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G. Roger Denson

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Shirin Neshat: Artist of the Decade

Posted: 12/30/2010 8:35 pm

Women are known to have been active participants in the first mosques founded by Mohammad, and the prophet instructed his followers that men and women are equal before God. Yet women in many Muslim societies are separated from men not just in the mosque but in all places public while being denied many of the legal rights of men. With Islam's relationship to women under increasing scrutiny today by both progressive Muslims and the non-Muslim world, Shirin Neshat's art depicting Islamic women's collective strength and resilience in the face of misogyny and despotism reminds us that though the differences between Islamic and modern societies appear on the surface to break down to matters of faith, the deeper, truly exacerbating fault lines carve out the extent to which our cultures impose the male legislation of women and render the divide of gender inviolable.

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Shirin Neshat, "Fervor," 1999, © Shirin Neshat


Pronouncements made by critics like "Artist of the Year," and especially "Artist of the Decade," have always left me feeling a little bit as if I'd just witnessed a fraudulent transaction, one I should report but resign to keep silent on. That I now find myself making just such a proclamation about artist and film director Shirin Neshat as Artist of the Decade is a matter of the degree to which world events have more than met the artist in making her art chronically relevant to an increasingly global culture. By "chronically" relevant, I mean that her work responds to the ideological war being waged between Islam and the secular world over matters of gender, religion, and democracy. It's Neshat's navigation through the ongoing convergences and collisions of values in the formation of global culture that separates her from her peers despite there being more artists than ever impacting the international markets and discourse with issues and imagery relevant to world affairs. Quite simply, I chose Shirin Neshat because more than any other artist I can call to mind, the impact of her work far transcends the realms of art in reflecting the most vital and far-reaching struggle to assert human rights.

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Shirin Neshat, "Veiled Women in Three Arches" (from the series "Women of Allah"), 1999, © Shirin Neshat


At the beginning of the decade, Neshat had already been separated from her Iranian homeland for more than 20 years -- since the Revolution of the Ayatollahs in 1979. Were she known only by the Women of Allah series she produced between 1994-1998 -- the stark photographs of Iranian women in chadors, some brandishing guns, others with skin covered by Persian script that few people outside Iran can read -- she would still be an internationally renowned artist despite her early work's want of nuance. The images from this period are provocative, mysterious, politically iconic, and when taken out of context can easily lead Islamophobes and Islamophiles alike to interpretations of terror and its promotion. In fact, series like Women of Allah are allegorical to the deep-rooted resilience and determination of Iranian women confronted with Sharia law, particularly with regard to their curtailment under hijab, which in the Qur'anic sense refers to both the veil required for women's modesty and the partitioning, or outright segregation, of women from men in the mosque and other public places.

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Shirin Neshat, "Rebellious Silence," 1994, © Shirin Neshat


With four short films that Neshat completed between 1998 and 2000, but which Westerners by and large would not see until well within this decade, Neshat's art took a more expansive, if more subtle and thoughtful, course of image-activism, one making an unmistakably Islamic-feminist mark on Westerners whose prior acquaintance to Iranian and Islamic art was either nonexistent or confined to the miniature paintings of past centuries. Turbulent (1998), Rapture (1999), Soliloquy (1999), and Fervor (2000), were originally installed in art galleries as dual-channel, if opposing, video projections representing gender differences and roleplaying codified by Iranian interpretations of Sharia law and the implementation of hijab. But beneath the traditions of Islam surged a current of women's resilience quite distinct in its history, yet which Westerners by and large knew nothing about, thanks to the myopic political interests of Western media. That Neshat singly broke through this cultural embargo can largely be attributed to her exacting iconography and graphic formal organization of visual gender codes that heighten the tension acted out between Iranian men and women in their separate activities of ritual, preaching, socialization, even in what behavior renders them social outcasts -- all projected onto two separate, gender-specific screens, each with its own camera techniques employed to underscore the codification of male-female differentiation and alienation at work.

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Shirin Neshat, "Fervor," 1999, © Shirin Neshat


Neshat's work drew my attention between 1999 and 2001 for its graphic extrapolation and singular enactment of the "homosocial divide" that I'd only just become acquainted with by reading the feminist literary and social critic Eve Kosofky Sedgwick. That's "homosocial" -- a term designating the cultural and geopolitical halving and socialization of humankind drawn along lines of sexuality and gender that is based not on reproductive functions alone (as was for millennia assumed by most world traditions), but as well by presumed non-sexual, yet no less compelling, same-sex attractions (familial, platonic, mentorial) cementing the alliances which constrict power and privilege according to a culture's dominant XY (male) or XX (female) chromosome preference. In the context of Islamic Iran, and specifically of Iranian hijab, I suddenly saw Neshat's work asserting that behind the veils, screens, and doors that hide women from authority, and which obscures understanding in the West, Iranian women possess a resilience, strength, and determination that is greatly facilitated by a discreet yet vital network of women's homosocieties that operates not only despite religious and political constraints placed on Iranian women, but in ways unforeseen by men because of the imposition of hijab.

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Shirin Neshat, "Rapture," 1999, © Shirin Neshat


By the year 2000, it was clear that Neshat was providing the West's first compelling and indigenous look at hijab in art since the painting of Persian miniatures. As her work after 1998 grew increasingly nuanced and expansive in the social issues it chronicled, Neshat's art also could be seen tracing the divide not just between men and women, but the divides separating Islam from the West, Sharia law from feminism, even Iranian feminism from Western feminism. Along with the exports of such Iranian filmmakers as Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, Neshat's art counted among the few significant representations of Iran, the Middle East, Islam, and the women touched by all these institutions impacting World consciousness. Western viewers, curators, critics, and collectors responded as they rarely do to such highly politicized art. At first it may have been because Neshat's work appeared to confirm the imagery we gleaned from the media of women under hijab. But on closer examination the work turned out to be revelatory of an entire invisible history of women's homosocialization under Iranian Islam specifically and, judging from the reports of various Islamic feminists reaching the West, indicative of women of Islam in general. In the largest sense, Neshat provides Westerners a rare glimpse at the complexities of women's homosocialization as it played out in pre-modern cultures and which for centuries remained obscured by the art historical depictions of women's enclaves made by male Islamic artists. (See the accompanying slideshow at the end of this article featuring historical Islamic miniatures signifying women's homosocialization under hijab.)

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Shirin Neshat, "Passage," 2001, cibachrome print from the film of the same title, © Shirin Neshat


Even if 9/11 hadn't made Islam the central focus of the world at the beginning of the decade, even if Iran's Green Revolution protests following the 2009 Iranian presidential election against the disputed victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and in support of opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi hadn't disrupted life in major cities of Iran, or if the shooting death of the young woman protestor Neda Agha-Soltan hadn't focused the ire of audiences around the world against the governing administration and mullahs, Neshat's work would be potently moving both emotionally and as political activism. Few artists manage to draw interest simultaneously from the citizens of two cultures so exceedingly attached to their misunderstandings of each other so compellingly, especially with the prospect of war hovering above and around them so ominously. The fact that others from her country try and are imprisoned for it -- and I refer now specifically to Jafar Panahi and Muhamed Rasoulof, two Iranian film directors sentenced earlier this month to six-year prison sentences after being convicted of "propaganda against the state," makes Neshat's contribution all the more urgent. For Neshat presents a picture more accurately representative of Iranian and Islamic diversity and dissent against state and religious despotism--a picture voiding the stereotypes of anti-democratic, anti-feminist, and pro-terrorist sensibilities branding Iranian and Islamic citizens in the eyes of the non-Islamic world.

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Shirin Neshat, "Passage," 2001, cibachrome print from the film of the same title, © Shirin Neshat


It's hardly surprising that Neshat made an important impact on Western feminism at the very time that international feminists were grappling with the criticism of non-Western feminists over Western misinformation and chauvinism. Many Western feminists started out misunderstanding, and in some senses still misunderstand, hijab only in terms of its repression of women's activities and dress. Neshat's work counters the Western media's culturocentrism while at the same time trying to ease the relgiocentrism of Islam in her attempts to signify the resourcefulness of Islamic women who turn the constraints of hijab to their advantage. She does so by representing the Iranian women who take advantage of the freedom from male sexual objectification and the anonymous passage among men the chador affords them. By now, it's been widely publicized that many Muslim women have expressed apprehension about the prospect of being denied the option -- the versatility -- of choosing between Western clothing and the chador for different functions. Perhaps because I'm a lapsed Catholic who was taught by nuns, and as an adult have interviewed women who prefer the convent and vow of chastity, I've learned something of the utility and defense that something like a veil, habit of dress, and separate habitation, if not outright cloistering, affords women who wish not to be sexually objectified by commercial and sexual interests. In a trend running counter to the Western secular stereotypes, many Muslim women attribute their achievements and high career rankings to being freed of sexual objectification on the job by hijab. But in the West, Neshat's iconography remained the sole photographic and cinematic testimony to this reality of Islamic feminism.

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Shirin Neshat, "Passage," 2001, cibachrome print from the film of the same title, © Shirin Neshat


The many Western viewers who missed this aspect of Neshat's work can hardly be blamed. Ordinarily, when viewing the art of historic and far cultures, we lack an eye for the codes and obscure regional histories relayed within the art -- codes and histories that people indigenous to the time and culture would immediately recognize. The obscuration of women's history is particularly steep in Islamic art, largely because most of the art was made by men, is about men, and thereby is dictated by the same customs of hijab that kept women out of view of men. It only follows that the discreet histories of women's Islamic homosocieties that fostered, and still foster, women's resourcefulness and resilience in the face of authoritarianism--or even the sheer enjoyment of women with each other's company--was rarely depicted. But historic examples do exist. (The slideshow below includes a few of the significant exceptions known to Western audiences keen on Islamic miniature painting.) And they are being produced under Islam today -- in Islamic cinema, for instance -- where we find the resourcefulness and resilience that shape women's homosocieties under religious and authoritarian rule informing the various narrative films being made (and banned) in Iran (Jafar Panahi's The Circle, 2000), Afghanistan (Siddiq Barmak's Osama, 2003), and the Arab states (Cyrus Nowrasteh's The Stoning of Soraya M., 2009) alternately depict the support and struggles within the historically tight-knit homosocieties of women in Islamic nations. But while these films (all by men) portray women's resilience as proceeding from their abject status, Shirin Neshat distinguishes her photographs and films from such depictions by putting stress not on the abjection of Muslim women, but on the strength that emanates from the women's own discreet and inner homosocial identification and socialization. We can see this because Neshat enables us to see through the chadors and dividing walls keeping Iranian women and men apart so to gain sight of the hidden power that emanates from women banding together to contend with men buttressed socially by the formidable writ of Sharia law. No doubt because she is the rare woman among these artists, she sees and portrays women who are, in the emotional sense, literally without men despite and because of being surrounded and dominated by them.

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Shirin Neshat, "Pari," 2008, © Shirin Neshat

It's a sexual and gender iconography that impresses the homosocial divide graphically onto the minds of her viewers while conveying a message about Muslim women that transcends all cultural barriers, including the misinformation generated with post-9/11 cultural polarization. Neshat reminds us that though the differences between Islamic and modern societies appear on the surface to break down to matters of faith, the deeper, truly exacerbating fault lines carve out the extent to which our cultures impose the male legislation of women and render the divide of gender inviolable. To the modern and secular eye, the Sharia customs of women's hijab, the public veiling and screening off of women in the mosque or in public assemblies, is perceived as severe and medieval, while to the fundamentalist Muslim the exposure of women outside Islam is vulgar, exploitative, and sinful. It is within the very center of this intersection of the cultural, religious, and political legislations of gender codification and the clashes of cultural difference that Neshat interjects her work. We see the Muslim, secular, democratic, despotic, male and female divides operative most starkly in the films Turbulent and Fervor, whereby we find Neshat covers her female performers in chadors and erects partitions to keep the public assemblies of men and women from acquiring sight of one another even as we are provided hints at the surging desire on both sides of the gender divide struggling to break free of sexual repression. But we are also provided glimpses of the kind of activist and defiant spirit that lies in wait of opportunity behind the chadors, screens, and disengagement of the sexes. It is in the film Rapture that we watch desire transform into action as the internal spaces of constraint are shown by the artists to also be the private spaces that allow individualism to take hold. It is an individualism that we see freeing the minds of women from narrow ideologies imposed on them as they gather in the exterior, open spaces of isolated terrain removed from male authorial view. And as the collective grows we watch women congeal as a homosocial collective in response to the Sharia imposed on them since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. In this sense it is Sharia that Neshat implies impels women to seek out the sea, where they then disembark in a boat without apparent motive or destination.

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Shirin Neshat, "Women Without Men," 2009, © Shirin Neshat


In Passage (2001), we find a more nuanced if also more mystical vision of women discreetly collaborating to achieve a common end. On screen we witness a ritualistic unity at work as the women move through a desert of obvious symbolic isolation whereby they are enabled to break free from the constraints imposed on them by men -- however transiently and however isolated from Iranian society such outbreaks mark them. It matters little that the actions the segregated men and women performed in Neshat's films and photographs are ritualistically ambiguous, prone to portentous signification and spectacle, or appear poetically obscure, even absurd (men marching herd-like through a desert; women forming a huddle on their knees to dig a hole in the desert with their bare hands as they become encircled by fire). The message that is central is the determination and solidarity forged in homosocialization -- in the desire (whether asexual or sexual) to enjoy the companionship and collective productivity of one's own sex.

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Shirin Neshat, "Women Without Men," 2009, © Shirin Neshat


Of course, the portrayal of the inner workings of women's segregated socialization can only be conveyed openly within societies whose female homosocial orders have loosened their male restraints. Neshat, after all, like the expatriate Indian feminist filmmaker Deepa Mehta, lives and works in North America. But then expatriate artists have long taken advantage of their new democractic status to provide Westerners views of the complexities of their native lands, which in the case of Neshat and Mehta pertain to women's homosocialization in nations that artificially extend pre-modern patriarchies into our modern era. They include women's enclaves that for centuries remained hidden behind the art historical depictions of women made by male artists -- enclaves that except for the religious orders have become depreciated in their cultural and commercial subsumption today, if not made near-extinct in the West. The glimpses provided by Neshat and Mehta at women's pre-modern enclaves are valuable not just for their depictions of the historic social orders within which women exercised some measure of autonomy and power without men. In their revelation to the unknowing public Neshat and Mehta in some sense perpetuate the solidarity that women forged to hold up under the constraints and which account for the longevity of the women's pre-modern enclaves into the modern era. It is also the reason why women artists like Neshat and Mehta turn their gaze back on the male homosocial art that historically neglected the strengths of women's homosocial unity despite the veiling and segregation imposed on them. Ultimately women artists like Neshat and Mehta sift through the history of male domination to find the significations of women's strength, resilience, and clandestine dissent.

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Shirin Neshat, "Women Without Men", 2009, © Shirin Neshat


In large part the ambiguities of difference -- between men and women, between Islam and democracy, between Western and Iranian feminists -- that remained dormant in Neshat's earlier work find their expression in her 2009 film Women Without Men, which won her The Venice Film Festival's Silver Lion (best director) award. It's in Women Without Men that we clearly see women's lives are imperiled only when they remove themselves from the enclaves of women's homosociety. Although the ambiguities within the film are far from reconciled with any feminist or democratic ideology, in reality such reconciliation evades the dynamics of gender, history, and cultural difference still in play today. It is this non-resolution that impels Neshat in the making of Women Without Men to resort to the narrative style of magical realism -- for there is no realism that can "make sense" of the absurdities of religious and state tyranny. In fact, in comparison with Neshat's earlier photography and films, Women Without Men softens the edges of the gender divide by representing women living in pre-revolutionary Iran without the chador. Of course, Neshat's softer gaze is also the result of the narrative style inspired by the Women Without Men novel by Shahrnush Parsipur (Zanan Bedun-e Mardan in Farsi). It's a narrative mode not generally well suited to politicized dramas unless it's wielded by masters like Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Isabel Allende. But already, with only one feature-length narrative film behind her, Neshat has proved herself to be a master at visualizing the seemingly mystical (but wholly political) bonds of women forged behind the closed doors of hijab. Whereas her film Passage was a more consistent exercise of the "magic" in magical realism, Women Without Men is a superior production in allowing us more identifiable and realistic portals through which we enter the prescient psyches of the women. Once we enter, we no longer see Neshat's women as portentous mystics or arcane caricatures -- the one limiting signification of Passage -- but as people with ambiguous interpretations of and relationships to the formidable and worldly equations of power they face. In other words, they resemble people we know and can sympathize with for seeing what motivates them as human beings. Women Without Men is all about motives, specifically the motives that propel three women who are anything but without men yet who learn that they are better off when they strive to be without them, and as a result of seeking a new reality fatefully meet up.


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Shirin Neshat, "Women Without Men," 2009, © Shirin Neshat

As in all her work, Neshat uses film's iconographic power to mitigate the differences between the West and Islam, however wishful her efforts appear. In Neshat's earlier films, Iranian feminism is portrayed as being starkly different from Western feminism without showing us why except for connoting feminism as the effect of women being forced to submit to the governing mullahs -- the effect of the extreme pressure placed on women by severe and misogynistic interpretations of religion. Only with the making of Women Without Men are non-Muslim viewers, and Westerners in particular, able to properly read Neshat's earlier work in retrospect. Which really means that non-Muslims are also provided the historical backdrop they require to understand how Iranian women are engaged in a discreet feminism--that resembling what in the West may be thought of as analogous to an earlier, 20th-century brand of women's enculturation that by necessity still conflated empowerment to some degree of domesticity and male domination.


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Shirin Neshat, "Women Without Men," 2009, © Shirin Neshat


Throughout the film's three intersecting narratives of women seeking meaning beyond men and their governance, we watch Western parallels and influences enacted onscreen that both Western women and men can identify with. This is only natural, given that it was the West which impacted upon the Pahlavi shahs to relax hijab. It is the reason that Shirin's first employment of a period-specific script provides non-Muslims with the history we require to understand the tensions of a generation of Iranian women who remember the secular Iran. It never would have been difficult to understand if we in the West hadn't forgotten the ways in which we forged our own resilience and strength under the constraints of religious and monarchal despotism. Each generation requires reminding of the tensions that gave rise to our modern-day freedoms; reminding that women's politicization is the unintended byproduct of women being confined to their own homosocial orders for centuries. It is, after all, homosocialization that provided, and often still provides, women a respite from male sexual objectification and the irrepressible urge within men for their own male homosocialization. Knowing this, it should come as no surprise that Neshat's depiction of distinct male and female homosocieties should be the single most important motif to mitigate the differences between Islam and modernity. Homosocialization is one of the true universal proclivities to transcend cultural and linguistic difference. After all, homosocialization courses through and organizes every tribe, nation, and civilization in history, be it patriarchal or matriarchal. All of which reflects on Neshat's departures from her usual subject of Iranian women, which we see in her 2002 series Tooba, a reference to the feminine Tree of Paradise cited in the Qur'an but which Neshat shot in Oaxaca, Mexico, and her most recent series, Games of Desire, which references the Laotian customs and signage of courtship among elderly men and women.


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Shirin Neshat, two images from the "Tooba" (the feminine Tree of Paradise) series, 2002, © Shirin Neshat

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Shirin Neshat, "Couple 2," from the "Games of Desire Series," 2009, © Shirin Neshat


For a look at women and hijab in historic Islamic art, see the slideshow below.

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Read other posts by G. Roger Denson on Huffington Post in the archive.

Attributed to al-Wasiti, Abu Zayd Preaching in a Mosque, Baghdad school, Iraq, Ca. 1237
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Illumination from a manuscript of The Maqamat (Sessions) of al-Hariri in which Muslim women are seen restricted to an upper level of a mosque. Originally women were active participants in the mosque started by Muhammad. He instructed his followers not to forbid women from entering mosques. But since the time of Umar, the second caliph, women have been separated from men in the mosque, even at times forbidden to enter, despite there being nothing written in the Qur'an about gender separation. There is a contradictory hadith (an alleged saying of Mohammed written after his death) that attributes Mohammed as saying "The best mosques for women are the inner parts of their houses." It is this saying that traditionalists cling to in their interpretation of women's separation in the mosque.
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