Who is Shirin Neshat?
The political and religious upheaval that affected Iran in 1979 is best remembered for the taking of American hostages and the deposing of the Shah. Like most revolutions, however, the series of events that brought on the ayatollahs also planted cultural seeds that later pushed back against this seemingly unstoppable movement. The children and grandchildren of the insurgent Muslims who toppled a monarch are now making protests of their own. While they do not riot or take to the streets, as did their parents, they nevertheless register their discontent around the world through art and literature. One such dissident is Shirin Neshat, a renowned photographer and videographer. A native of Iran, Neshat came of age in the United States, where she was sent to finish her education. The revolution ignited while she was abroad, and prevented her from returning to her homeland. Having consolidated their power, the mullahs in charge of Iran began to enforce codes of behavior that restricted women to a greater degree than men. Responding to what she sees as a diminishing of the dignity of women in Iran, she produces works that counter such repression. Her art consistently aims to highlight the strength and nobility of women living in traditional Muslim societies.
Childhood & Early Life
Shirin Neshat was born on March 26, 1957 in the city of Qazvin, Iran. Qazvin is approximately two hours north of the capital city of Tehran, and near the Elburz mountain range.
Her father was a physician, and both her parents were recognized as upper-middle class and intellectual. She attended Catholic boarding school in Tehran until 1974.
In 1974, her father—an admirer of western cultures—sent her to complete her formal education in California. She later enrolled at the University of California-Berkeley, where she earned a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees.
In 1990, Neshat was able to return to Iran for a visit. Upon arrival, she experienced the sharp changes in Iranian society, particularly those laws governing women. This was a watershed event in her creative life.
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Shirin Neshat moved to New York City and began working at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in 1983. Storefront is a non-profit, alternative space for creative enterprises.
In 1993, she began exhibiting her first photographic works to critical acclaim. Although trained as a painter, Neshat contends that photography—black and white—conveys clarity and simplicity unlike any other medium.
In 2000, she exhibited her works in Dallas, Texas and Turin, Italy. Two years later, she launched photographic exhibitions in Houston and Minneapolis. From 2000 on, she began shooting videos which were viewed at a number of international film festivals, e.g. Lacarno, Tribeca, Cannes and Sundance. Throughout this period, she continued to show her still photography.
Year 2005 saw Neshat take her work to ever farther and more prestigious destinations. She held exhibitions—which included video, music and multi-media elements— in London, Berlin and the Spanish city of León.
From 2006 to 2008, she opened exhibitions in Amsterdam, Salzburg, Lisbon and Reykjavik. Her work was noted for its overlay of Arabic and Persian text on its human subjects.
From 2009 to 2012, she opened in Copenhagen, Paris, Brussels, Madrid and Milan. She collaborated with musicians like Sussan Deyhim, among others, to add melody and sound to her visuals.
In 2013, Sirin Neshat was selected to serve on the jury at the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival. Jurors are invariably well-established and respected practitioners in the arts of videography and cinematography.
Neshat’s first major work was a 1993 through 1997 series entitled ‘Women of Allah.’ Each photograph portrays a Muslim woman overlaid with Persian calligraphy, and was inspired by indigenous feminist poetry from Iran.
She produced ‘Rapture’ in 1999. This video examines the gender politics of conservative Islamic societies, comparing and contrasting the lives of women and men.
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‘Logic of the Birds’ is a combination of film and live performance. In this presentation, Neshat collaborated with screenwriter Shoja Azari and cinematographer Ghasem Ibrahimian, both Iranian exiles.
In 2009, she produced a film ‘Women Without Men,’ based on a novel by Shahrnush Parsipur. This work focuses on four Iranian women, from their lives under the Shah to the present day.
Awards & Achievements
She won the First International Prize at the ‘Venice Biennale’ in 1999. This event showcases the latest trends in contemporary art.
In 2000, she received the Visual Art Award at the ‘Edinburgh International Film Festival.’ Previous recipients of this award include Peter Cattaneo for ‘The Full Monty.’
The ‘Hiroshima Art Prize’ was awarded to Shirin Neshat in 2005 from the ‘Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art.’ The City of Hiroshima selects one artist each year who has promoted the peace of humanity.
In 2010, the ‘Huffington Post’ named Neshat ‘Artist of the Decade.’ Chronicling her work over the previous 10 years, the online news outlet lauded her for the “active and defiant spirit” of her art.
Personal Life & Legacy
Shirin Neshat was married to Kyong Park, the curator of the Storefront for Art and Architecture. They married shortly after she received her MFA from Berkeley and moved to New York. The couple, however, later separated.
Neshat currently lives with her partner Shoja Azari, who is an Iranian-born visual artist and filmmaker.
Though normally allowing her art to make political statements, Neshat has occasionally engaged in activism. In 2009, she participated in a three-day hunger strike at the United Nations, protesting the results of Iran’s presidential contest.
Originally wealthy, Neshat’s family lost their fortune after the 1979 revolution in Iran.