Editor’s Note: Shirin Neshat is an internationally acclaimed visual artist working primarily in photography, film and video. All opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. Her newest show, “Land of Dreams,” is exhibiting at the Gladstone Gallery in New York through February 27, 2021. An accompanying online show can be seen here.
In my artworks I approach beauty as a way to escape the mundane. Beauty isn’t just the physicality of my characters, but their raw emotions, dignity and humanity.
As an Iranian, I was born into a culture that is deeply rooted in poetry and mysticism, where beauty means a heightened sense of emotions and spirituality – it’s a way to cope with the hardship and ugliness of tyranny and everyday life. From childhood, I have been surrounded by Persian and Islamic art, architecture, poetry and music where my eyes and ears were trained to see everything in the form of a duality: hope in despair, joy in melancholy, order in chaos, perfection in imperfection, mortality in immortality.
As for myself, I have lived a rather challenging life in self-imposed exile since I was a young adult, leaving my native country just before the upheaval of the Iranian Revolution. But despite my sorrows I’ve been a survivor, and feel blessed by many unexpected gifts in my life. I feel as if my art has also taken my nomadic and dualistic nature where everything seems to be conceived around the idea of opposites.
In my earliest body of work, a photographic series made in the 1990s titled “Women of Allah,” I made some provocative and rather controversial self-portraits embodying the role of a martyr. I wore the hijab, armed myself with weapons and had my body inscribed with poetry. At the time, I was interested in understanding the concept of martyrdom, which had become popular and even institutionalized by the Iranian government during the Islamic revolution. I was fascinated by that peculiar intersection of love, faith and devotion along with an obsession with violence, cruelty and ultimately death. What was even more perplexing for me was how many Iranian women voluntarily became militant at the time.
The images from “Women of Allah” carried many paradoxical symbols: the female body as the sensual, even erotic element; the weapon an obvious representation of violence; the veil as a form of repression yet to many an expression of conviction to one’s faith; and finally the text, which was poetry written by women, and suggested the notion of a voice. At the end “Women of Allah” became a highly aesthetized, beautiful yet disturbing group of images.
Last year, The Broad in Los Angeles held a major retrospective of my photographic and film work created over the past three decades. It was interesting for me to detect various parallels between my earliest and latest body of work, and how they shared similar visual and symbolic values. If the “Women of Allah” series became a fictionalized narrative about the Iranian revolution from a self-exiled artist, the later work, “Land of Dreams,” offered my perspective as Iranian immigrant about the changing American society in the Trump era.
“Land of Dreams,” which opened at the Gladstone Gallery in New York earlier this year includes videos and over 100 photographs capturing portraits of Americans living in the country’s Southwest, from different ethnic and economic backgrounds.
In one of the videos, a young, exiled Iranian woman disguised as an art student goes door to door asking to take local residents’ portraits as well as collect their dreams. She then returns to a mysterious Iranian colony, tucked away inside a mountain, where many Iranian men and women analyze the dreams she has received.
Through this surrealistic and satirical narrative, we not only delve into the absurd, long-standing conflict between Iran and the US, but the fine boundary between the realms of dream and reality, and the shared human experiences that defy cultural boundaries.
As for the portraits, I personally traveled through the state of New Mexico photographing and collecting accounts of dreams from diverse communities of Native Americans, African Americans, Latino Americans and Anglo Americans. Later the translations and interpretations of these characters’ dreams were inscribed on their images in Farsi calligraphy. I’ve always returned to calligraphy because its visual impact transcends translation. Each mark represents an idea of beauty and spirituality which contradicts political inflammation.
Though Western audiences may not be able to read the calligraphy inscribed in these images, nor recognize the music in my films, the beauty of human dignity is universal. In the portraits, I wanted to show the power of the individual. Every single person looks monumental. Confronted with these works, I hope viewers are reminded, as is the Iranian protagonist of my video, that we each contain dualities, and we all have the same desires and anxieties. We all deal with the same existential fears.
I believe the work is unique in the way that it shows a nomadic perspective, the gaze of an artist who is always navigating between cultures that she doesn’t completely belong to anymore. But in doing so, she finds that she’s not alone. “Land of Dreams” isn’t meant to be a critique of power or any particular administration, but a hand extended to see how others dream.
As told to CNN’s Jacqui Palumbo