Art and Politics Never Far Apart in Iran

Women Without Men director Shirin Neshat wears her heart on her sleeve

Monday 5 April 2010

View online : The Star

In Toronto this week for a special screening of her first feature, Women Without Men, Shirin Neshat was an elegant sight entirely in black — almost, anyway: From the dark kohl underlining her eyes to her black blouse and skirt, Neshat offered an eye-catching counterpoint on her wrist: A bright burst of Kelly green on her wrist, in the form of two rubber bracelets.

“This one says ‘Free Iran,’ ” she says, turning it over to show the text. The other? “ ‘I am Neda,’ ” she says, for the young Iranian woman shot dead in the street in Tehran last year amid the protests following Iran’s presidential elections. Her next stop with the film, Neshat explained, would be New York’s Lincoln Center, where more than 100 people would wear green — the colour of dissent for Iranian exiles worldwide — to the premiere to protest her home country’s egregious political and human rights transgressions.

So there you have it: Neshat, 53, is one of the most celebrated visual artists of the past two decades, winning the top prize at the Venice Biennale in 1999 for her video piece Turbulent, but make no mistake where her priority lies. “I care as much about my political activity as I do my art,” Neshat says. “In the art world, it’s a little bit taboo to be political, but I don’t find the luxury to be quiet.”

Not that she ever has been. Born in Iran, Neshat has been in the U.S. since the 1970s, but her focus on women in the Muslim world has never drifted. Early work, like her “Women of Allah” series of photo portraits from 1995, featured veiled and burkha’d women, including herself, holding rifles and shotguns; on their hands and faces — any exposed flesh — she inscribed modern Persian poetry.

She moved on to video, where she developed a deeper sense of nuance. But the same priorities prevailed. Turbulent, for example, has a split screen featuring a Muslim man and woman facing off in a call-and-response singing contest (in traditional Islamic societies, women are not allowed to sing in public.) One edition of the work has been shown from time to time in Toronto by collector Ydessa Hendeles.

Neshat’s entry into the larger world of feature film — with art-world anathema like distributors, box office returns, and the holy grail of the industry, the hope of mass audiences — sharpens both her priorities.

“I had a certain frustration, of showing at biennials, and galleries, and museums, year after year. I felt I was just making commodities for an elite, one after the other,” she says. With Women Without Men, “people can just buy a ticket and see the movie. There’s such democracy to that.”

From an activist point of view, of course, the bigger the audience the better. Still, Women Without Men won’t stun Neshat devotees as a radical departure, despite its conventional narrative format (“I fell in love with beginning, middle and end,” Neshat laughs.)

In it, four women’s lives intertwine in the moments leading up to the 1953 coup in Iran, in which U.S. and British forces backed a military coup to supplant the democratic government of President Mohammad Mossadegh with a military dictatorship lead by the Shah. Familiar themes, a woman’s struggle in a traditional, male-dominated society, run through each: An escaped prostitute, a general’s wife fed up with her husband’s treatment, a young woman looking to escape a marriage arranged by her brother, and a young naïf willing to just go along until a personal disaster dislodges her blind acceptance.

Neshat’s film, which she co-adapted from a novel by Sharnush Parsipur and directed with her romantic partner Shoja Azari, won the Silver Lion in Venice last year for best director (at the premiere, Neshat and her entourage wore green gowns). It makes her political agenda clear. “Most people in the west only think of Iran after the Islamic revolution,” she says.

“The truth is, in 1953, Iran was a secular society, we had democracy, we had a leader we loved, and this was all overthrown by the American government with the help of the British. And now, there is this great amnesia — the U.S. boasted about bringing democracy to Iraq, but they were the ones who took it away.”

Neshat screened the film as a fund-raiser last Saturday for the Images festival, and stayed in town over the weekend meeting with Iranian Canadians.

Some were in prison in Iran before making it to Canada; others, like Neshat herself, still have family there. She’s helping raise money for Iranian refugees stuck in Turkey to come to North America. “I was listening to these two refugees who now have visas to come to Toronto,” she says. “You can’t imagine what they’ve been through, and they’re still so passionate.”

Neshat’s public display of her own political passions would be career suicide for many visual artists in the west.

“ ‘She only won a prize because she wore green’ — I hear that a lot,” she says.

“It can be very tedious to take sides. I feel good to be in the middle, between art and activism. It’s a good place to be.”


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