An artist’s late works provide easy targets for criticism because they often do not correspond to the accepted readings of the artist’s earlier, iconic work. That late works often mark a new beginning can be seen in the careers of long-lived artists such as Picasso, or more recently, Alex Katz. A retrospective of the thirty-odd year career of Iranian-American Shirin Neshat (b. 1957, Iran) currently on view at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., “Shirin Neshat: Facing History,” affords a welcome opportunity to address this question.
Recent years have seen a modest and long-overdue upsurge in exhibitions of non-Western and diasporic modern art in the United States. In general, surveys have met with greater critical success than solo shows. Differences between Western and non-Western canons and difficulties of interpretation seem to be more problematic in the reception of individual artists. In this writer’s opinion, this resistance to other modernisms, particularly in regard to individual artists, may be attributed to issues of “looking” as much as to issues of “reading,” as art moves between cultural worlds.
In what I perceive to be a failure of both looking and reading, the artist’s most recent photographs, The Book of Kings (2012) and Our House is On Fire (2013), have been qualified by some as weak, overly personal, and/or commercial.1 The passage of time and new understandings of an artist’s work have often led to re-evaluations. We should not have to wait decades for alternative interpretations of Neshat’s two latest documentary photo series. A close reading of the exhibition’s curatorial approach and an awareness of the “local” as opposed to the “global” aesthetic of her vision proposed here, suggests alternative readings of Neshat’s works.
We should begin with an analysis of the curatorial strategies of presentation, the result of a close collaboration and intimate understanding between the curators and the artist. The comprehensive retrospective is organized more or less chronologically around the central void of the Museum’s space (Figure 1). The artist’s latest photo series (alluded to earlier) are displayed towards the end of the installation. This presentation leads the viewer on a deliberate, circular path of movement, a sensation that is familiar yet distant. Eventually it becomes clear that the path of the viewer mimics, on the one hand, the circumambulation of holy places and shrines in the Muslim world and on the other, presents affinities with the movements of mystic trances. Thus, the installation itself encourages a slow, meditative, visual experience of Neshat’s works.
Throughout the installation, equal space is given to her video work and to her photographs, equal weight to text and image, and equal weight to her early work and her latest output. These curatorial choices provide for a balanced presentation that does not privilege either her early works or her videos. Other curatorial choices are more risky. Although the exhibition design is minimalistic and somber in color, the approach to wall texts is not—contrary to accepted practice in contemporary art shows adopted by the artist herself in earlier iterations of her work.
Large text panels provide historical background and quote liberally from translations of Persian poetry. Photographs of historic events are displayed alongside the art. Particularly risky is the inclusion of Iranian archival material important to the artist. By transferring works from the realm of contemporary history, anthropology, and folklore to the realm of fine art, the curators and the artist are challenging traditional and accepted exhibition orders and canons.
While the inclusion of archival material in art exhibitions is not always successful, in this case it appears justified in order to present a layered and nuanced reading of the artist’s work—a reading that recognizes the crucial role Persian literature, material culture, and history play in her practice. The exhibition organizers have attempted to familiarize viewers with the artist’s world through the inclusion of 19th- and 20th-century photographs, of a figural talisman inscribed with texts (Figure 2), a lithographed illustrated book (Figure 3), and an old identity card—a portable museum of Iranian popular culture and exilic history—which is immensely touching for many viewers.
In Neshat’s Book of Kings series, forty-five large-scale, black-and-white prints of close-up, half- and full-length portraits of piercing intensity and individuality are displayed (see Figure 1). An added layer of meaning is provided by verses, poems and—for the first time—images of battle, inscribed upon their faces and bodies. The subjects are dressed in nondescript black clothing, which has become the universal uniform of protest. The sheer number of prints and the repetition of images are curatorial devices and reminders of Neshat’s intuitive understanding of the silent power of images to speak directly to the viewer, as no critical or art historical text could. In contrast with her earlier work, in the close-up shots, which recall mug shots or passport photos, the full emphasis of the lens is on the subjects’ faces, not on controversial accoutrements such as veils, machine guns, or rifles. That is, full emphasis is placed on the shared humanity represented by these portraits, the result of an intense collaboration between the artist and her subjects. Her sitters are stripped of their old identity and given a new one which is universal and timeless, rather than exotic or self-Orientalizing.
In my view, these faces evoke verses by the celebrated 14th-century Iranian poet Sa’di:
All Adam’s sons are limbs of one another,
Each of the self-same substance as his brothers,
So, while one member suffers ache and grief,
The other members cannot win relief
Thou, who are heedless of thy brother’s pain,
It is not right at all to name thee man . . .2
Perhaps the perception of these works as “weaker” is because the earlier works—although nuanced and ambivalent—nevertheless referenced common stereotypical images of revolutionaries and in the process themselves became tropes with which critics were comfortable. Here the more allusive and complex cultural references of the artist are clear to anyone familiar with Iranian culture but require an intermediary for general audiences and reviewers.
Close study of the iconography of the images, domain of the art historian rather than the cultural or literary theorist, reveals that Neshat refers to an unfamiliar art history of Iranian popular religious culture that co-existed with the “high art” of classical Iranian fine rugs, lavish “miniatures,” and the architecture of colorful domes and elegant minarets. Neshat’s world references legendary popular heroes (Pahlevan) of folklore and of epic stories recited in the bazaar, wrestlers of the zurkhaneh (literally, “House of Strength”), Shiite commemorative rituals, and performance art of the Persian passion play Ta’zieh. Her visual language comprises signifiers and codes such as the placement of hands, the soles of feet, talismans, and tattooing/body art. In Neshat’s Book of Kings, the placement of hands across the chest is a gesture of many meanings: political submission, loyalty, patriotism, religious fervor. It is a gesture familiar from classical Persian manuscript illustration as well as the living art of ceremonials and theatrical performances.
This rich world of popular culture provided Iranian artists of the post-World War II generation with an enormous reservoir of original images and subtle signs and texts with which to construct a local modernism known as Saqqakhaneh (after holy water fountain). Neshat’s work still alludes—even if at a distance—to this alternate art history. By way of example, the photograph of a pair of hanging legs cropped at the knee (Figure 4) may be read as an homage to similar imagery employed by a leading post-war Iranian artist, the political cartoonist Ardeshir Mohasses (Figure 5).
The Book of Kings (Shahnameh) is a powerful epic retelling of Persia’s ancient history through its tales of heroes, kings, villains, and personal and historical tragedies. This masterpiece of world literature is familiar to every Iranian schoolchild, as familiar as the Holy Qur’an, and embedded into the very soul of every Iranian. Because the current regime has displayed an ambivalent attitude towards any texts or celebrations linked to Iran’s ancient imperial past, the book has also become a subtle symbol of protest. Thus, Neshat’s choice of this text and title, as she has stated, is political as well as artistic—alluding to a glorious past of great deeds, patriotism, and courage and to its relevance to the political demonstrations of 2009 in Iran and, later, across the entire Middle East.
The Shahnameh has been perceived as a one-dimensional celebration of monarchy. Yet recent interpretations have shown that the work also questions the uses and abuses of power and the limits of loyalty. It is this subtext I believe which has resonated with the artist and led her to create her own Book of Kings—a book of kings for the 20th century. Here the masses are foregrounded, not the kings and heroes; the texts used are not only excerpts from the book itself but also from 20th-century leftist poets Ahmad Shamloo and Mehdi Akhavan Sales, and heroes of the past embody tyrants of the present. Past and present, tradition and revolt, are blended in Neshat’s layered and subversive Book of Kings.
To move from reading to looking, the work becomes subversive on another level. The text was written in the 11th century and superbly illustrated in manuscripts from the 14th century onwards. Yet Neshat chooses to use images and text from an early-20th-century black-and-white lithographed version in a popular style favored by coffeehouse painters of the bazaar, not the lavishly illuminated and colorfully illustrated court manuscripts. Splashes of red paint had been added at a later date to the almost crude black and white images, enhancing their bloody message.
The “Our House is on Fire” series again uses strategies informed by conceptualism, postmodernism, and minimalism: repetition, scale, and the gaze are used to convey the artist’s bittersweet message of the cost of rebellion following the fervor of revolt depicted in the Book of Kings. In the period following the failure of the Arab Spring, this project was a model of transcultural collaboration. An artist of Iranian origin photographed Egyptian subjects supported by the Rauschenberg Foundation, a philanthropic entity. Avoiding her signature black-and-white style, Neshat produced remarkable tinted prints of poignant images of faces lined by pain and loss inscribed with miniscule Persian texts. These works call to mind the power of the celebrated images of the 1955 “Family of Man” series exhibition, such as Dorothea Lange’s photographs of migrant mothers and Walker Evans’s family portraits of the Great Depression.
Neshat, however, adds a uniquely personal touch: images of the soles of fleshy, smooth feet of corpses at the morgue, which are inscribed with verses of revolt and bear body tags with biographical details invented by Neshat (Figure 6). These body parts are enlarged to human scale, suggesting to some an Iranian Pietà. To others, the anthropomorphic quality and monumental scale of the feet also recall images of the footprints of Imam Reza, one of the holiest Shiite Saints, said to have been embedded in a rock during a pilgrimage he undertook.
By exhibiting this series in art-world venues across the globe, Neshat has brought the plight of the Egyptian people to larger audiences and shown them in their full humanity, not as numbers in a list of casualties or faceless crowds in media reports. This is not a eulogy to a lost cause but a meditation for the future.
The subtext of The Book of Kings series references the 2009 demonstrations in Iran, while Our House is on Fire is informed by the Events of the Arab Spring in 2011.The first employs visual and compositional strategies used by the artist in the Women of Allah series but with a new emphasis on Iranian history, as embodied by Ferdowsi’s masterpiece and a new presentation of Iranian youth clothed in global attire instead of the veil. In neither series is the artist present. The second series also presents an evolution: the artist goes beyond the question of her personal identity as an Iranian artist to embrace issues of Arab identity, imaginatively recasting issues first seen in Women of Allah, for new audiences and contemporary historical events, thus positioning her at the forefront of the global avant-garde. This same soft power saw her addressing the newly elected Iranian President Rouhani from a podium in Davos exhorting him to “take care of your artists.”3
These changes represent an evolution in the artist’s thinking and perhaps a deeper and more thoughtful approach to her subject. To the educated eye, there is nothing weak about this choice. Such images—we have only to cite the image of the young Iranian protester Neda killed during the Iranian demonstrations of 2009—have moved people to revolt and revolution.
The subjects in Neshat’s Shahnameh and House on Fire series gaze at the viewer intently, directly, and solemnly. This solemnity evokes the theme of “witnessing” Shahadat central to Iranian religion and culture. The portraits, the viewers, and the artist are all called upon to witness history. In this view, Neshat is neither a victim of self-exoticizing nor a martyr: like the female protagonist of Rapture, she sings an eloquent and unfamiliar song. It is up to us to listen.
- See Phillip Kennicott “It’s written all over their faces,” Wall Street Journal. May 15, 2015, and Hamid Dabashi, “Can contemporary art become outdated?” Al-Jazeera, June 9, 2015.
- Sa’di, Gulistān, 1258. From Arberry, A.J., Kings and Beggars: The First Two Chapters of Sa’di’s Gulistān, London: Luzac, 1945.
- Neshat, Shirin. “Shirin Neshat to President Rouhani: ‘Take Care of Your Artists.’” Creative Time Reports. February 3, 2014.
The author wishes to thank Shirin Neshat and Ulrich Marzolph for their assistance with the research of this article.
ContributorLayla S. Diba
LAYLA S. DIBA is an independent scholar and art advisor. She has held positions as the director and chief curator of the Negarestan Museum in Tehran (1975?79) and as an art advisor for the Private Secretariat of Her Majesty Queen Farah of Iran. She was formerly Hagop Kevorkian Curator of Islamic Art at the Brooklyn Museum and adjunct professor at the Bard Graduate Center. She has curated exhibitions at the Lehmann-Maupin and Leila Taghinia Milani Heller Galleries in New York and served on the advisory panel of the Islamic World Arts Initiative of the Doris Duke Foundation. In 2013 she co-curated IranModern, the first major exhibition devoted to Iranian Modern Art for the Asia Society Museum, New York (Sept. 5, 2013- January 5, 2015) and coedited the accompanying publication. She holds a B.A. from Wellesley College and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.