Shirin Neshat

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Shirin Neshat
Viennale talk (2), Shirin Neshat.jpg
Neshat at the Viennale 2009
Born (1957-03-26) March 26, 1957 (age 63)
Qazvin, Iran
Education University of California, Berkeley ( BA , MA , MFA )
Known for Mixed media performance, video installations, photography
Notable work
The Shadow under the Web (1997),
Speechless (1996),
Women without Men (2004) [1] Rapture (1999)
Movement Contemporary art
Spouse(s)Kyong Park (divorced) [2]
Partner(s) Shoja Azari [2]
AwardsSilver Lion Venice Film Festival, Golden Lion Venice Biennale

Shirin Neshat (Persian : شیرین نشاط; born 1957) [3] [4] is an Iranian visual artist who lives in New York City, known primarily for her work in film, video and photography. [5] Her artwork centers on the contrasts between Islam and the West, femininity and masculinity, public life and private life, antiquity and modernity, and bridging the spaces between these subjects. [1] [6]


Since Iran has undermined basic human rights, particularly since the Islamic Revolution she has said that she has "gravitated toward making art that is concerned with tyranny, dictatorship, oppression and political injustice. Although I don’t consider myself an activist, I believe my art – regardless of its nature – is an expression of protest, a cry for humanity.” [7]

Neshat has been recognized countless times for her work, from winning the International Award of the XLVIII Venice Biennale in 1999, [8] to winning the Silver Lion for best director at the 66th Venice Film Festival in 2009, [9] to being named Artist of the Decade by Huffington Post critic G. Roger Denson. [10] Neshat is a critic in the photography department at the Yale School of Art. [11]


Neshat is the fourth of five children of wealthy parents, brought up in the religious town of Qazvin in north-western Iran [12] under a "very warm, supportive Muslim family environment", [13] where she learned traditional religious values through her maternal grandparents. Neshat's father was a physician and her mother a homemaker. Neshat said that her father "fantasized about the west, romanticized the west, and slowly rejected all of his own values; both her parents did. What happened, I think, was that their identity slowly dissolved, they exchanged it for comfort. It served their class". [12]

Neshat was enrolled in a Catholic boarding school in Tehran. Influenced by western feminism, her father encouraged each of his daughters to "be an individual, to take risks, to learn, to see the world". He sent his daughters as well as his sons to college to receive higher education. [13]

In 1975, Neshat left Iran to study art at UC Berkeley and completed her BA, MA and MFA. [14] Neshat graduated from UC Berkeley in 1983, and soon moved to New York City. There she quickly realized that making art wasn't going to be her profession at that time. After meeting her future husband, who ran the Storefront for Art and Architecture, an alternative space in Manhattan, she dedicated 10 years of her life to working with him there, a second education. [15]

During this time, Neshat made few attempts at creating art, and those were subsequently destroyed. She was intimidated by the New York art scene, and believed the art she was making was not substantial. She states "those ten years I made practically no art, and the art I did make I was dissatisfied with and eventually destroyed." [15]

In 1990, Neshat returned to Iran, one year after Ayatollah Khomeini's death. "It was probably one of the most shocking experiences that I have ever had. The difference between what I had remembered from the Iranian culture and what I was witnessing was enormous. The change was both frightening and exciting; I had never been in a country that was so ideologically based. Most noticeable, of course, was the change in people's physical appearance and public behavior." [16]

Since the Storefront ran like a cultural laboratory, Neshat was exposed to creators — artists, architects, and philosophers; she asserts Storefront eventually helped kickstart her passion for art once more, making her think deeply about herself and what she wanted to create as an artist. In 1993 Neshat began seriously to make art again, starting with photography. [15]


Neshat's earliest works were photographs, such as the Unveiling (1993) and Women of Allah (1993–97) series, which explore notions of femininity in relation to Islamic fundamentalism and militancy in her home country. [17] As a way of coping with the discrepancy between the culture that she was experiencing and that of the pre-revolution Iran in which she was raised, she began her first mature body of work, the Women of Allah series, portraits of women entirely overlaid by Persian calligraphy.

Her work refers to the social, cultural and religious codes of Muslim societies and the complexity of certain oppositions, such as man and woman. Neshat often emphasizes this theme showing two or more coordinated films concurrently, creating stark visual contrasts through motifs such as light and dark, black and white, male and female. Neshat has also made more traditional narrative short films, such as Zarin.

Shoja Azari, Shirin Neshat and Babak Payami at Tirgan Festival, 2013 Shoja Azari, Shirin Neshat and Babak Payami at Tirgan Festival, 2013.jpg
Shoja Azari, Shirin Neshat and Babak Payami at Tirgan Festival, 2013

The work of Neshat addresses the social, political and psychological dimensions of women's experience in contemporary Islamic societies. Although Neshat actively resists stereotypical representations of Islam, her artistic objectives are not explicitly polemical. Rather, her work recognizes the complex intellectual and religious forces shaping the identity of Muslim women throughout the world. Using Persian poetry and calligraphy she examined concepts such as martyrdom, the space of exile, the issues of identity and femininity.

In 2001–02, Neshat collaborated with singer Sussan Deyhim and created Logic of the Birds, which was produced by curator and art historian RoseLee Goldberg. The full length multimedia production premiered at the Lincoln Center Summer Festival in 2002 and toured to the Walker Art Institute in Minneapolis and to Artangel in London. In this collaboration, as well as her other projects that incorporate music, Neshat uses sound to help create an emotionally evocative and beautiful piece that will resonate with viewers of both Eastern and Western cultures. In an interview with Bomb magazine in 2000, Neshat revealed: "Music becomes the soul, the personal, the intuitive, and neutralizes the sociopolitical aspects of the work. This combination of image and music is meant to create an experience that moves the audience." [18]

Neshat was profiled in The New Yorker magazine on October 22, 2007. [19]

When Neshat first came to use film, she was influenced by the work of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. [12] She directed several videos, among them Anchorage (1996) and, projected on two opposing walls: Shadow under the Web (1997), Turbulent (1998), Rapture (1999) and Soliloquy (1999). [8] Neshat's recognition became more international in 1999, when she won the International Award of the XLVIII Venice Biennale with Turbulent and Rapture, [8] a project involving almost 250 extras and produced by the Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont which met with critical and public success after its worldwide avant-première at the Art Institute of Chicago in May 1999. With Rapture, Neshat tried for the first time to make pure photography with the intent of creating an aesthetic, poetic, and emotional shock. Games of Desire, a video and still-photography piece, was displayed between September 3 and October 3 at the Gladstone Gallery in Brussels before moving in November to the Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont in Paris. The film, which is based in Laos, centers on a small group of elderly people who sing folk songs with sexual lyrics - a practice which had been nearing obsolescence. [20]

In 2009 she won the Silver Lion for best director at the 66th Venice Film Festival for her directorial debut Women Without Men , [9] [21] based on Shahrnush Parsipur's novel of the same name. She said about the movie: "This has been a labour of love for six years. ... This film speaks to the world and to my country." [22] The film examines the 1953 British-American backed coup, which supplanted Iran's democratically elected government with a monarchy. [20]

In July 2009 Neshat took part in a three-day hunger strike at the United Nations Headquarters in New York in protest of the 2009 Iranian presidential election. [20]

Exhibitions and film festivals

Since her first solo exhibition, at Franklin Furnace in New York in 1993 [23] , Neshat has been featured in solo exhibitions at the Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City; Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2002); Castello di Rivoli, Turin; Dallas Museum of Art (2000); Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Serpentine Gallery, London; Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, León; and the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin (2005). In 2008, her solo exhibition "Women Without Men" opened at the ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Denmark, and traveled to the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, and to the Kulturhuset, Stockholm. She was included in Prospect.1, the 2008 New Orleans Biennial, documenta XI, the 2000 Whitney Biennial, and the 1999 Venice Biennale. In 2012 Shirin Neshat had a Solo Exhibition in Singapore, Game of Desire at Art Plural Gallery. [24] Also in 2012, Shirin Neshat's photo, Speechless was purchased and exhibited by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. [25] A major retrospective of Neshat's work, organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts, was scheduled to open in 2013. [26]

Since 2000 Neshat has also participated in film festivals, including the Telluride Film Festival (2000), Chicago International Film Festival (2001), San Francisco International Film Festival (2001), Locarno International Film Festival (2002), Tribeca Film Festival (2003), Sundance Film Festival (2003), and Cannes Film Festival (2008). [17]

In 2013 she was a member of the jury at the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival. [27]



Neshat was artist in residence at the Wexner Center for the Arts (2000) and at MASS MoCA (2001). In 2004 she was awarded an honorary professorship at the Universität der Künste, Berlin. [33] In 2006 she was awarded The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, one of the richest prizes in the arts, given annually to "a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind's enjoyment and understanding of life." [34]

In 2010 Neshat was named Artist of the Decade by Huffington Post critic G. Roger Denson, for "the degree to which world events have more than met the artist in making her art chronically relevant to an increasingly global culture," for reflecting "the ideological war being waged between Islam and the secular world over matters of gender, religion, and democracy," and because "the impact of her work far transcends the realms of art in reflecting the most vital and far-reaching struggle to assert human rights." [10]

In 2015 Neshat was selected and photographed by Annie Leibovitz as part of the 43rd Pirelli Calendar which celebrated some of the world's most inspiring women. [35]


At the 2017 Salzburg Festival Neshat directed Giuseppe Verdi's opera Aida, with Riccardo Muti as conductor and Anna Netrebko singing the main character. [36] Asked by the festival organizers about the particular challenge for an Iranian woman to stage a play that deals with the threats of political obedience and religion to private life and love, Neshat said "Sometimes the boundaries between Aida and myself are blurred."



Film and video

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