmmakers, writers and artists who can’t publish in Iran are distributed by word of mouth. I’m very connected to the Iranian community all over the world, and if something great is happening, then everybody knows about it. We all have our radars on for good work.

Piracy was an important conduit for your film Women Without Men to reach your audience. How do you feel about piracy? Is it a crime?

It’s miraculous that the film was seen at all and how it was disseminated. The question of censorship made it so that Iranian people are super smart about how to get information and have access to things they otherwise wouldn’t. The sharing of information is an amazing breakthrough, not just culturally but politically. In the case of Women Without Men, I’m so grateful that someone decided to make a copy of the DVD.

To read more purchase our digital edition or hard copy

Todd Moffett