In a TED Talks video posted in May 2011, Shirin Neshat tells the audience how, as an artist in exile, she was inspired by her home country and the people there, particularly the women. We summarise this fascinating insight into her practice.

Click here to watch the TED Talks video, “Shirin Neshat: Art in Exile” (video length 10m:44s).

Shirin Neshat at TedWoman

Shirin Neshat spoke at the TEDWomen conference held in Washington DC, USA, in December 2010.

Shirin Neshat as artist in exile

As an artist in exile, Neshat cannot return to Iran under the current regime, and her works have been banned in the country. She believes it is this difficult situation that empowers her to be a “speaker of [her] people”. As an artist from Iran, she believes that she has a social responsibility to inspire, provoke and mobilise people. She says in the TED video, “Art is our weapon. Culture is a form of resistance.”

Iran pre- and post-Islamic Revolution

Neshat’s personal journey as an artist started after her first trip back to Iran in 1990. The Islamic Revolution, which took place in 1979, five years after she left Iran, had transformed the country from a secular society to an Islamic state.

Iranian women, 1979

During the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian women protested against being forced to wear a 'hijab', a condition imposed on them after the 1979 revolution.

The radical change in all aspects of life aroused Neshat’s interest in the study of the Revolution and the present-day lives of Iranian women.

I found the subject of Iranian women immensely interesting, in the way the women of Iran, historically, seemed to embody the political transformation. So in a way, by studying a woman, you can read the structure and the ideology of the country.

First feature film: Women Without Men

Returning to the United States in 1990, Neshat began to devote herself to her art practice and produced numerous videos, films and photographs of female subjects. Her works explored gender and identity issues in contemporary Islamic societies.

Shirin Neshat's Woman of Allah

Shirin Neshat’s "Women of Allah" series created during 1990s.

In 2009, Neshat’s directed feature movie Women Without Men (2009) was her first venture into filmmaking. It was an adaption of a magical realist novel of the same name by Iranian writer Shahrnush Parsipur. Against the backdrop of the Western-backed coup in Iran in August 1953, four women characters, their lives entangled, are struggling under oppression and looking for changes in gender relations and freedom.

Through this film, Neshat finds an allegorical way to express the poetic connection between the destiny of the characters and the country of Iran.

The country of Iran, equally, as if another character, also struggled for an idea of freedom and democracy and independence from the foreign interventions.

Women Without Men (2009) Poster

Poster of Neshat’s 'Women Without Men' in 2009.

Iranian women give Shirin Neshat her voice

The history that Neshat depicted in the film Women Without Men repeated itself in Iran during the Green Revolution in 2009. Protesters took to the streets following the disputed victory of the newly elected Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Unlike the four women in the film who can only find their independence, solace and companionship in an enchanted garden, Iranian women, who are educated, forward thinking and courageous, broke rules, pushed at boundaries and confronted authority.

Iranian women at Green Revolution in Iran 2009

A woman protester at the 2008 Green Revolution in Iran.

Neshat shares this new form of feminism with Iranian women who are fighting for basic human rights, social justice and democracy. “I stand here to say that Iranian women have found a new voice, and their voice is giving me my voice,” she states during her TED talk.

About Shirin Neshat

Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat is an internationally acclaimed photographer, filmmaker and video artist. Neshat was sent to California in the United States for higher education in 1974. After attending graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, she moved to New York and has lived there in self-imposed exile ever since.

Neshat started to create serious artwork from the 1990s. In 1999, she won the International Award of the XLVII Venice Biennale with Turbulent and Rapture. In 2009, her film debut Women Without Men won her the Silver Lion for best director at the 66th Venice Film Festival.


Related Topics: Iranian artists, film, feminist art

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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