A middle-aged Iranian man sat down next to me at Shirin Neshat’s new retrospective, Facing History, in Washington, D.C. He looked at me, smiling and bewildered, and said, “All of this, this whole museum, just for her?”
The man was on vacation in the U.S. and happened upon the exhibit — a collection of artwork spanning three decades and two artistic mediums — by complete accident. He wasn’t expecting to tour the capital of the U.S. and see the artwork of an Iranian — let alone an Iranian woman living in the U.S. on a self-imposed exile.
He wasn’t the only one surprised. In Neshat’s opening comments to a packed house at a meet-the-artist presentation, she said, “It’s an honor as a woman and as a Middle Easterner to hold this much space.”
And she didn’t just take up space. She filled it — covered the entire second floor of the Hirshhorn Museum of Modern Art with Muslim women, Iranian history, Persian music, and creative commentary on the role of gender and politics on the life of a woman in exile.
The exhibit is arranged in sections, paralleling three major social and political upheavals in Iran: the 1953 U.S. supported coup of Mohammad Mosaddeq, Iran’s first democratically elected head of state; the 1979 Islamic revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power; and the 2009 Green Movement — protests for a more democratic government, sparked by suspicions of mass voter fraud.
However, the exhibit doesn’t tell you what to think about Iran and its history, it just tells you to think of Iran and its history — an especially important message at a time when a parochial and definitive image of Iran and Iranians could eliminate hopes of approving a Nuclear Framework Agreement.
During a Woodrow Wilson Center event on Monday, titled A Retrospective: Gender and Politics in the Work of Shirin Neshat, panelist Karim Sadjadpour, author and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explained, “Iran has been plagued by men of certainty — men who have been so certain about their ideologies and their views … Shirin is a woman of uncertainty who continues to question Iran’s politics and ideology.”
Neshat’s “uncertainty” most beautifully manifests in the blurring of history and fiction. In a practical sense, Neshat had to use her imagination to make sense of the Iran she knew growing up, and the changing Iran that she had to leave behind.
“I didn’t say ‘this is Iran.’ This is my Iran,” she said.
Neshat’s Iran appears first in photograph and then in video at the Hirshhorn. The Women of Allah (1997) photography series presents veiled Muslim women holding revolvers, holding the tiny hands of babies, holding their own closed-lip faces. And on each body, Persian writing taken from the poetry of Iranian women.
More than anything else, the often untranslated calligraphy reminds a Westerner of at least one important thing: There are many things about these women that we don’t understand. There exists a diverse array of experiences and beliefs in Iran that are — just like the calligraphy — not automatically translatable.
If we are disturbed by this artwork, it is in the way these pieces disturb a sense of comfortable certainty.
As one progresses through the exhibit, the art switches its focus from women to the relationship between men and women. Attendees of the exhibit walk into a small dark theater with a bench in the middle of the room and two giant screens — one on the left wall and one on the right. On the right, a man begins skillfully singing a traditional song. An engaged audience of men listens behind him. He finishes, the audience claps, then the room goes silent as the woman singer on the other screen begins to make a deep throaty noise. She has no audience behind her — a subversive nod to the rules against women singing public solos in Iran.
"The woman breaks all the rules of music, sings without language something completely guttural," Neshat said.
And that becomes a theme of this section of the exhibit: Women breaking rules and presenting paradoxes.
But this gender polarity breaks down as the exhibit moves forward. In The Book of Kings (2012), Neshat presents calligraphy-covered photos of men next to calligraphy-covered photos of women. The women and men are no longer caught up in a vocal duel on opposing walls; instead, we make eye contact with the side-by-side faces of a pro-democracy movement.
In her popular TED Talk from 2010, Neshat said, “By studying a woman, you can read the structure and the ideology of a country.”
I would add: By studying the art of Shirin Neshat, you can realize how much you don’t know about the structure, people, and ideology of a country.
Jenna Barnett is an Editorial Assistant for Sojourners. Follow her on Twitter @jennacbarnett.