Shirin Neshat: Iranian Exile & Artist
Shirin Neshat is an artist who both in her life and her work reflects the global transformations that took place in the last decades of the 20th century. Never before has the number of inter-cultural art-ists employing their works to embark on a dialogue on sex, race, nationality, ethnicity, religion and language, been so great.
With her photographs, films and video installations, Shirin Neshat has been able to place herself in the foremost rank, and today she belongs to the absolute elite on the interna-tional artistic stage. Shirin Neshat was born in 1957 in the old cultural centre of Qazvin a good 100 kilometres north-west of the Iranian capital of Teheran. It is a town of classical, Islamic architecture close to the Silk Road – the trade route that formerly linked China with Europe. The Neshat family, in which the father was a doctor, supported the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, in his efforts to modernise and westernise Iran. They were sufficiently affluent and receptive to the idea of sending the family´s five children to the West to be educated.
At the age of 17, Shirin Neshat was sent for a period of study in the USA. Her goal was the University of Berkeley near San Francisco, where she took an MFA in painting in 1983. Ayatolla Khomeini´s Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, which deprived the Shah of power and in-troduced a theocratic government by clerics, prevented Shirin Neshat from returning home. During the 1980s she moved to New York and according to her own account quickly dropped painting.
Her status as an Iranian exile in the USA was at that time filled with conflict and allowed no room for creativity or artistic activity. So she took on the directorship of the alternative, non-profit-making “Storefront for Art and Architecture” gallery in SoHo, New York, which was owned by her then husband, the Korean-born architect and concept artist Kyong Park. Not until 1990 – after the death of Khomeini – was Neshat again able to visit Iran. And it was a shocking and merciless experience.
In the 1970s she had left a secular, relatively westernised soci-ety. But a decade of political, social, religious and cultural change had left a closed land with a war-torn, divided population, and with women in an increasingly marginalised position. The public arena now belonged to the men and the clerics, while the women´s world had largely been limited to the private sphere – the home.
When women moved outside the walls of their home it was an indis-pensable requirement that they should be dressed in the traditional Iranian chador – the black dress that only leaves the face, hands and feet visible. During the following years, Neshat returned to Iran on several occasions, and in 1993 – after a break of almost ten years – she again felt ready to work as an active creative artist.
This time, however, she did not turn to painting, but to the media with which she has subsequently made her worldwide reputation, that is to say photography and later film. The physical and mental distance from her na-tive land has exerted a great influence on her potential for placing a thematic focus on conflict-filled, complex subjects such as feminism, identity and Islam. Iran´s historically speaking enor-mously rich Islamic culture has formed the basis of Neshat´s work, but her many years in the West have also left their traces.