Shirin Neshat

The exploration of the nude and naked body is not unfamiliar to the world of art. Shirin Neshat has accomplished something that most others might’ve never even considered: the exploration of the veiled body. This is something most of us are indeed unawed by in text, but in true artistic form it is something amazing. What we see is a new way to view the Muslim woman, and we are introduced with a new interpretation of their lives. Shirin Neshat is an Iranian-American artist born in Qazvin Iran in 1957. Neshat went off to the United States in 1974 to study art in Los Angeles. A year after the revolution in Iran she went to San Francisco to pursue her Bachelors degree at University of California Berkley. After graduation, she moved to New York as Iran was still in an unstable state (Ebrahimian 2002). As a female Muslim artist, her coverage worldwide is quite astounding. In the years 1993 through 1997, she produced a series titled Women of Allah in which she posed herself veiled with words all over her body and a gun in hand. The idea of posing for ones own art was still somewhat avant guarde at the time, and Shirin took it to the next level by incorporating various themes such as religion and warfare (Dadi 2008).

Many people often label Neshat as a photographer. Her art engages in intertextuality just as all other do, getting inspiration from others until her vision has been formally reached. Neshat was formally taught in painting, but felt that photography represented her message better. In photos she could display the realism, immediacy, and the sense of drama that is more difficult to achieve through painting (Sheybani 1999). She is often compared to Cindy Sherman for her style of photographing herself as the art, but there are slight differences that keep them from being categorized as the exact same. Neshat doesn’t take on as many personalities as does Sherman, as she is representing one kind of woman throughout her series. She is also representing a 3rd world woman, something Sherman doesn’t exactly do.

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In this image, Neshat is taking on many different layers to present to us an unusual form of the Muslim woman. We often presume veiled women to be synonymous with sweet and harmless, so the beauty of this image is in its unconventionality. We often take control of the female body through the use of movies, advertisements, literature, etc. In Neshat’s case, the emphasis is on the veiled Muslim female figure. Our eyes are drawn to the beautiful calligraphy inscribed all over her face and arms, ranging from large to miniscule font. Her art was born in a time of revolution, meaning the militia aspect could possibly be speaking to that fact. We see her as being veiled, and how the gun goes through our gaze. The gun acts as the facial veil, religiously and powerfully protecting her “identity” from view. Weapons are often symbolic of rebellion, and the use of it in this image is to alter our assumptions of the friendly, shy Muslim woman.

Her entire body is swallowed in writing which seems to be spiritual in nature. The style of writing is indicative of Islam as this type of Arabic calligraphy is most often used to write religious scriptures. The words vary in size depending on where on the body it is placed, ranging from large on the face and smaller on the body. These words can signify many things. One might interpret them as representing faith. Neshat might be trying to show us the power of the written word. Another way to think about it is to remember how sacred the body is. In Islam, the body is considered an extremely sacred gift from God. For this reason it is not unusual to use the body as a worshiping ground.

 

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Her next image is quite perplexing for many reasons. First, we must analyze her physical positioning. It seems that she is lying on her back, so if this is a time of a revolution she could be injured or simply resting.In Islam, there is a saying that beneath the mothers feet lies paradise. This is basically a way of saying that it is of the utmost importance to respect and cherish your mother. There is a strong religious emphasis in this image, as if to say there is heaven beneath her feet. The gun is the most interesting part of the image, as it completely alters the tone. In this image we feel the tension of the gun, splitting the way to heaven. There is peace, yet we feel nervous because of the gun and its placement between her feet that have become even more sacred with the writing of the words. We also recognize feet as strong, able to bear much stress, and the most important part of taking a journey. We see that she is also covered in the traditional women’s cover up, telling us that this is a Muslim women who could very well be a part of the revolution.

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This image is extremely unusual in Western terms, yet makes more sense in an Islamic country. In this image we see a woman completely veiled with nothing visible but her arm. She is holding who appears to be her son for the sake of the image, and he is completely naked. Instead of being covered in words, his body is covered in Arab styled art. His face appears to be expressionless, and he captures the gaze of the image. It even gives off the black white, good evil vibe. We often see dark shadow-like figures as dangerous, and because we cannot see her it is not unusual to envision him as the innocent and her as the dark force in this image. The art on his body is symmetrical, centering around his belly button. The veiled woman appears to be the powerful force, controlling the situation. Because we do not get any glimpse of her facial expression, we are unable to direct our male gaze at her and thus her gaze of herself.

Neshat later begins to engage in performance art, and her piece Rapture gains her immediate attention and recognition in the world of contemporary art (Danto 2000). She begins to use videos as a medium to express her artistic preference, and soon we see the way in which women can be represented in art other than the traditional sexualized manner. Shirin Neshat has given Muslim women a voice through her art, and it is with that voice that women can be seen in a new light and can respond to the negative perceptions of their lifestyle. With her art, women are being liberated with the veil, something that is quite difficult to achieve.

 

Works Cited
Dadi, Iftikhar. “Shirin Neshat’s Photographs as Postcolonial Allegories.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 34.1 (2008): 125-50. Print.
Danto, Arthur C. “Shrin Neshat.” BOMB No. 73 (2000): 60-67. JSTOR.
Neshat, Shirin, and Babak Ebrahimian. “Passage to Iran.” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 24.3 (2002): 44-55. Print.
Sheybani, Shadi. “WOMENOFALLAH: A CONVERSATION WITH SHIRIN NESHAT.” Women of Allah: A Conversation with Shirin Neshat. MPublishing, 1999.
Research Questions
1. How do you think that leaving a war torn state influenced Neshat’s artwork?
2. In what ways does Neshat alter the traditional male gaze to reclaim it for the subject in the art?
3. Why do you think Neshat chose to use herself as a subject in her initial works?
4. I mentioned that Neshat uses a lot of religious undertone in her artwork. What do you believe is the significance of placing those words on her skin?
5. Neshat used guns in her initial works for a specific purpose. What do you believe that purpose is?

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Shirin Neshat

  1. All of the images you include in your essay on your feminist artist are powerful yet the last one with the little boy is disturbing. I wonder if the veiled woman is his mother, why she would expose his little body. And yes I agree with you that her figure is one of power which is unusual because in America people seeing a veiled woman would tend to think she is weak as she is covered up and unable to show her facial expression. Your essay is so interesting to me and was done very well.

  2. 3. Why do you think Neshat chose to use herself as a subject in her initial works?
    I think using the self as the subject for one’s work recalls the necessary emphasis on one’s agency–as subject, artist, name/brand, maker and creator of the work that the viewer sees; the artist can exploit her body and her image to effectively communicate the ‘personal is political’ undertone of the work. Shirin Neshat’s experiences as an artist seem to be clearly affected and influenced by her personal experiences and her identity. In performing characters of the self, or characters that blur the division of stereotype and truth (which exploits the stereotype to expose a truth/counter-perspective/experience/message), Neshat’s image and experience conveyed are both recognized and, depending on the viewer, internalized as universal and/or individual. But using the self as subject indicates power and agency to relate your message in your voice, not by anybody else. I think that this is a political act that relates closely to challenging the stereotype of the silenced, subservient third world Iranian Muslim woman, especially when considering Western hegemony in the postcolonial world.

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