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Features / March 15, 2017

Shirin Neshat on Exile and Feminism

In a recent Canadian talk, the exiled Iranian artist Shirin Neshat took on Trump, feminism, the art world's shortcomings and more

This wasn’t Shirin Neshat’s first time coming to Canada amid sweeping Islamophobic sentiment. In 2001, shortly after 9/11, she had a mid-career survey scheduled to open at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. She was surprised, she said, that the museum not only didn’t cancel her exhibition, but also used it as a platform for discussion about misconceptions of Muslims in North America.

Fast-forward to March 8, 2017— International Women’s Day—and Neshat was back in Canada, to present the Shenkman Lecture at the University of Guelph. She began her lecture by addressing the elephant in the room: since the Trump administration has issued and re-issued travel bans targeting Muslim countries and their citizens in diaspora, Neshat said, “It’s amazing to see [America’s] only immediate ally, neighbour and friend has taken the extremely opposite position.” The crowd roared in applause.

Neshat commended Canada for the compassion it has shown Syrian refugees, and said that her “tremendous respect for this nation, for what it stands for, its moral values and sense of responsibility to give a hand to Muslim immigrants” compelled her to return to North America only to give this lecture. “So thank you, Canada, and thank you, Canadians, for having a society that is so just,” Neshat told the auditorium. “I only wish my two countries—Iran and America—were as good as yours, but I’m afraid to say that we’re not in such great condition.”

Neshat left Iran to study in the US in 1975, and has mostly lived there since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Her life in exile and nostalgia for a home she was officially banned from in 1996 informed her earliest bodies of work. In retrospect, she can see her obsession with narrating Iranian history in an allegorical way in her work. Women of Allah (1993–97) denounced the 1979 Revolution and the effects of its religious fanaticism on Iranian women; Women Without Men (2009) was set during the pro-American, anti-Communist Iranian coup d’état of 1953; and Book of Kings (2012) depicts the young Iranians of the Green Movement of 2009, during which protesters demanded the resignation of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But she wants people to see in her recent and future work that she’s finally arrived at a point where the narratives have transcended beyond Iran, that she’s “finally moved on,” and that she’s even lost “that incredible desire to go back.” “The good news is: I’m over that,” said Neshat. “I’m sorry.”

Nonetheless, whatever geographic vantage point she chooses is still from the perspective of an Iranian artist. Her formal choices have been almost as nomadic as her life. She started with still photography, then moved onto video installation, cinema and performance, and she is now working on an opera for the first time—none of which she has ever been trained in.

And while she says that the content of her work has evolved tremendously over the years, some things are constant, and her work is still deeply personal. “Contrary to what most people think, that it’s a socio-political reading of Iranian society or the Muslim world and Muslim women, that’s really not true,” Neshat said. “Actually, my work is deeply rooted in my experience as a human being, as an Iranian who left Iran, and has been living the life that I have. Therefore, the characters, the narratives, are entirely based on and embody who I am and the question of exilic experience.”

“But my work is not autobiographical,” she cautioned. “My work has a personal perspective, but it cares a lot about the world. It’s my personal existential anxiety met with my sociopolitical anxieties about the world, which very immediately affects and defines the life that I live. That’s why they become so urgent. When President Trump decides that Iranians cannot enter or exit the US, it immediately threatens my life: where do I go? But even though I have lived outside and have no problem with censorship or lack of freedom of expression, I still work within a particular parameter that is not so overtly expressive: with poetic language everything becomes very subversive.”

Some departures she’s made in her work: a foray into cinema in the late-2000s that was driven by art-world claustrophobia; another one with her upcoming feature-length film about an Iranian filmmaker attempting to make a biographical film of 20th-century Egyptian pop singer and legend Umm Kulthum; filming Dreamers (2016) in upstate New York and photographing its white American inhabitants, whose “Western faces” she said were “very difficult” to capture. And since the prints aren’t inscribed with her signature Farsi calligraphy, she half-joked, “I’m sure they will not sell.”

I was unable to arrange an interview with Neshat since, as the press representative told me, she had to “cut her visit short because of an issue outside the country.” But during the Q&A segment after the lecture, I felt compelled to ask her about a comment she had made in passing earlier, about not identifying as a feminist.

“I have a problem with descriptions like that,” Neshat admitted. “If a man makes work about men, he’s a masculinist? I feel there is a certain amount of responsibility when you say, ‘I’m a feminist.’ What does that mean? I’m not competing with men. I’m not interested to be a man. I’m just interested in expressing and exploring women’s issues. Does that make me a feminist?”

Several people in the crowd yelled, “Yes!”

“Okay, fine. I am,” she immediately conceded. “It took me years to figure out whether I am a feminist or not so thank you, you helped me a lot.”

When I was a teenager, Neshat was one of the only contemporary Middle Eastern artists on the international stage. During her lecture, she said that she reached a point where she was tired of presenting the narrative of the exiled nostalgic Iranian, and that her exhaustion with the art world and desire to leave it led her to make cinema that could reach broader audiences. I asked her whether these “I’m over it” instances had anything to do with the way it seemed that the art world had positioned her as a singular figure of a Middle Eastern woman who ought to be a sort of representative, especially before Charles Saatchi “unveiled” contemporary Middle Eastern artists in 2009 who employed much of the same iconography—women in veils, calligraphy, deserts—that had by then come to be Neshat’s signature.

“I’ve been criticized, even by Iranian people, who’d say, ‘Oh, she lives outside Iran, how does she dare to make work about Iran?’” Neshat responded. “And my argument was, ‘You can take an Iranian out of Iran but you cannot take Iran out of the Iranian.’ But with regard to this idea that people didn’t understand my work: I was never really interested in the truth or capturing anything in a documentary manner. My work is very conceptual and very humanistic, and my work departed from Iran to target subjects that were universal.

“When you’re someone like me, who doesn’t quite belong to anywhere anymore, there is this absence of authenticity, and an absence of interest on my part to be [an informant], and I could go anywhere and not claim to be of it, but do my best to comprehend and present what it is. So that was my revelation—‘Look! I can belong to the world’—and that is the description of a nomadic artist. It’s too painful to forever be tied to a country that you are detached from. And I did really suffer a great deal, on a personal level, from not being able to go [home], and that transformed into anger to then resignation. This is my personal trajectory.”

“As for your second question,” she continued, “I never felt that I was mistreated in the art world. Quite the opposite: I always felt that I was respected, even though the work was sometimes misunderstood and it was my task to defend it—”

“Or to translate it, perhaps?” I interjected.

“No, because the question of translation is a very peculiar one,” said Neshat. “For example, you could never translate African art to Western people the same way that African people understand it. The work of art should resonate regardless of who is looking at it, so it would be my fault if the work doesn’t resonate to Westerners. But it’s still not my job to translate.

“There are certain nuances of the work that will never be understood by certain groups of people, and Iranian people would understand my work very differently than you would or someone else would, so I’ve never been bothered by that. I felt that they embraced me. I never felt racially targeted. In fact, I could say that as a woman Middle Eastern artist I’ve been treated really well. But I think that career longevity is not in other people’s hands. It’s in your own, and how you navigate the decision not to depend on the art world as the only source.”

The woman who asked the question after mine, an emerging Iranian poet who finds it difficult to write about anything aside from her hybrid identity, sought Neshat’s advice on how to navigate the chasm between home and diaspora. “Look within, not without,” Neshat said. “I sound like a guru or something.”

After the lecture was over, many of the Iranian audience members ambushed the artist for selfies and autographs. As critic Robert Enright, who had introduced her, tried to whisk her away from them after their repeated pleas for “one last selfie,” he said, “I’m not used to handling a rock star.”

“I’m not a rock star,” Neshat countered. “I’m Iranian.”

Merray Gerges

Merray Gerges writes around art rather than about it. She studied art history at NSCAD and journalism at King’s in Halifax, where she co-founded and co-edited CRIT, a free biannual criticism publication. Her reporting and criticism have appeared in Canadian ArtC MagazineMOMUS, Hyperallergic and more, addressing issues ranging from the radical potential (and shortcomings) of intersectional feminist memes and art selfies, to art-world race politics. At Canadian Art, she was editorial resident in 2016, and assistant editor from 2017 to 2019. She's currently the editorial fellow at C Magazine.