Many of us got to know Shirin Neshat, who is one of the most famous Iranian artists today, through her Women of Allah series, in which calligraphy adorned woman figures dressed in black and a rifle in their hands. Using photography and video as her medium, Neshat has been the creator of many provocative works throughout her career. In her works that generated both reaction and admiration, the artist explored various concepts like power, opposition, exile, individuality, collectiveness and security. But her main focus never changed: being a woman. Women characters, the difficulties she’s been through, pressures, being mixed up in affairs, questionings and doubts have always been the center of Neshat’s works.
Born in 1957 in the historical Kazvin province located in North Iran, Neshat was fortunate about her parents. Her mother and father were open minded for that period in time, and sent Neshat to America at the age of 17 so that she could receive a better education. Her life was changed with this decision. When she was studying at the University of California, Berkeley, Neshat was not able to return back to her country due to the Iranian Revolution in 1979. During that period, she didn’t find herself competent to be an artist so she was working in different areas, such as a gallery manager and curator. The breakthrough in her career was when she visited Iran twelve years after the revolution. Iranian women became inseparable to Neshat’s work, who at that point became concerned with art. An Eastern woman living in the West, Neshat had a unique opportunity: she was able to reflect both the image of the Muslim woman for Western eyes, and the reality of the East.
Her solo show “Dreamers” exhibited at Dirimart Dolapdere is one of the finest examples of this. The exhibition curated by Heinz Peter Schwerfel consists of Neshat’s last two videos “Roja” and “Sarah” from her trilogy and a photography series. When we got together with Neshat on her visit in Istanbul for the opening of the show, as opposed to the incredibly elegant and graceful image of her, the sparkle in her eyes gave away how strong of a person she is.Neshat’s striking 2011 TED Talk that was about how it feels “to be an artist in exile,” can be seen as more meaningful at this time, when we dream often of living abroad. Just like the self-exile where the artist exposed herself, this conversation too is like a reflection of her character; somber yet hopeful.
You express your subconscious in your two videos “Roja” and “Sarah” as part of your exhibition “Dreamers.” Why do you give this much importance to dreams?
Yes, my videos are a reflection of my dreams. I took notes after dreaming these dreams and I’ve been wanting to turn them into a movie for the past year. Finally I got the chance last year.
Dreams are very intriguing for me. Because, as you also said, they are definitely of relevance with the subconscious. I believe that we are liars when we are conscious; we don’t tell the truth or we hide it. In fact, this dishonesty is not only towards others, but often towards ourselves. As for in our dreams, we can be true to our self and face our fears. Besides, this gives me the freedom to be abstract as an artist and I can express myself more than I can ever in reality. I’m not so good with words and reality. Thus, I find dreams to be really important. Sometimes they are realer than reality. We can call this reflection a therapy.
You mainly use black and white in your works. Is there an aesthetic concern behind this?
(She looks at the clothes she is wearing and smiles. A always, she is dressed in all black with a white scarf) The reason I use black and white is the “seriousness” I think they carry.
The personalities I use in my movies and photography are dark. I think it reflects this well and also that black is very seducing and beautiful. At times I make movies in color but I can’t imagine the ones included in this exhibition in color. The absences of colors leave a more uncomfortable, striking and catchy impression on me. That’s why I prefer it.
“I can define my body as an extension of my work. I am now relatively older and the things that make me comfortable have become more valuable to me. I don’t have any concerns like impressing people or looking younger, but I do want to feel graceful. I think this is what style is. Everyone should get in a form that they feel comfortable and safe in.”
You were studying in America during the Iranian Revolution. And you didn’t return home for a while. Now that time has passed, what do you make of the reaction you gave when you look back at it?
First of all, I must point out that I haven’t been or able to go to Iran for a while. [Her entry to Iran is not permitted since 1996]. But going back to that time, I was certainly shocked the first time I visited the country. What I saw was both very frightening and fascinating. Iran was now a whole other country. My first reaction was being frightened and immediately walking away. I wasn’t able to comprehend what was happening and the reasons behind the situation I was in. This left a big impact on me and led me to art. The Women of Allah series I made between 1993-97 was a response to this. I actually hadn’t experienced this myself, I was somewhere else when it was all happening, but I came and saw it afterwards, and wanted to respond back to all this. My mind was especially preoccupied with topics such as the changes women were going through and the difference between their everyday lives and roles in society.
We’ve also been hearing negative comments towards women and Muslims in America, especially since the elections. What do you think about this as someone who experiences this there?
Unfortunately, the time I spent in America is more than the time I spent in my own country. I have never lived through a time when racism towards Muslims was as increased and violent as it is now in this country that I’ve been living in. The Muslim religion got symbolized in certain ways. There are many topics being discussed. Racist remarks and negative responses create hatred and violence.
There are other serious topics besides the Muslim religion of course. Feminism, education, environment and refugees, to name a few. However I still believe the biggest issue right now is about Muslims.
The remarks right now are really very problematic and destructive. In my opinion, this is a war within America’s own society. In this war between the conservatives and the liberals, everyone else becomes a tool. I’m still hopeful about the future. I believe that the rest of America is showing strong resistance and are rising.
The last thing I want to bring up is your eyeliner, which has become your trademark…
We discussed many topics like aesthetics and finding one’s own identity throughout our conversation. Finding home, feeling safe… These are really important concepts for me. I can define my body as an extension of my work. I am now relatively older and the things that make me comfortable have become more valuable to me. I don’t have any concerns like impressing people or looking younger, but I do want to feel graceful. I think this is what style is. Everyone should get in a form that they feel comfortable and safe in. And my eyeliner that resembles calligraphy is one of those. I think this technique is quite Eastern, and I like using it with my Western clothes. I have always loved mixing modern and traditional motifs together.