Interview With Shirin Neshat in Paris by Nina Zivancevic

Shirin Neshat is one of the leading contemporary artists in the world. She was born in 1957 in Iran. In 1974 she moved to the United States where studied art at the University of Berkeley. The Islamic revolution led by the Ayatollah Khomeiny had introduced many changes into the Persian society which fell under the yoke of the Fundamentalists. All the liberties were restricted, the moral rigour was imposed and the condition of women worsened. It was only in 1990 that Shirin Neshat was able to return to her native ground- what really shocked there was the dramatic evolution of the situation of women. A recipient of many international awards, she began a series of photos called Unveiling in 1993. For these self-portraits, she wore the chador and exposed only body parts (eyes, hands, feet) which women are allowed to reveal in public according to the Islamic Law. Neshat wrote on the surfaces of the photographs, covering the exposed parts of the female bodies with Farsi script. Soonafter, in 1997 she began her video creations while continuing with her photography. Primarily inspired by the great Persian tradition and culture, Neshat shows the foresmost interest for the universal approach to concepts of society, identity, asylum, refuge and utopia.In her recent work which we were lucky to see at “Jerome Denoirmont” gallery in Paris this past spring, Neshat took a more cinematographic approach to her work – the bold metaphorical imagery of her early films and videos has given way to a more narrative approach bringing in the current dialectics of the binary oppositions such as man/woman, east/west, and oppressor/oppressed. Her recent work has drawn its inspiration from Women Without Men, a novel by the Iranian author Shahrnush Parsipur which describes the lives of 5 Iranian women who lived through the history of the CIA's regime in Iran, supported by the Pahlavi royal family. Through the exploit of the themes which she had already explored in photography and video, Neshat gave us her reinterpretation of the Parsipur's novel in a double-sided project which encompases cinema and art. There is a feature film, shot in Morocco, due to be released in 2008 along with 5 videos depicting the lives of these five women during the summer of 1953. As her name in Persian means “sweet” and cultured, we were not surprised to find her answers open and responsive to the media while interviewing her at Gallery Denoirmont in Paris last spring. Question: Shirin, are you a feminist, in the largest sense of that word? Yes and No. Yes, because I’ve devoted my entire body of work to the subjects relating to women. I believe in the female power in emotional, intellectual and biological terms. No, because I’ve always fallen shy of claiming to be ‘feminist’ because at least in my culture, it has a very concrete meaning, seemingly someone who is involved in an organized movement, something that I don’t belong to and have no interest in.

QUESTION: What idea made you create 5 videos dealing with Persian women such as Mahdokht, Zarin, Munis and Faezeh? When I began to re-adapt the novel of “Women Without Men” written by Iranian author Shahrnush Parsipur, into a feature length film, which essentially evolved around 5 female characters; I knew that I would develop an art component of this project. I quickly became interested in making a series of short videos that related to each one of the five female characters. I was very interested in how in a museum or gallery setting the audience could walk from room to room, visiting each women and at the end, they could put the story together. The audience in a way becomes the editor of the film, in the way that they could put the puzzle together. This approach indeed was very different than a film made for a theatre setting where the audience is quite passive seated and the narrative is linear. So at the end I managed to make the five installations and have just finished the feature too.

Question: You left your original country a long time ago. How do you relate to the images of these women now, when the Persian reality is so far away from you. How do you connect? This film of course takes place in 1953 before I was born, so it does not directly reflect the life that I experienced in Iran. But of course each woman in one way or another symbolically embodies obsessions, issues and problems that has continued to this date to haunt Iranian women, whether stemming from religion, political reality, sexual taboos.

Question: What made you draw, make photography, create art in your life to begin with? Do you remember your earliest stages of interest? Art has been a wonderful escape from the banality of everyday life and more so a way to find a meaningful engagement with life and people around me. My life since active as an artist has been an exciting one, not always easy but wonderfully full and adventurous. Also, for me making art is a way to face my own emotions and anxieties. I consider my first serious attempt in art began in 1993 with the “Women of Allah” series, a group of work that brought me back to my home country, if not geographically, spiritually and emotionally.

Question: I almost called you "female Jean Luc Godard"...What draws you towards film and video as medium, and - do you prefer that medium to painting, sculpture ? And if yes, why so? I’m very touched by what you say! Of course I don’t believe I deserve it! I developed a love affair with the moving image back in 1993, with my first video attempt for a small gallery show at Franklin Furnace. There is strong potential of poetics in this medium that I don’t believe is as tangible through mediums of painting and sculpture. At least I found myself right at home with video and film.

Question: What are its advantages and what are the limitations of these media (such as video, film) for you? For one thing with film and video, an artist can incorporate elements of photography, painting and sculpture by the way she or he visually constructs the picture. More so, with film one can be a story teller, and can experiment with music, sound, choreography, performance, and more. As for myself, making videos and films have become an incredibly challenging and ambitious creative experiences. The limitations are that the process is often tedious and complex as it takes a lot of preparation and organization, so it’s not as spontaneous as medium like painting, where you can simply pick up your brush and paint. Furthermore, once you begin to experiment with the language of cinema, one has no choice but to gain the tools, by studying its tools, and history.

Question: How do you chose your subject and themes in your work? Do you search for them or they come to you? It changes from time to time, but most often my ideas are inspired by literature that I read by various authors. Otherwise, there are times that I become obsessed with certain themes, often existential ones which eventually find their way into my art.

Question: Given the fact that your subject is often political (social commentary etc), Would you call yourself an "engagé"? I am not sure exactly how you use this term, but if I understand it right, the question is how engaged I feel in relation to the socio- political subjects of my work. The answer would be that, I feel extremely connected to all the topics that I depict, as they are all topics that have and continue to effect my personal life. Sometimes I see myself as an activist, not the type who marches into the streets but one that is constantly preoccupied by political issues and is quietly confronting them by engaging in the community.

Question: A committed artist or just a human being who observes injustice? How do you see your work? I see my art as a vehicle for dialogue and this is something I take very seriously. The subversive nature of my art is often my form of objection against any social and political injustice, in particular in relation to my own country. Of course, I can’t help but express myself not in the form of propaganda but in the form of poetry and aesthetic.

Question: What's the situation like in the American contemporary art scene? Closed, open? How do you see your own place in it? America is usually qualified as ‘melting pot’ so it’s the best place for a ‘nomadic’ artist like myself. I do however feel that I live in my own bubble in the way that I don’t follow any particular models, groups or trends. Also my subject matters (in a healthy matter) tend to pull me away from the what I consider the ‘glossy’ art world and closer to reality of everyday life. Question: What's your experience with the Iranian contemporary art scene? Are you familiar with it and are there any outstanding artists, in you view? I’m very happy to say that I’m extremely active with the Iranian community particularly with the artists and filmmakers. I regularly try to educate myself in what’s going on culturally inside and outside of Iran and there are always fascinating talents around. Next week, a show will open at the Asia Society in New York that I’ve curated with another Iranian artist Nicky Nodjoumi. This is a very powerful show of an older Iranian artist, political satirist, Ardeshir Mohassess who was once a legend in Iran, but sadly neglected for decades due to illness. I take great pride in being involved with such magnificent event.

Question: You covered your recent photographs of men and women with letters, writing. What role does literature and writing in general have for you and your work? Literature and words are suggestive of emotional and intellectual minds of the writers that deeply inspire me. Having been obsessed with Iranian female writers, in a way, I feel my visual work are embodiments of these ladies’ strong expressions. In earlier work for example I often used poetry by Forough Farokhzad, a heroic figure in Iran, a writer of enormous talent and imagination. Later, for the past five years for example, I’ve been devoting my time to the novel of “Women Without Men” by Shahrnush Parsipour whose imagination is equally extraordinary and beautiful. So literature for me is food for thought and inspiration

Faezeh & Amir Khan 2008 Ink on C-print mounted on aluminium 223.5 x 178 cm / 88 x 70 in. © Shirin Neshat. Courtesy Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, Paris
Shirin Neshat Copyright Linda Bertucci, 2006 Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York