Written by Ljiljana Maletin Vojvodić //
Shirin Neshat (1957), an internationally renowned artist of Iranian origin based in New York, visited MSUB in Belgrade on October 13. As part of the Art Film Program in the „Miodrag B. Protić Hall“, the artist presented her work in visual arts and film, and her film „The Fury“ was screened. The conversation with Shirin Neshat was conducted by Marijana Kolaric, the director of MSUB.
The motifs of women in Iranian society, male repression, exile, otherness, and difference are the main themes of Shirin Neshat’s works, often based on autobiographical discourse. Neshat left Iran in 1975 to study in the United States and returned to her home country in 1990, but in the meantime, the Pahlavi dynasty was overthrown, Ayatollah Khomeini seized power, and she moved to New York, where she still resides today.
It was only after her return from Iran that Neshat actually started working with photography, video, and film. She has had numerous solo exhibitions in museums around the world and received the Golden Lion at the 48th Venice Biennale (1999). She has directed three feature films: „Women Without Men“ (2009), which won the Silver Lion for Best Director at the 66th Venice International Film Festival, „Looking for Oum Kulthum“ (2017), and „Land of Dreams,“ which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2021.
Shirin Neshat’s work is banned in Iran, but she is permanently connected to her homeland, especially with Iranian women, through her art. In her video works, films, and photographs (mostly shot in black and white), she explores themes of power, religion, race, gender, the relationship between past and present, East and West, the lives and dreams of women in Iran, as well as her own.
Shirin Neshat emphasizes that Iranian women (paradoxical as it may sound at first) are not victims. They protest, rebel, break norms, and they may find a way out in madness or even suicide, but they stand up against the system. „They are oppressed, but they are fighters. The most significant fighters in Iran today are women, and the least afraid people in Iran are women“. Their energy cannot be destroyed.
Despite her humanistic discourse, her work generates controversy. The Iranian government accused her of fighting against the regime, while opponents of that government argued that her work, such as portraits of women whose faces are often covered in Farsi calligraphy with quotes from poets and holding weapons, promotes Islamic fundamentalism. Many Western critics also did not understand her work.
Shirin Neshat began her presentation at MSUB after the screening of the film „Bes“ (The Fury), which explores the sexual exploitation of female political prisoners, referencing the cruel treatment that women endure in Iran. In the film, we follow the psychological and emotional state of a woman haunted by memories of sexual assault, torture, and rape in prison.
She then discussed her works in the medium of photography, the layers of Persian poetry and traditional script on them, the position of Iranian women who are forbidden from dancing and singing in public, and her thirteen-minute film „Fervor“ from 1999, shot in Morocco. In this film, she portrayed contrasting images of veiled Muslim women in black and men dressed in white shirts and black trousers.
Neshat reflected on the influence of surrealism in her work, her influences, daily life in Brooklyn, African dance classes, the significance and support she receives in her work from her partner, director Shoja Azari, who is also of Iranian origin, as well as her friendship with Marina Abramović.
Expressing her gratitude for the opportunity to speak, she also showed her deep concern about the recent tragic events and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Despite her work initially appearing rooted in the image of Iranian women, it is universal, with a clear humanistic message and a condemnation of all forms of repression.
During the day prior to the conversation with the artist at MSUB, the film „Land of Dreams“ was screened. This monochromatic HD video from 2019, with a duration of 26 minutes, was directed by Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari. The film visualizes a surreal, dystopian narrative in which Neshat explores the United States from the perspective of an Iranian immigrant. This multidisciplinary project, which combines a series of photographs, video installations, and a feature-length film, follows a young Iranian woman who, posing as an art history student, departs from a dystopian Iranian colony located in the mountains (whose members analyze the dreams of American citizens). She goes to a small American community, photographs people in their homes, and records their dreams.
As part of the Artist’s Film Program at MSUB, her films „The Land of Dreams“, „The Fury“, and „Dreamers Trilogy“ will be screened. The screening schedule is available on the official MSUB website at https://msub.org.rs/artists-film-program/?lang=en