The images have become as iconic as any others found in Contemporary art; chador cloaked women, staring with kohl-rimmed eyes and brandishing guns are dizzyingly marked with calligraphic Farsi on their faces and hands. This poetry of politicised martyrdom, both inscribed and implied, has been the global calling card for Iranian artist, Shirin Neshat, now the subject of a retrospective in that most political of Western cities, Washington, D.C. Shirin Neshat: Facing History at The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, marks the end of an era in the 58 year-old artist’s career. Turning her attentions elsewhere in the Middle East, Neshat is now embarking on a new series of projects, most recently in Egypt, where she is working on a film about legendary singer Om Kolhtoum. It is an interesting navigation to consider; exile from her most-changed homeland has relentlessly inspired her body of work that spans photography, film, and video installations. Yet who better to shift their gaze during an increasingly turbulent time in the Middle East - when the interpretations of artists are so valuable - than Neshat?
Leaving Iran for the US as a teenager in 1974 to study, Neshat missed the Islamic Revolution that would render her country unrecognizable when she finally returned almost twenty years later. Gone were the mini-skirts and music making. Neshat instead encountered figures who eventually inspired the photographic series that would rocket her to international acclaim. Women of Allah, images populated by chilling yet beautiful women asserting their readiness to live and die by the sword - or in Neshat’s case, an automatic weapon - called feminism, religion and politics into question during the time of revolution. She tackled an Iranian woman’s ‘place’ with frankness and elegance, and even cast herself as an icon for resistance, joining the ranks of women she struggled to understand and in some ways, find her own place beside.
Curated by Melissa Chiu, the museum’s new director, and Melissa Ho, Facing History opened at a time when Iran was back at the negotiating table with the West, in tandem with the museum’s own desire to become an international home for Contemporary art. Indeed, there is no better artist than Neshat to carry this dual headline; for so long has she been an icon in exile, buffering heartache and conflict as she reimagined the history of a country she could not return to nor could she ignore. The show is sparsely hung in some places, offering meditative moments with the images, weaving through multimedia, including historical Persian artifacts on loan to act as material ‘scaffolding.’ Her video installations are given grand and deserved treatment. They are mini movie theaters for an immersive and sometimes overwhelming audio experience. And the endnote is a projected Neshat on a balcony looking out towards a city she cannot reach – one of the many moments of visual poetry.
Neshat’s art has existed as ‘a place to build a fictional bridge’ in-between her country, herself and her imagination. Unable to be privy to the three events that rocked Iran and presented in the show in linear order - the 1953 CIA and British-backed coup that reinstated the Shah, The 1979 Revolution, and The Green Revolution of 2009. Neshat has had to curate her own understanding of this history with the use of historical texts and poetry as an artistic springboard. This is most recently seen in her moving and massive photo installations, The Book of Kings and Our House is On Fire, and most famously witnessed in her 2009 feature, Women Without Men. Women are constantly segregated from men in her work. The most visually arresting being her films Rapture, Turbulent and Fervor. These represent resistance, intellectualism, sexual desire and loneliness. In her 2010 TED Talk, Neshat bluntly stated that “every Iranian artist in one way or another is political.” Yet recently, she has rejected the term outright, shaking off the labels that follow her; political, feminist, et al, to the confusion of her critics who denounce her for being stuck in her own mold and yet unable to own up to it. Yet when an artist is truly famous, does the work become less relevant and suspect? The answer in Neshat’s case is, yes.
Critics of the show have balked at some of her recent photographic work as mere ploys to cash in on the plight of others - particularly those who suffered during the recent Egyptian Revolution - using the ‘Neshat Brand.’ But is this argument entirely fair? Neshat is doing what she has done so well, for so many years: she documents a geographic human experience, real or imagined, for a larger audience to question in light of their own freedoms and beliefs. Like any artist, Neshat has stressed the desire for her work to be timeless, and now as she closes the chapter on a most fruitful artistic time, one cannot help but be sure of the timelessness of those women who fill the frames of her early work. Whether silent, shrouded, protesting or expressing their wordless pain to an empty hall, this is a history that we see tragically repeated in the present-day Middle East. Perhaps life will imitate art and embark on Neshat’s shifting tide towards something better, something greater for all.
‘Facing History’ ran until September 20, 2015