Annina Nosei said of Shirin Neshat’s work, that “her ground as an artist: emotional-cultural and political is clear.” I always felt this to be an apt distillation of what makes the now-iconic inscribed photographs so accessibly compelling—or compellingly accessible, as the case may be.
When Maurizio Cattelan showed me his and Pierpaolo Ferrari’s photograph of five women in niqab, which I took as an homage to Neshat, he told me these women were fighting for a cause, but he had taken away their weapons and left them with only their bodies. The photo had been on his wall for three months, he said, and he had looked at it constantly, never understanding the meaning of these women with arms extended like muskets. Not knowing what it all meant but never tiring of looking at it was for him the proof of its strength. And I knew then I needed to talk with Neshat.
It’s very difficult to make an image of “female,” of feminine power. The subject is so intimate, so mysterious, so huge. It’s this problem—some version of which is perhaps a core subject of all of Neshat’s work—that, for me, is also the source of its magnetism.
Seated on the long, leather couch in her long, bright loft with her feet curled under her and her head tilted in concentration, Neshat herself is extraordinarily feminine. She is delicate, with a small face defined by the vast kohl-lined eyes (now famous from the photographs in her Women of Allah series). She is also surprisingly unassuming, gentle, empathetic, and very lucid as she describes the progression of her work.
The writings on the photographs, she tells me, are carefully chosen, often from poetry written by women, particularly Forough Farokhzad, a brilliantly meteoric but tragic Iranian writer who was killed in a car crash in her early 30s. The words, Shirin says become the foundation of the photograph itself. Reading is more than inspiration. The combination of the text and the form becomes the “visual poetry”—the photograph the word made manifest.
Neshat says that in Iran poetry and song are “the soul of the culture,” which “break through the harsh reality of politics.”
Women writers are a point of fascination for Neshat. Shahrnush Parsipur, author of Women Without Men, the novel on which Neshat based her eponymous first film, is an exemplary fixation. Like her characters, Shahrnush is hero and victim, rebellious and imprisoned, and periodically insane. “But her imagination was so rich,” says Shirin. “If I had to describe why I develop certain obsessions, why I focus on women, I think it’s because within the lives and words of these women, in their imagination, somewhere I am looking for what it means to be an artist, how to move other people. I am looking for answers; answers for myself.”
The subject of Neshat’s next film is Umm Kulthum, also a woman, a hero, and an artist. She was born circa 1900 in Egypt and when she died in the seventies she was the most famous singer—perhaps the most famous person—in the Arab world.
The child of a very poor peasant family, Kulthum sang with her father and siblings until the age of 18 disguised as a boy, because performance was forbidden to females.
She had, according to Neshat, the ability to reach her audience on a primal, Dionysian level: “Rich, poor, man, woman, the entire audience lost all sense of time and place. When people came to see her, they just fell apart. She was conscious of her power. She studied what the musicologists wrote about it. She used it to promote peace, not just in Egypt but all over the Arab world.”
The key to Kulthum’s charisma remains an enigma. She lived as an emblem and kept her private life a secret. She never had children,” Shirin tells me. “She married for convenience. Her sexual preference was nebulous. She was untraditional; stoic and simultaneously fragile—and so frightened when she sang that she always carried a handkerchief to wipe off her sweat. Still, on the surface she seemed completely in control.” Umm’s relationship with the audience, she goes on to say, was ecstatic and indescribable—at least through words. “But through images and music—I think we can try.”
I ask Neshat about her own film images, what she calls “magical realism” in Women Without Men: the slight changes in color, focus, and film speed that make the viewing experience more vivid and complex. She answers that generally she is always trying to take as much realism as possible out of the work. “I am a real black and white person. I like the severity. With the new film I imagine we will move back and forth from black and white into color and use different textures.” As a visual artist she is able to bring a special kind of playfulness to film, “not at all,” she says, “like a book or a picture you pick up and put down. I learned through two years of editing Women Without Men it’s a whole different ball game to keep one’s audience for an hour and a half.”
Our conversation circles back to Kulthum: “This is the portrait of a woman whose music evolved from religious poetry, to love songs, to mystical poetry, to patriotic songs and who during her life experienced governments who endorsed her and those that didn’t endorse her. She experienced revolutions. She not only survived. She became more beloved. How did she do it? How did she handle being an artist? How was she able to continue affecting people? When she died four million people came to her funeral. Four million. How many politicians had a funeral like that?”
Well, I think to myself—politics are transient by definition. Art has always aspired to more than that.