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Shirin Neshat: Investigating Cultural Identity Through Powerful Imagery

Shirin Neshat’s photographs, films, and videos challenge controversial themes of immigration as well as cultural and political conflicts derived from Eastern tradition and Western modernity.

(Shirin Neshat via Instagram)

Shirin Neshat’s Background

The culturally fluid artist was born March 26, 1957, in Qazvin, Iran. During the 1970s, Iran’s political climate grew increasingly hostile, resulting in Neshat’s departure in 1975 to the U.S., where she enrolled at UC Berkeley’s Art Program to permanently reside in New York. For the following twelve years, Neshat dedicated herself to her BA, MA and MFA. During this time, any art Neshat created was destroyed along with her confidence in the New York art scene; so she returned to Iran in 1990.

“It was probably one of the most shocking experiences that I have ever had. The difference between what I had remembered from the Iranian culture and what I was witnessing was enormous. The change was both frightening and exciting; I had never been in a country that was so ideologically based. Most noticeable, of course, was the change in people’s physical appearance and public behavior.”

-Shirin Neshat’

Cultural Influence Within Her Art

Shirin Neshat’s photographs and videos address social ideologies stemming from her Islamic past. Her return to Iran came as a shock; finding women, following the 1979 Islamic revolution, forced to wear the chador, the traditional Islamic veil. Her response to the cultural shock is represented in her art, as she brought the social, cultural, and religious codes of Muslim societies to the eyes of her audience in both the U.S and Iran. As cultural critic Eleanor Heartney observed, Neshat “makes art through her identities as an Iranian and as a woman, but reshapes them to speak to larger issues of freedom, individuality, societal oppression, the pain of exile, and the power of the erotic.”. With that being said, the various cultures Neshat has channeled into her art have aided her influence immensely. Literature and poetry are embedded in Iranian identity as a form of ideological expression and liberation. Some of Neshat’s most powerful works of art came from her idea to merge the delicateness of poetry and the controversial nature of emotions and public political involvement.

Slideshow Features: Neshat’s use of calligraphy as a tool to enhance the faces, eyes, hands, and feet of women as an allusion to what remains visible of the female body in fundamentalist Islamic regions.

In 2019, Shirin Neshat faced a different challenge. Her return to the US once again, this time to showcase her best work from her return to Iran. Neshat struggled with the balance of her identity and belonging to both countries. Not only did she return to showcase her work from Iran, but to also tackle stereotypes and socio-political subjects of America. Shirin Neshat presented over 60 photographs and 3 videos portraying the face of contemporary America; redefining the ‘American Dream’.

“For the longest time I did not feel I was ready to create a work of art that reflects on the American culture. I always felt not American enough or not close enough to the subject.”

It wasn’t until 2019 that Neshat felt she was “American enough” to feel qualified and confident in portraying American people in her art. Today, Neshat calls upon her own experiences of alienation as an immigrant in the U.S. to reflect on the current social, economic and political climate. For the first time, Neshat moves on from eastern subjects to focus on cultural aspects of her adoptive country.

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