An Interview with Shirin Neshat

Shirin Neshat, born in 1957 in the city of Qazvin, Iran (36° 16’N, 50° 00’E) is living in Tribeca today, 6058 miles (9,749 kilometers, 5,264 nautical miles) away. It is almost inconceivable that this petite woman has made it to the peak of the international art world, a journey as improbable as a mission to the moon.

Shirin Neshat arrived in the United States from Iran in 1974 to gain an education in art at the University of California, Berkeley. After a journey back to post-revolutionary Iran in 1993, she released her very first portfolio of photographs – titled Unveiling (1993), followed by another collection, Women of Allah (1993).

The art world was astonished by these works – as Islamic women had not often been used as subjects, much less portrayed as powerful. Neshat’s pictures depicted women of strength and courage, with or without veils.

In 1998, her first video installation, Turbulent, was displayed. The installation featured two video screens facing each other.

One showed a man singing to an audience of men with his back to the camera, while the other displayed a veiled woman seated in an empty auditorium. As the man sang, the audience applauded, but the woman remained silent.

When the man stopped singing, the woman began, creating an evocative and mesmerizing sound without any words. The video was partially motivated by the Islamic law, established after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, that prohibited women from singing in public.

Neshat’s art has been featured in a variety of exhibitions worldwide, such as the Whitney Museum of New York, the Tate Gallery of London, and The Art Institute of Chicago, beginning in 1998. In 1999, she was honored with the First International Prize during the forty-eighth Venice Biennale.

A trilogy composed of Turbulent, Rapture (1999), and Fervor (2000) was created in collaboration with Iranians close to Neshat, including her partner, Shoja Azari (who featured in Turbulent), who was also involved in writing and editing; Ghassem Ebrahimian, who was the cinematographer; and Sussan Deyhim, who composed the soundtracks. Other people, such as Shahram Karimi and Hamid Fardjad, have also been part of the creative process.

When Abbas Kiarostami completed The Wind Will Carry Us in 1999, he expressed a desire to make films like those of Shirin Neshat. He has since crafted Ten, his most experimental movie to date, in addition to two video installations. Neshat, on the other hand, is just starting her journey into feature films. She was at Sundance Institute’s fabled screenwriter’s lab in January 2003 to build a project based on Women Without Men, a book written by Iranian novelist Shahrnush Parsipur.

A few conversations occurred in mid-June at various spots, such as a Chinese eatery in West Hollywood and a Standard Hotel bar. At the latter, an illusionist set a dollar bill ablaze and changed it into a rose.

— As stated by Dorna Khazeni


THE BELIEVER: I had come across the fact that you had been educated in the art of Indian dancing.

SHIRIN NESHAT: In the 1970s, I attended a conservative Catholic college called Dominican College in San Rafael, Marin County. I felt quite restless and dispirited in that setting and even in Marin County generally. However, I was lucky to find a classical Indian dance institute, Ali Akbar Khan School of Dance and Music, located in San Anselmo, close by. I then became a full-time student of Kathak dance, doing it every day.

I was the only student at the institute who was not a Westerner. I was delighted with the dance and becoming quite good at it, yet I had to quit because I was fed up with the cult-like environment of the school.

A lot of the dancers treated Kathak as a lifestyle and a type of religion. Most of the women dressed and acted like they were from India. I had to stop because you can’t take someone else’s traditions.

You can be influenced or inspired by them, but you can’t pretend to be someone you are not. The teachers were treated like gurus, which was absurd. Sadly, I had to leave after two years, even though I truly cherished that dance.

Observation: It’s quite remarkable to see the amount of Iranians residing in Los Angeles, often referred to as Tehrangeles.

SN: Walking around L.A., it seems like every other person is Iranian. It’s almost like I’m in Iran again. But, I don’t quite fit in with this scene. Iranians who live in different parts of the world have all developed their own identities, like those in Europe being quite different from those in New York or Ohio. The L.A. identity seems more focused on wealth and rank, which I am not looking for. On the other hand, London’s Iranian community is very active culturally and intellectually regardless of social class. Even so, L.A. has created a unique subculture amongst a new generation of Iranians that offer certain comforts for those who have immigrated from Iran. Yet, for me it’s still not what I am seeking.

BLVR: To me, Los Angeles is more of an assortment of places to experience than a city. It’s not like New York where there’s a single, cohesive city. I create my own map each day.

SN: Fascinating! It’s clear that after a certain amount of time, living in L.A. would lead to a special bond with it. Unfortunately, I never had that opportunity to cultivate that connection.

BLVR: I recently came across something which suggested that you do not regard yourself as in exile, but rather in a state of displacement.

SN: For an extended period, I refused to use the term ‘exile.’ My impression was that it implies an involuntary situation, such as when a person is forced to leave their homeland. At the time I made this statement–which was some years ago–I had gone to Iran, and I was proud of myself for making the effort.

In the last few years, I have come to understand the reality of being in exile. Every time I attempted to return, something always seemed to get in the way. This was the first time I had really felt such frustration, as before I had always had the option to leave. But this time I was denied my choice and felt angry and aggravated. Then I thought to myself, “I am an artist in exile.” Accepting this, I felt I could begin to explore how this would affect my work, my psychology and how I viewed myself.

BLVR: Were there any other opportunities presented?

SN: Experiencing different places, cultures, and countries allows me to feel more connected instead of being an outsider. For instance, when I go to Morocco or Mexico, I try to make it feel like a temporary home. This has changed how I relate to transitory places, and I no longer feel like a foreigner. In fact, my Iranian background isn’t something that I even think about anymore.

I experience a sense of displacement in my life no matter where I am. Even in Manhattan, I have never stayed in one place for very long due to my nomadic nature.

Although I have stayed in [New York] for a while due to my family, I feel that I need to move on soon. I am constantly searching for something I feel is lacking in my life, and when I get to a new place, I realize it’s not there either. This feeling of displacement is something I am very familiar with and it is both a part of my personality and the situations I find myself in.

BLVR: That is understandable. Your journey in art started with you being a painter and then you gave it up. Later on, a trip to Iran after the revolution led to you starting to make art again. What occurred when you were in Iran on that occasion?

I was completely taken aback by the transformation Iran had undergone when I returned in 1990 after a twelve-year absence. Nothing was familiar. The Islamic Revolution had drastically altered the culture in every way imaginable. Fascinated by the reasons behind these changes, I was determined to restore my connection to the country I had left behind.

The art I created was used as a way to express myself and understand the social landscape of Iran during the revolution. On an individual level, it acted as a bridge to maintain my connection with the nation, no matter if I was in Iran or New York. This led to me travelling back and forth often, and I felt the gap that had been between us for such a long time was diminishing.

BLVR: What was the initial occasion that took you to Mexico?

SN: By the start of 1996, I experienced difficulty in my travels to Iran as my work had gained recognition. Thus, I started shooting in Turkey and predominantly Morocco from 1998 to 2001, pretending it was Iran. I attempted to go back to Iran and acquire permission to film a movie there in the spring of 2001, yet all of my attempts were unsuccessful. Subsequently, 9/11 occurred which left me so disturbed that I had no inclination to take part in the politics of the Middle Eastern countries, so I searched for a safe, politically neutral country. My enthusiasm for eventually filming a movie in my home country had vanished. As a result, I opted for Mexico.

This was my first time in Mexico and I had heard a lot about its culture and its rich history. I found myself in awe of the landscape and was struck by the similarities to Iran. My goal was to find a place that reminded me of home, so it was a no-brainer that I should film my movie in Oaxaca. It was a wonderful experience working with the Mexican people, especially the locals who became part of the cast.

A few days ago, I returned from Mexico City, where Tooba (2002), the film I had filmed in Mexico, was being shown at the Museum of Modern Art. I was profoundly affected by their reaction to the film and the dialogue concerning the concept. It can be said that the Mexican viewers grasped the meaning and poetry of the work significantly better than the Europeans and Americans.


BLVR: What feelings did you have when you returned to Iran for the first time? What sorts of things did you notice for the first time upon your arrival?

In 1990, the transformations in the country were visible and drastic – particularly in terms of the government’s control over people’s presence in public. Everything seemed to be in black and white – only the big murals of Khomeini and other political leaders had any color. It was a period of intense constraints, with a ban on jeans and all women having to wear veils.

My twelve years in America had me become increasingly interested in the sociological and political aspects of the revolution that had taken place in Iran.

When I reconnected with friends who had participated in the events, I was surprised to hear of their struggles and how they had persevered in spite of their imprisonment and other hardships. In a peculiar way, I became envious of their experiences and felt as if my life was too light and shallow.

I had many queries for them, such as, “Who were the key figures behind the revolution? And which authors had been instrumental in overthrowing the previous regime?”

I recall my friend’s philosophy paper on shahaadat in post-revolutionary Iran. It was a captivating paper that delved into the contrast between East and West, and the rationale that went along with Islamic fundamentalism and revolution.

His paper was not political, but philosophical in nature, mapping out how martyrdom was established during the revolution in Iran. He didn’t seek to support the belief, but to explain where the ideology originated and why it caused trepidation in the West. His work provided a perfect description of the concept, and it inspired me to pursue my own work, Women of Allah.

It was both stimulating and frightening to observe the alterations in my environment. Coming from America, it was a different experience for me altogether because the culture there has no restrictions. I started to make new acquaintances and observe the differences firsthand.

My perspective of Iran has transformed over time. I have been harshly criticized for all the effort I have put into studying the relationship between Islam and Iranian culture. A lot of Iranians, especially those outside of Iran, are so angry with the Islamic regime that they are not open to having any discussions about it. Nonetheless, I have firmly believed that it is vital and do not regret my decisions.

BLVR: It gave you a push.

SN: Absolutely. My experience also stimulated my political awareness. I had been aware of issues in Iran, but I was preoccupied with simply getting by – which was not an easy feat. Then, I came to recognize that I had been living in a state of unawareness for twelve years. Being there made it all the more real.

I was delighted to rejoin the Iranian society, to be able to have a voice and the right to express it. Being politically conscious was often seen as a liability in Iran and most people would shy away from it. Nevertheless, I must admit that my return to Iran was very positive and it ignited a greater sense of awareness of the wider world.

BLVR: You appeared to recognize the potential of living in an association rather than independently.

SN: Furthermore, it is essential to find a place for yourself within the community. In my work, there is an ongoing dialogue between the “social” and the “personal.” These two components are inseparable and may be weighted more heavily on one side or the other. I feel that the poetic and musical elements of my work represent the personal and intuitive side, while the images and symbolism reflect the social and political aspects. Although I am asking about myself, the public may forget this personal element and just view it as a political statement.

III. SPACE AND LANDSCAPE: “It took us ten days of searching to identify this particular tree.”

BLVR: It is understandable why the context is neither individual nor particularly specific, yet it is still intimate as it is poetic. Is this also how you view “place” in your movies? As a physical context that is distinctive but also mysterious?

SN: Having had the experience of working in an architecture gallery for an extended period, it has become all the more imperative in my work to carefully select and utilize both the constructed and natural scenery.

In my film Tooba, the use of space was key to the story; it depicted the conflict between three elements: the woman and tree in the garden, the people moving to the garden, and the men in the circle.

This movie was based on a mythical figure from the Koran that is both human and plant, a “promised tree.” In both Islamic and Persian cultures, gardens hold a great significance in both spiritual and political aspects.

They are a reflection of heaven and a place of liberty. In the movie, this garden was represented by a single tree and a low wall. The moment the crowds made contact with the wall, the woman vanished, signifying the Garden of Eden and the loss of the magic when the apple is bitten. It took us ten days to find the tree that would show this separation of the sacred and the profane.

For Fervor, a very special kind of setting was essential in order to create an atmosphere of uncertainty. This was due to the nature of the event, which was incredibly suspicious. It was impossible to tell if you were in a mosque, a theater, or a political gathering. The significant element was the curtain that split the area. This was a deliberate and visual decision that impacted the space.

The stark contrast between the desert, a space for women, and the fortress, a masculine and militarized area, is encapsulated in Rapture. The incongruity of these male characters in their official attire within such a setting is a key element in the story.

The architecture of each world in Soliloquy (1999) is symbolic of the culture, expressing its grandeur, worth, and ideals in a way that is both awe-inspiring and intimidating, while still being unique and distinguishable.

In my stories, both constructed and natural landscapes are of great importance to me.


BLVR: How does text play into your work? I’m curious about the source of your inspiration, but also the text integrated into your pieces, such as the calligraphic lines you feature on the female figures in your photographs, the Rumi poem in Turbulent, the Forough [Farrokhzad] poem in The Last Word, and the Shahrnush Parsipur novel you are transforming into a movie.

SN: That’s an intriguing query, and it’s not one that’s asked commonly. In fact, all the work I have accomplished has been motivated by another writer’s words from the very beginning.

One of my earliest works was titled Unveiling, which was influenced by the poetry of Forough Farrokhzad. I find that the photographs in this project are reflective of Forough’s poetry, as she was a very visual poet and her writing focused heavily on the body and metaphors. I am truly enamored with her poetry.

When I was creating the Women of Allah project, I was taking cues from the writings of Tahereh Saffarzadeh, an author who had returned to Iran just before the revolution. She had shifted her writing to focus on topics related to the revolution, such as responsibility and faith. After reading her poetry, it felt natural to incorporate these words into the photographs. The project, therefore, is not just a bunch of images, but a combination of text and visuals that work together.

As I began to work on music, the meaning of poetry became critically important to me. Rumi’s poems, in particular, are so appealing to me because of how ambiguous they are. Although I am not an expert on Rumi, I find that his works always leave room for interpretation; whether the object of love is divine or human is unknown. This opened up a whole new creative world for me. In Pulse (2001) with Sussan [Deyhim], we went through books and with the help of Shoja and Shahram, we chose a poem and gave it to Sussan, who then created a remarkable composition. Similarly, when I heard Turbulent, “yadegare-doost,” it was the best piece of Iranian music I had ever heard. This song brought tears to my eyes and I believe it is Shahram Nazeri’s most outstanding song.

The character of Tooba in my film Tooba was heavily inspired by Mahdokht from Shahrnush Parsipur’s Women Without Men, the woman who transforms into a tree. In my last film, The Last Word (2003), this female character’s words are her only form of defense. Her answers are meant to express her identity and what she belongs to, the creative realm, and to allow her to rise above the rest. I chose the poem of Forough’s to illustrate her origin and her belonging. The man questioning her in The Last Word symbolizes a moral judge, which is indicative of women’s need to always defend themselves. I wanted to depict this with his words and her words.

I was completely taken in by Shahrnush Parsipur’s Women Without Men; it has all the components that fascinate me: poetry, mysticism, politics, philosophy, and feminism. I then had the task of connecting my own vision and imagination to the author’s – a process that took some effort.

I have come to the realization that I connect with the writings of these women, and more so with who they are. The hardships these women had to face in their lives, not just by their governments but also by the people around them, have a personal significance to me. I can relate to their broken homes and single child status, which is similar to my own. [ Laughs ] It made me think, “Isn’t that interesting? All the women whose writing captivates me lead lives similar to my own.”

And I am thankful for their madness, too. It gives me the courage to know that they were there and what they have achieved. They are my heroes, albeit I am nothing. The struggles we go through are the same. Moreover, Shahrnush Parsipur is still alive. Although I do not know her that well, a part of me wants to be close to her. A part of me feels that she could be important in my life. Because when someone passes away, you feel that you should have gotten to know them better. These women are of great importance to me.



BLVR: There seems to be a connection between mysticism, feminism, and madness in your work.

SN: Your interpretation is accurate. There’s a duality in my work that I personally experience. This duality consists of two forces: a rebelliousness that protests and a compliance that suppresses and creates misfortune. Within this duality, I find both strength and weakness. These two elements are in constant opposition.

BLVR: In your movies, the female characters tend to be unpredictable whereas the male characters are more often portrayed as a threat.

This creates a contrast between the two genders. The men’s power is evident, but the women’s is not and it creates a sense of surprise. For example, when Sussan sings in Turbulent, her voice is unlike anything the audience has ever heard before and it is almost indescribable. In Rapture, the women’s unexpected journey to the sea in a boat is quite unexpected. Similarly, in The Last Word, instead of succumbing to the oppressive interrogation, the woman responds with poetry.

SN: The reason for this work taking the direction it has is due to the oppressive environment women in Iran live in. This pressure has resulted in the most unique strategies of resistance against the system. Women living in such a situation tend to show extraordinary resilience, something which is not as visible in places which have more gender equality.

People under pressure are more likely to react and do something than those who are not. This is seen at street and social levels, where they are continuously fighting against the established order and utilizing creative methods to resist and fight. This has become their own form of feminism, a way to take control of their own lives.

It is not about men against women, but rather the way both genders are treated differently, with women becoming the rebellious elements and men the conformists. This does not mean that I see men as foolish and women as incredible, but the nature of male oppression makes them the opposite of what they want to be.

I have always found myself resisting the cliche Western view of Muslim women as voiceless victims. My art is a homage to the strength of these women, as well as their capacity to protest within Islamic culture. They have their own individual ways of confronting difficult situations.


BLVR: Since you began your video projects with Turbulent, your work has been a collective effort. What modifications do you notice when working with different partners?

SN: Collaborating with a new individual is like dancing with someone new. You are unfamiliar with their style and you are still getting to know each other. Although there is an excitement that comes with it, it is comforting to work with people who understand your vision and don’t require too much explanation. It took us a while to get to that point, but now we can communicate more efficiently.

However, when I had to work with Darius Khondji, I felt a different kind of energy. I had to be more conscious of making sure he was aware of my ideas and that I comprehended his process.

BLVR: That particular piece has an exceptional feel to it, unlike any of your other creations.

SN: For Tooba, Darius Khondji and I collaborated on the visual aspects of the project, like camera angles, color, and each shot. During post-production, I worked in tight partnership with Shoja and the editor Sam Neave. I recall that at the beginning of the shoot in Mexico, Darius informed me that he could only take direction from the director. Therefore, I had to ensure that my other team members, who were used to having more of a say, were respected. They were superb, though it required me to take a much greater degree of control than I would typically do.

Having worked with the same people over a long period of time creates a sense of familiarity and comfort. You can easily throw out ideas and have the assurance that, even if they’re not great, you can just toss them out and move on. This type of trust is something to be admired and I believe that we have set a good example of that.

Collaborating on a project is not an easy feat, but filmmaking especially requires the effort of multiple people. In my own work, there is an added layer of complexity.

The individuals I work with are much more than just people who assist me. I open myself to their advice when I come up with an idea, but the ultimate choice of the direction of the project is mine to make.


BLVR: In your current situation, you have your foot in both the art and film industry. What are your thoughts on the two? How do you view them and how do you bridge the gap between the two?

SN: My knowledge of the art world surpasses my understanding of the film industry. The same kind of thrill and anxiety that I experienced when I first became part of the art world, where each invitation was so special, is what I feel when someone from the film world is aware of my work. I am taken aback by it and it’s an unfamiliar emotion that I don’t get from the art world anymore.

It’s an intimidating experience to shift from one medium to the next, but that’s how I usually operate. I don’t often stick to just one medium for an extended period of time. I tend to take chances, even if I’m unsure of what I’m doing.

I find the potential for experimentation in cinema to be thrilling. It has a much wider viewership than the art world, and is more involved with the mainstream culture. Whereas the art world can be seen as more traditional and exclusive in comparison, it has its own merits. I still have much to learn about combining both realms, but I believe there are many thrilling prospects.

Recently, I have devoted a lot of my time to watching films. So far, the two directors that have been my favorite are Andrei Tarkovsky from Russia and Krzysztof Kieslowski from Poland. Now I’m turning my attention to other renowned filmmakers.

BLVR: What creators have you been influenced by or appreciate?

SN: I have a great admiration for Louise Bourgeois, and I had the pleasure of visiting her at her home in New York. I am always moved by her artwork. Apart from her, I am also a fan of Doug Atkins and William Kentridge’s video art, as well as Anish Kapoor’s sculptures from India who now lives in London. During the last autumn I was fortunate enough to witness his installation at the Tate Modern in London, and I was truly astonished. Additionally, I am also fond of Mona Hatoum’s work from the Middle East, who resides in London.

I have certain artists I’m particularly fond of, but I’m more inclined to watch movies than view artwork right now. It could just be temporary!

BLVR: What sort of books have you been looking into lately?

SN: Taking the time to read has been a priority for me lately. I’m currently exploring Like Water for Chocolate to compare it to its film adaptation and The Kiss of the Spider Woman which both belong to the magic realism genre, like Shahrnush Parsipur’s works. Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran has been especially gripping. Last fall, when I was searching for potential films, I frequented the library at [New York University] and read Iranian authors, short stories and other materials. I also have been reading Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time. Reading extensively was of great help while I was going through the changes I was enduring. [ Glancing out of the window, she notices a parking officer ticketing the interviewer’s car] Oh, Dorna! You forgot to put money in the parking meter!

BLVR: I certainly haven’t overlooked it. I made sure to put money in the machine when we arrived.

SN: [ Chuckling and conversing in Farsi ] This reminds me of a funny story Mr. Kiarostami once told us. Apparently, he was sitting outside of a screening of The Wind Will Carry Us when a man ran out of the theater, looking flustered and embarrassed. He explained that he had to leave quickly to put money into his parking meter, to which the director replied, “I’m glad my movie didn’t make you forget to attend to your parking meter.”

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