A powerful retrospective of a leading Iranian photographer
The images are startling. A gun barrel pokes out between a pair of bare feet covered with flowing Farsi script. A swarm of black-clad women, robes hiked up around the ankles, heave a rowboat into the ocean. White-shirted men and black-robed women sit, segregated, in a tiled, grandly crumbling mosque. Subsequent photos show individuals sneaking a peek over the dividing curtain. Women and children scrub and gossip in the pearly light of a domed hammam. A woman leans over a rooftop, stares into the middle distance, and lets herself topple into the abyss.
Shirin Neshat is an Iranian-born photographer and filmmaker who moved to the US as an art student in the ‘70s. She takes as the subject of her work the country she emigrated from, to which she did not return until 1993. Her photographs, videos and films comment indirectly but powerfully on a society profoundly changed by its 1979 revolution. This handsome volume, weighing over four pounds and printed on thick, heavy paper, provides an important retrospective of her work and a window into both an artist and a culture.
The first, dramatic images are taken from a series entitled “Women of Allah”, and they make a powerful impression, notwithstanding the familiarity of certain tropes. Neshat’s brief introduction points out that “four symbolic elements recur in this work: the veil, the gun, the text, and the gaze.” Despite the overly familiar theme of veiled women as representations of “otherness” and (often) oppression, the images remain startling, in part because of the mixture of stark composition and flowing Farsi script; in part because, as Neshat puts it, “the subjects of these images look strong and imposing.”
Other series build on this base, from “Turbulent” and “Rapture” to “Fervor”. Some of the most compelling images are found in these early works, in which groups of men and women are the focus of stark black-and-white compositions. Another early series, “Soliloquy”, introduces color as an element and features a series of photos in which the artist herself is seen in urban environments in Turkey and the US. My favorite image comes from this series: Neshat bathing her face in a stream of water beside a rooftop dome, suggesting—intentionally or not—the ritual ablutions necessary before offering prayers in a mosque.
“Passage” brings color to Neshat’s compositions of men and women acting as disparate groups, while “Tooba” suggests an environmental theme inspired, according to Neshat, “by the Koranic myth of Tooba, or the ‘sacred tree’ in paradise that is commonly understood as feminine.” The compelling series of images center on a group of men and women converging on a single tree, starkly outlined against denuded, rolling hills. Interspersed with these images are scenes from a shadowy gathering of solemn, brown-robed men.
Later efforts, such as the video series “Women Without Men”, continue the use of color but increasingly focus upon individuals rather than groups; for me, these efforts became paradoxically fuzzier in their intentions and effects. However, striking images are to be had even then: the two-page photograph taken from “Mahdokht”, which shows a woman kneeling in an orchard, surrounded by unraveling bundles of bright yellow yarn as yellow-clad girls run toward her in the distance, is breathtaking.
Many of the images on display are stills taken from video artworks, which raises the interesting question of how to present a moving image within the static milieu of a book—or if this is even possible. Two-page spreads punctuate the volume, carrying as many as 30 images from a (presumably) sequential film or video; these provide an interesting “splash” of many images at once, as one’s eye scampers across them in a satisfyingly unrestricted manner.
Frustration, however, can also set in. Are the images meant to be read left-to-right, or top-to-bottom? Should the two pages be considered a single panel? Or am I worrying too much—does the sequence even matter? It ought to, given that these pictures are taken from a video or film, and thus experienced temporally. If this book experience meant to suggest the viewing experience, then shot B should follow shot A and precede shot C.
Photo ©Shirin Neshat
Or is something altogether different going on here? The good news is that, regardless of their intended sequence—or lack of it—the images remain consistently memorable.
If it’s difficult to separate the artist from the image, then it’s doubly difficult to separate the emigrant artist from the images of society under scrutiny. It’s legitimate to question the motivation of someone commenting on a culture when the artist has lived apart from that culture for decades. Happily, Neshat is neither an apologist for the Revolution who glosses over its missteps, nor a panderer to the West, out to make a name for herself by selling cheap and easily consumable images of feminine oppression and Iranophobia. She is an artist, which means that her vision is legitimately earned and uniquely expressed, even if her concerns are shared with many others throughout the world.