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written by Olivia York


When an individual is separated from their native country, they are left with unanswered questions, additional boundaries, and unfamiliar perspectives on culture. These effects of diaspora are uniquely represented by the Iranian-American exile Shirin Neshat. She has developed immensely as an artist, showcasing her broad talents from her early stages with photography to her later video installations and feature-length films. Neshat has produced her work outside of Iran, and has therefore been faced with the challenge of presenting most of her art to predominantly Western audiences. With this task at hand, Neshat has created a distinct artistic signature: her work illustrates the immense complexity of an exile’s identity by portraying the emotions and experiences related to a life in diaspora. With the foundational support of her own experiences with western bias, Neshat employs intentional reflexivity in her art to challenge western misrepresentations of Muslim women and exiles. Her style as a visual artist ultimately allowed her to develop a distinct auteurist signature in her filmmaking: her fundamental characterization explores the boundaries, isolation, and feelings of disconnection an exile sustains while living apart from their native country.

In order to fully appreciate the intricacy of her work, one must first recognize the historical foundation of Shirin Neshat’s past. After moving to the United States in the early 1970s as a young woman, Neshat began her life apart from Iran. Twelve years later, after obtaining her Master’s degree in Fine Arts and establishing a non-profit art gallery in New York City, she decided to return to her native land. Upon arrival, she was immediately stunned by the country’s change in culture. She explained that she “had never been in a country that was so ideologically based.” (Neshat, Sheybani,1999)[1] This ideology, as shocking as it may have been, influenced her decision to return to Iran on multiple occasions, allowing her to explore the emotional and intellectual depth of Iranian women. Consequently, Neshat centers her work around Muslim women, since she sees them as projecting “more intensely the paradoxical realities that [she] is trying to identify” through her art. (Neshat, Sheybani,1999) These paradoxical realities include (a) how Iranian women see themselves, versus (b) how western societies depict Muslim women. Neshat first explores the complexity of these identities in her photography, specifically in her “Women of Allah” series.

Iran’s enforcement of the chador became particularly compelling to Neshat upon her return, eventually influencing the focal points of her “Women of Allah” photos. Each ornate photograph contains black and white images of women in chadors holding weapons, over which Neshat has scribed poetry in Farsi. These images validate her ability to create profound metaphors in her work that relate to identity. More specifically, this work targets the lives of Muslim women, combating their own aspects of identity against western ideology and representation. As Iftikhar Dadi put it, “the subject of Neshat’s photographic work certainly appears to focus centrally upon the Iranian post-revolutionary woman in the public sphere, or more accurately, her figure as representation.” (Dadi, 2008)[2] Take Rebellious Silence as an example (one of the images in the series). The use of the black and white filter is intentional, highlighting the contrast of the black chador against the white background. This aesthetic contrast signifies the stark differences in representation Muslim women face in varied societies. Where in Muslim societies women see the chador as “empowering and affirmative of their religious identities,” (Young, n.d.)[3] western societies counter this vision by seeing the chador as a symbol of repression, representing the lack of freedom women have. The woman’s deliberate gaze in Rebellious Silence challenges this western bias though, enforcing the fact that she (and her chador) cannot be taken at face value. Her invasive, unchanging look confronts the viewer, forcing western audiences to question their own prejudice.

The woman’s gaze also puts westerners in an exile’s position, providing the uncomfortable stares they (Muslim women) face in a displaced society. The woman in the photograph is also carrying a weapon that seemingly splits the image in half. While this may translate tones of religious martyrdom relating to Iranian revolutions, it seems to provide a stronger sense of representation toward boundaries and borders. With the gun separating the woman into two halves, audiences can equate the weapon to a metaphorical representation of national borders, showcasing the literal and figurative split an exile undertakes when entering a new territory as they simultaneously abide by their native identity. The figurative “splitting” also accentuates Neshat’s argument toward the “two versions” of Muslim women: their representation in western media versus the factual depiction of who they are and what they believe in. Finally, the Farsi calligraphy serves as a language barrier and an enticing aesthetic for western audiences, further establishing Neshat’s implicit reflexivity. Its aesthetic aspect mocks western orientalism and exoticism, while the intentional language barrier represents the lingual strain that occurs in a life of exile. Thus, the Farsi calligraphy insinuates alienation upon the western viewer while promoting spectator reflection.

Language barriers are also used to expand Neshat’s artistic style in her video installations. Turbulent (1998) provides a striking example of Neshat’s use of language in relation to reflexivity. In this split-screen project, the male singer performs a traditional song in Persian, automatically separating the western viewer from the conversation on screen. This effect intentionally places the non-native speaker in the position of an exile, signifying the isolated feelings that occur when one encounters a language boundary. However, when the woman on the opposite screen performs, she vocalizes rhythms, not words; her “song is unidentifiable, universal.” (Neshat, Sheybani,1999) Her performance grants a widespread inclusion of understanding. With her passion guiding her performance, global audiences are invited to express empathy, thus allowing them to understand and interpret her emotions in an intimate way (as opposed to passing overt judgement on her like the misrepresentations in mass media have groomed viewers to do). This carefully crafted sequence successfully conveys Neshat’s vision of universalizing the woman’s emotion and disparity, again enabling audiences to comprehend the complexity of identity. The split screen aspect of this installation helps to communicate a sense of dislocation for western audiences, but more importantly, serves as a sense of escape for the female singer. She “found her own way of escape […] She ultimately began a rebellion, and ended up freeing herself in her own improvised way.” (Neshat, Ebrahimian, 2002)[4] With the woman’s physical detachment from the men on the opposite screen, Neshat displays a type of liberation—a freedom of self-expression—using both the woman and split-screen format as tools to convey an exile’s desire to escape from the social strain of alienation. Her emotional performance and individual screen help to demonstrate an exile’s longing for understanding; a desire for selfhood, free from preconceived notions. Ultimately, “the placing of the audience in between the screens and the genders meant that [audiences] had to work out [their] positioning constantly.” (Neshat, Bresheeth, 2002)[5] By employing reflexivity, the viewer is allowed to decipher the deeper meaning of the work, challenging their perception once again.

Soon after, Neshat transitioned to the medium of film. In her first feature, she incorporated her conceptual design (previously established in her photography and video installations), while simultaneously prioritizing in-depth, prolonged narratives that focused on the stories and identities of women. Her style as a visual artist developed into cinematic auteurism as she effectively explored the depth and complexity of the ideas and stories in her film adaptation of Shahrnush Parsipur’s 2004 novel, Women Without Men. Neshat’s adaptation follows four women in Iran during the age of the 1953 coup. Although the tale primarily focuses on the political trials of Iran during this time, the story delicately illustrates the livelihood of women amidst political and social strain, which simultaneously channels Neshat’s auteurism by exemplifying exilic experiences and emotions. Each female character personifies one or more aspects of diaspora while providing reflexivity for western audiences, and Neshat’s character development, mise-en-scéne and deliberate tone help to emphasize her auteurist quality.

Take Munis for example, a character who is overseen by her dominant older brother. She is a young, unmarried woman trapped in her own home, forbidden to interact with the world outside her window that connects her to her cultural and political identity. Her brother, Amir Khan, demonstrates his authority by locking her inside and disconnecting her radio, which releases “urgent and frequent newscasts reporting the unfolding dramatic events she is barred from participating in.” (Bresheeth, 2002) Her attachment to the radio eloquently demonstrates an individual’s experience in exile; they are disconnected from the physical reality of their homeland, unable to take part in the political events that are shaping their native country. Her desperate desire to escape from her life as a “virtual prisoner at home” (Bresheeth, 2002) is a testament to Neshat’s auteurist signature, personifying an exile’s response to the isolation that coincides with a life in diaspora. Additionally, the mise-en-scène supplements exilic trials as the walls of her home help to illustrate the physical boundaries and emotional constraints of an exile’s displacement. Just as Munis is confined by the structure of her home, exiles are bound to the restrictions of their newfound national borders, unable to return to their indigenous roots. Her physical constraints also promote reflexivity for western audiences, since her restrictive boundaries symbolize the emotional confinement an exile sustains as a result of the targeted prejudice western societies construct.

Zarin’s character further accentuates Neshat’s auteurism, as she too generates reflexivity. After being fed up with the toxic and detrimental experiences in the brothel, the abused anorexic flees her life of prostitution and ultimately makes her way to a public bath house. Here, Zarin cannot help but to satisfy the urge to rid herself of her past trauma. She ultimately indulges in this desire, but seemingly harms herself in the process as she scrubs her skin so severely that she begins to bleed. Inevitably, the surrounding women and children in the room stare and direct judgement towards Zarin’s character. Neshat’s careful direction of the scene intentionally highlights the condemning judgement Zarin endures. This scene deliberately reveals Neshat’s auteurist signature, forcing western audiences to experience reflexivity as the scene promotes discriminatory surveillance. Just as Zarin was placed under scrutiny by her peers, exiles also experience thoughtless evaluations through western media (due to the endless false notions of foreign cultures). Zarin’s character remains speechless throughout the film as well, which mirrors the silenced voice of a condemned outsider in a displaced society. Neshat also manipulates the tone of the scene to intentionally confront western expectations. Given the revealing nature of the scene’s environment, Neshat deliberately negates any sexual or oriental expectations a viewer may anticipate by incorporating dull colors, painful audio and shocking images of the physical ramifications of trauma. Neshat’s recognition of this presumption strengthens her conceptual design, further stimulating reflexive properties for its intended audiences by decisively cultivating western contemplation and awareness.

Neshat’s design of Faezeh’s interaction with her environment also establishes ties to an exile’s isolation. For instance, when Faezeh first journeys to the outskirts of the garden, the landscape presents itself as a barren and desert land. Given that “each of the women on first encountering the garden sees a somewhat different landscape, depending greatly on her mood, so that it becomes a physical projection of inner states,” (Bresheeth, 2002) Faezeh’s vision of the terrain can be seen as a figurative representation of diasporic solitude (given the desolate alienation an individual endures when entering a foreign region). Moreover, the development of Faezeh’s character reflects an exile’s triumph in developing a strength of identity amidst adversity. When Faezeh first enters the garden, which serves as a cinematic representation of exilic territory, she is absorbed in immense personal strife. She initially suffers from tremendous shame due to the sexual assault she endured prior to her arrival. However, after spending much of her time in solitude while simultaneously devoting herself to her religious practices, she cultivates a sense of self-assurance and appreciation. She stands firm in her identity and beliefs, and ultimately dismisses Amir’s proposal and criticism, fortifying her selfhood. Her character development parallels exilic independence; Neshat’s use of reflexivity showcases the empowered sense of identity exiles demand in response to western bigotry. Thus, Neshat’s auteurism is relayed through her allusive mise-en-scène and intentional maturation of Faezeh’s character.

Fakhri’s character is the eldest of all the women in the film, yet she equally supports Neshat’s artistry by channeling an exile’s desire to be free from judgement. As she nears the age of fifty, Fakhri is confronted with persistent criticism from her husband Sadri, a royalist general. Sadri attacks her individuality by telling her how to feel and act, explaining what she should and should not be doing on her own. He robs her of her voice and independence, ordering that “a woman with menopause shouldn’t be flirting anymore.” (Women Without Men, Neshat, 2009) Fakhri’s experience with her husband’s inequitable discrimination enables reflexivity for western audiences, since their relationship resembles an exile’s encounter with prejudiced perspectives. Audiences, when faced with Sadri’s perverse conviction, are then equipped to recognize the ignorance of western bias through Neshat’s reflexivity. Fakhri, fed up with the judgmental reigns of Sadri, leaves her home and husband behind when she finally decides to seek liberation. Additionally, she conveys foreign disappointment with western substitution through her interactions with Abbas (her past love). Abbas introduces his young American fiancée later in the film, which inevitably provokes saddened feelings of inadequacy for Fakhri. This encounter is comparable to an exile’s disappointment with the false substitutions of foreign cultures that are used to manipulate western perspectives. Just as the American fiancée gained attention during Fakhri’s party, false western thought primarily attracts the attention of the public. Neshat’s development of Fakhri’s character provides a reflexive demonstration of realistic diasporic incidents, given how she was deprived of her individuality and was later replaced by a western alternative.

Ultimately, the physical and emotional strains of displacement are adequately represented by each female character in Neshat’s Women Without Men. Each of the women seek refuge from their toxic and unaccepting homes, resembling an exile’s physical displacement alongside their desire to escape the constraints of skewed misconceptions. Neshat’s characterization and directorial inventions successfully convey her “lonely and melancholic” auteurism to global audiences, while simultaneously promoting her artistic objective of relaying “feeling structures of anomie [that are] related to modernity and exile.” (Naficy, 2010)[6]

In totality, Shirin Neshat appears to create a portrait of herself in all of her art; she consciously extracts exilic details from realistic circumstances to establish an underlying foundation for her work. As an American citizen and Iranian woman, she understands the constant effort that is required from someone who juggles multiple cultural realities. Neshat speaks on this issue, stating that “my work has been totally dedicated, in a very minute way, to this whole conversation about the Western and the Islamic conflict, in terms of contradictions that exist here versus there.” (Neshat, Ebrahimian, 2002) This clearly illustrates her challenge of living in exile: cultural details are never fully understood apart from their physical reality. There is a constant strain in achieving information that is free from contradiction, and Neshat chooses to illustrate her auteurism by showing all sides of Iranian-exilic experiences, thus demonstrating the complexity of diasporic conditions.

With her work rooted in personal experience, Neshat’s auteurist signature is specifically designed to portray complicated Iranian customs alongside a dismissal of western misrepresentation. Neshat’s inclusion of Iranian women and the chador in her photographs, videos, and films is intentional; she hopes to convey the sense of identity one finds in Iranian beliefs. She also includes these elements in her work as a way to consciously “refuse to reiterate and accept clichés that are made about [Iranian women] in this part of the world, and the simplistic rejection of [them] as barbaric.” (Neshat, Ebrahimian, 2002) Neshat is fully aware of the western bias that is directed toward foreigners (especially Muslim women), and challenges this ideology with reflexivity. She chooses to present the women in her work as being “capable of the most bold behavior […] at once so expressive and so alone,” (Solomon, 2001)[7] thereby presenting the complexity of their exilic identities to western audiences. Consequently, Neshat incorporates “elements of duality […] beauty and beast co-exist in [her] work” (Neshat, Ebrahimian, 2002); “beauty” being the uniqueness of selfhood while “beast” relays the western bigotry she opposes. Thus, audiences are faced with Neshat’s reflexive impressions of unmerited discrimination, which ultimately expands their awareness of the diasporic isolation, boundaries, and individuality that is often overlooked by western societies.


[1] Sheybani, Shadi, “Women of Allah: A Conversation with Shirin Neshat”, Michigan Quarterly Review, vol. 38, issue 2, 1999

[2] Dadi, Iftikhar, “Shirin Neshat’s Photographs as Postcolonial Allegories”, Signs, vol. 34, no. 1, 2008, (pp. 125-150)

[3] Young, Allison, “Shirin Neshat, Rebellious Silence, Women of Allah series”, Khan Academy, (n.d.)

[4] Neshat, Shirin, and Babak Ebrahimian. “Passage to Iran.” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, vol. 24, no. 3, 2002, pp. 44–55. JSTOR, JSTOR

[5] Bresheeth, Haim, “Shirin Neshat’s Women Without Men”, Third Text, 24:6, 754-758, DOI: 10.1080/09528822.2010.517924, 2010

[6] Naficy, Hamid, “The Globalizing Era”, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, vol. 4, 1984-2010

[7] Solomon, Deborah. “Arteurs; Romance of the Chador.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Mar. 2001

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