“Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.” —Edward Said
“To stay alive you must slay silence” –Simin Behbahani
Shirin Neshat’s dense and nearly overwhelming exhibition I Will Greet The Sun Again interrogates the very nature of reality, myth, perception and memory with her piercing portraits of women whose face, hands and feet are covered with intricate, decorative Farsi text; her haunting videos reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s mysterious starkness, and her later portraits, which compile faces of the exiled. Neshat’s compelling photographs (black and white) and mystical films (black and white as well as color) examine cultural norms surrounding the wearing of the veil, as seen through both the Western and Islamic gaze along with the cultural dislocation suffered by individuals in diaspora.
Born in 1957, Neshat grew up in the northern Iranian city of Qazuin, which was somewhat religious. In interviews, she notes the split that she experienced as a result of her more modern, liberal upbringing (allowed inside the house) and the religious behavior required outside the house. In the 1970’s, Neshat came to Los Angeles to live with her sister and attend high school, eventually ending up at the University of California for graduate school. When the 1979 Iranian revolution happened, she was forced into exile and didn’t return to Iran and reunite with her family until 11 years later. In the meantime, Iran had become a religious theocracy and women were required to wear the veil, among other conservative changes. The Iran she found was not the Iran she remembered. After her return she created the now iconic and searing series entitled “Women of Allah,” which put her work on the international map.
Haunting and intentionally ambiguous, these images are like artistic Rorschach tests, exposing the cultural preconceptions of the viewer. “Rebellious Silence,” 1994, ink on LE silver gelatin print part of the “Women of Allah” series, is a large-scale, monochromatic image of a chador wearing woman (Neshat herself), with the barrel of a gun splitting the picture plane. Unsmiling, this taut confrontational image is troubling and provokes many questions. Is this the image of a woman fighting side by side with men in the war against the West? The text inked on the surface of the photograph is from the feminist Iranian poet Tahereh Saffarzadeh, and when translated appears to represent her “inner thoughts” according to the helpful curatorial wall text. In “Faceless,” Neshat holds a gun pointed at the viewer. The text, beautifully drawn in large letters on her face and written in tiny meticulous script reminiscent of an illuminated manuscript on her arm, is once again from a poem by Saffarzadeh, entitled “Allegiance and Wakefulness,” written as a call to action.
Farzaneh Milani’s wonderful book entitled Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writer, is noted here as an influence on Neshat as she was working on her series. Milani writes about feminist Iranian poets, male/female relationships and cultural imperatives of the veil.
The veil, in its traditional sense, not only polarizes but
delineates boundaries. It consigns “power,” ”control,”
“visibility,” and “mobility” to one social category at the expense of the other. It not only separates the world of men and women
not related to one another by marriage or blood but also creates
hierarchies across this divide. The indoors, the domestic, the “private,” the “personal,” the world of women is trivialized. And the out-of-doors, the “public,” the world of masculine politics and money is affirmed, elevated.
Neshat explores this dichotomy of freedom and standing in society with her striking “Untitled,” 1996 Ink on RC print, in which she is totally enmeshed by her black chador and is standing next to her young nude son. Her hand, the only part of her that is visible is holding her small son’s hand. Naked and unashamed, he is looking directly towards the camera. Her son’s freedom (heightened by the starkness of the monochromatic print) is literally in direct contrast to her constraint. The veil functions here as a wall, a boundary that keeps the female silent and invisible.
However, it is in her mesmerizing and eerie videos that Neshat really provokes the viewer and brings the Western audience into a strange world. “Turbulent,” 1998, two channel video installation, 10 minutes duration, was filmed in NYC and contains poetry by Jalal-Din Rumi. Like many of Neshat’s videos, it employs a split screen to great and dramatic effect. On the left, the camera pans over an exclusively male audience all clad in identical white shirts and black pants, at the same time on the right screen the camera pans over an empty auditorium. A male performer arrives onstage facing us, and begins singing. On the right a chador-covered female form arrives onstage, back to us, facing an empty darkened auditorium. This video is powerful as it asks “Who has a voice?” “Who can be seen in public?” “Who can be heard?” “Who is invisible?” The man is met by applause as he bows and then the woman has her chance as the male singer comes to face us, perhaps to bear witness to the silent female. Then, surprisingly, the female singer, Sussan Deyhim, who is also the composer, bursts into a poignant, prayerful chant that becomes a scream. There is an ominous sound emanating from the male side as she continues. Sound here is a powerful character in this piece, making the men sound like ominous locusts about to smother her and Neshat uses sound menacingly in many of the videos.
Neshat creates an immersive experience in all her videos, enveloping the viewer in a mystical atmosphere, often with a sense of danger implied, especially if a female character is unveiled. The split screen Neshat employs amplifies the different spheres of influence that men and women have. The men are seen in cities, the women often in the landscape. Sometimes the viewer is literally seated in the middle – looking to the left and then to the right – as the action shifts from the men to the women, as if at a tennis match. There are so many layers of meanings and haunting psychological twists as Neshat expertly brings the viewer into this unimaginably complex reality, filled with ritualistic actions, inexplicable sounds and situations that reek of danger to those who transgress. One simply cannot look away from these unforgettable and haunting images.
In Neshat’s later years, she explores being a stranger in a strange land, nostalgia for a place that now longer exists. Her life as an exile takes precedence over her feminist preoccupations, as cultural convention misunderstood becomes a veil of sorts, an inexplicable border to cross. Edward Said called exile the “crippling sorrow of estrangement” and Neshat’s large-scale black-and-white photographs of exiled men and women who now reside in America, the mythical land of dreams, reinforces this. The gallery is crammed with frontal images of exiles, literally floor to ceiling, purposely creating a claustrophobic space filled with people caught between two worlds and belonging to neither. One is reminded of the writer Thomas Wolfe’s injunction that “you can never go home again.” The exiles photographed here are outwardly indistinguishable from you and me, but inside must deal with the pain of the forever alienated. Neshat’s work, especially her stunning and magical videos, demonstrate a unique voice, exploring the vagaries of memory, place and culture.
Featured Image: video still from Shirin Neshat’s latest film, Land of Dreams (2019)
© Shirin Neshat/Courtesy the artist, Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels, and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, Cape Town, and London