An exhibition of Iranian-American artist Shirin Neshat’s works at the Hirshorn Museum in Washington, DC wrapped up last month after garnering much acclaim. Running from May 18th – September 20th, 2015, the exhibit, entitled Facing History, featured a handful of Ms. Neshat’s iconic pieces in both photographic and video form and integrating snippets of Iranian history and perceptions of the Islamic world throughout.
Based in New York, Ms. Neshat was born in Qazvin, Iran in 1957 and lived there until she left to the US for art school during the Iranian Revolution, settling in Los Angeles for the duration of her academic career.
Her artwork is informed by the history that she and her family lived, translating into particularly powerful pieces that explore her cultural and religious heritage, often questioning the basic tenants of fundamentalism and perceptions of identity.
Facing History included Ms. Neshat’s classic photography series entitled “Women of Allah”; described as both startling and powerful, the series is designed to overcome exotic stereotypes of Orientalism, pairing veiled women with weaponry and Arabic calligraphy, among other striking metaphors.
Also included were two additional photography series; “The Book of Kings”, named after the Persian epic of antiquity known as the Shahnameh, features the portraits of Iranian and Arab youth, coupled with Arabic calligraphy of both contemporary Iranian poets and prisoners, as well as tattoo-like scenes from the Shahnameh itself. The photos are arranged in three distinct groups: the Masses, the Patriots and the Villains. Each group is given its own wall. First unveiled in 2012, this portion of the exhibit contrasts the ancient with the modern and leaves the audience with many questions: under what circumstance does one become a villain? Are villains in today’s epic of unrest in the greater Islamic world yesterday’s kings?
In 2013 Ms. Neshat created “Our House is on Fire”, yet another photography series dedicated to the Arab Spring and the Green Movement in Iran. Overlaid onto the portraits of Egyptian subjects in Arabic script are dirges dedicated to Iran’s revolutions. Neshat began this project in 2012 as she was spending time in Egypt working on a film about Egyptian singing legend Umm Kalthoum, documenting her conversations about grief by taking portraits of those she encountered – all local residents, your average Egyptian, who had been personally touched by the turmoil in Egypt.
The last component of Facing History included lyrical video installations, all of which use at least two screens that are either facing each other from opposite sides of the exhibition space or posted side by side. Amongst these installations were Ms. Neshat’s famous “Turbulent“, as well as “Fervor“, both from 2002. The latter was especially interesting as it was the only one out of the three video installations to have the two screens placed side by side; on one side the viewer was given the perspective of a male character, and on the other, that of a female character. Both cross paths on an empty road and exchange looks; they end up both heading to the same mosque, where a cleric is giving a speech discussing good and evil in religion. In the meantime, both the man and the woman – who are separated by a black curtain and sitting with their respective gender – are pensive, as if they are savouring their brief encounter. As the cleric begins to rouse the crowds to chant “curse the devil”, the woman is compelled to get up and leave, as if she is guilty of offense; the man notices through the curtain, and he gets up and leaves, too. They cross paths again but seem to behave differently, as if they are both suddenly aware that the intimacy of having exchanged gazes went too far in accordance with the cleric’s preachings and with what societal constructs are placed on them.