Shirin Neshat: Art in exile

Shirin Neshat: Art in exile


The story I wanted to share with you today is my challenge as an Iranian artist, as an Iranian woman artist, as an Iranian woman artist living in exile. Well, it has its pluses and minuses. On the dark side, politics doesn’t seem to escape people like me. Every Iranian artist, in one form or another, is political. Politics have defined our lives. If you’re living in Iran, you’re facing censorship, harassment, arrest, torture — at times, execution. If you’re living outside like me, you’re faced with life in exile — the pain of the longing and the separation from your loved ones and your family. Therefore, we don’t find the moral, emotional, psychological and political space to distance ourselves from the reality of social responsibility. Oddly enough, an artist such as myself finds herself also in the position of being the voice, the speaker of my people, even if I have, indeed, no access to my own country. Also, people like myself, we’re fighting two battles on different grounds. We’re being critical of the West, the perception of the West about our identity — about the image that is constructed about us, about our women, about our politics, about our religion. We are there to take pride and insist on respect. And at the same time, we’re fighting another battle. That is our regime, our government — our atrocious government, [that] has done every crime in order to stay in power. Our artists are at risk. We are in a position of danger. We pose a threat to the order of the government. But ironically, this situation has empowered all of us, because we are considered, as artists, central to the cultural, political, social discourse in Iran. We are there to inspire, to provoke, to mobilize, to bring hope to our people. We are the reporters of our people, and are communicators to the outside world. Art is our weapon. Culture is a form of resistance. I envy sometimes the artists of the West for their freedom of expression. For the fact that they can distance themselves from the question of politics. From the fact that they are only serving one audience, mainly the Western culture. But also, I worry about the West, because often in this country, in this Western world that we have, culture risks being a form of entertainment. Our people depend on our artists, and culture is beyond communication. My journey as an artist started from a very, very personal place. I did not start to make social commentary about my country. The first one that you see in front of you is actually when I first returned to Iran after being separated for a good 12 years. It was after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. While I was absent from Iran, the Islamic Revolution had descended on Iran and had entirely transformed the country from Persian to the Islamic culture. I came mainly to be reunited with my family and to reconnect in a way that I found my place in the society. But instead, I found a country that was totally ideological and that I didn’t recognize anymore. More so, I became very interested, as I was facing my own personal dilemmas and questions, I became immersed in the study of the Islamic Revolution — how, indeed, it had incredibly transformed the 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. So I made a group of work that at once faced my own personal questions in life, and yet it brought my work into a larger discourse — the subject of martyrdom, the question of those who willingly stand in that intersection of love of God, faith, but violence and crime and cruelty. For me, this became incredibly important. And yet, I had an unusual position toward this. I was an outsider who had come back to Iran to find my place, but I was not in a position to be critical of the government or the ideology of the Islamic Revolution. This changed slowly as I found my voice and I discovered things that I didn’t know I would discover. So my art became slightly more critical. My knife became a little sharper. And I fell into a life in exile. I am a nomadic artist. I work in Morocco, in Turkey, in Mexico. I go everywhere to make believe it’s Iran. Now I am making films. Last year, I finished a film called “Women Without Men.” “Women Without Men” returns to history, but another part of our Iranian history. It goes to 1953 when American CIA exercised a coup and removed a democratically elected leader, Dr. Mossadegh. The book is written by an Iranian woman, Shahrnush Parsipur. It’s a magical realist novel. This book is banned, and she spent five years in prison. My obsession with this book, and the reason I made this into a film, is because it at once was addressing the question of being a female — traditionally, historically in Iran — and the question of four women who are all looking for an idea of change, freedom and democracy — while the country of Iran, equally, as if another character, also struggled for an idea of freedom and democracy and independence from the foreign interventions. I made this film because I felt it’s important for it to speak to the Westerners about our history as a country. That all of you seem to remember Iran after the Islamic Revolution. That Iran was once a secular society, and we had democracy, and this democracy was stolen from us by the American government, by the British government. This film also speaks to the Iranian people in asking them to return to their history and look at themselves before they were so Islamicized — in the way we looked, in the way we played music, in the way we had intellectual life. And most of all, in the way that we fought for democracy. These are some of the shots actually from my film. These are some of the images of the coup. And we made this film in Casablanca, recreating all the shots. This film tried to find a balance between telling a political story, but also a feminine story. Being a visual artist, indeed, I am foremost interested to make art — to make art that transcends politics, religion, the question of feminism, and become an important, timeless, universal work of art. The challenge I have is how to do that. How to tell a political story but an allegorical story. How to move you with your emotions, but also make your mind work. These are some of the images and the characters of the film. Now comes the green movement — the summer of 2009, as my film is released — the uprising begins in the streets of Tehran. What is unbelievably ironic is the period that we tried to depict in the film, the cry for democracy and social justice, repeats itself now again in Tehran. The green movement significantly inspired the world. It brought a lot of attention to all those Iranians who stand for basic human rights and struggle for democracy. What was most significant for me was, once again, the presence of the women. They’re absolutely inspirational for me. If in the Islamic Revolution, the images of the woman portrayed were submissive and didn’t have a voice, now we saw a new idea of feminism in the streets of Tehran — women who were educated, forward thinking, non-traditional, sexually open, fearless and seriously feminist. These women and those young men united Iranians across the world, inside and outside. I then discovered why I take so much inspiration from Iranian women. That, under all circumstances, they have pushed the boundary. They have confronted the authority. They have broken every rule in the smallest and the biggest way. And once again, they proved themselves. I stand here to say that Iranian women have found a new voice, and their voice is giving me my voice. And it’s a great honor to be an Iranian woman and an Iranian artist, even if I have to operate in the West only for now. Thank you so much. (Applause)

Dereck Turner

44 thoughts on “Shirin Neshat: Art in exile

  1. WeatherManToBe says:

    I couldn't imagine my country exiling our great artists.

  2. LookieHippie says:

    Thanks for the great talk. I will see if I'll find "Women without men" from somewhere.

  3. Chris C says:

    A TEDwomen talk that is actually engaging and thought provoking while still adhering to the subject of the feminine perspective while not being obnoxiously sexist? Awesome.

  4. nothersheep says:

    @LookieHippie "Women Without Men" is an incredibly beautiful work. See it. See it. Even if you don't have any interest in the subject (and it's subject is indeed engrossing), each image could rank amoung the most stunning you'll see in film anywhere.

  5. LookieHippie says:

    @nothersheep Now I really want to see it… I trust I'll find it from somewhere. I'll hunt it down. 🙂

  6. nothersheep says:

    @LookieHippie you might well be able to find it on iTunes, but I found it in a video store in my (rural, tiny) hometown.

  7. Oshin Sr says:

    We had democracy and America and England stole it from us. You said it, woman!

  8. allksjndlkasjdkl says:

    I love how democracy is said as if it were such a positive thing. Yes, compared to an oligarchy it could be a better alternative, but the stigma attached is irrelevant. Freedoms can be granted from many sources, even ones other than mob rule, as can intellectualism, individualism, and other such things.

  9. KilluaXIII says:

    good talk but there are 2 things i dislike about it. first is that it's called TEDwomen, I would hate TEDmen too if it existed because it's both bullshit for many reasons. second: hre saying "pride in religion" disgusts me because having grown people believing in fairytales and defining their live by them only harms us all, since we all live in a world that is connected

  10. LookieHippie says:

    @nothersheep I trust I'll be able to find it, then. I don't live in a big city, so I was a bit worried. 🙂

  11. Hamza Abuzeid says:

    Excuse me lady, I agree with you that religion is used in Iran in away which is so oppressing to the people, but Iran and the Iranian government doesn`t represent Islam, and thats why we don`t see that oppression in other Islamic countries, the only countries which uses oppression in the name of religion and every single Muslim knows that they don`t represent Islam are Iran and Saudi Arabia!!! and they are the most common two examples in people`s mind for Islamic countries!

  12. Hamza Abuzeid says:

    Excuse me lady, I agree with you that religion is used in Iran in a way which is so oppressing to the people, but Iran and the Iranian government doesn`t represent Islam, and thats why we don`t see that oppression in other Islamic countries.

  13. Hamza Abuzeid says:

    , the only countries which uses oppression in the name of religion and every single Muslim knows that they don`t represent Islam are Iran and Saudi Arabia!!! and they are the most common two examples in people`s mind for Islamic countries!

    And lastly I hate calling it Islamic revolution

  14. Alkoholwioslaidziwki says:

    I'm speachless.

  15. mark sten says:

    like in many other countries people just want to be free. World (USA) looks on this country as a great threat and is ready to invade if necessary. Are we ever going to understand that politics does not represent its people. Politicians have great many ways to get to power and stay there. I feel sorry for this people and all the ones that found themselves in this kind of situation. Stay strong, stay brave and stay free…

  16. DurexDurpaneu2 says:

    Want to get in trouble with your government? Study philosophy and challenge the conduct and governance of your government. Lol

  17. Krypt Sanies says:

    @DurexDurpaneu2 Want to die? Then do that.

  18. Brad Miller says:

    if you think those Authoritarian Dictators in Iran aren't Islamic fundamentalists then you need a reality check.

    just because you interpret the Qu'ran more loosely than they do does not mean they don't represent Islam, because they do and they are. it's up to moderates like you to stand up and condemn these extremists and stop sitting on your hands and making excuses for them. of course the Iranian people are more liberal, but their inaction speaks volumes about their approval of tyranny.

  19. cathodical says:

    before you critically judge her statements, make sure you are actually knowledgeable of the islamic revolution as a cause of the coup by the American government and British government to removing their democratic leader in place of a greedy dictator, who was later killed and removed causing the islamic revolution by those who were infuriated by the coup. aka iran and many muslim countries today as a result of that. read "All the Shah's Men" for a great telling of those events.

  20. vraciudude says:

    is it just me or this is sexist?

  21. ZirconCode says:

    @vraciudude If you have watched the other TEDWomen talks you wouldn't need to guess. That being said, she is surprisingly less sexist than the other talks and actually interesting and intelligent.

  22. oLynxXo says:

    I don't know why but this actually made me cry.

  23. Oregu7 says:

    @LookieHippie Torrents

  24. Alkoholwioslaidziwki says:

    @sdrawkcabgnipytmi Well i usually type with my fingers but i'm not judging anyone 😉

  25. LookieHippie says:

    @Oregu7 Haha, I don't really use torrents. It's stealing, after all.

  26. vivi028 says:

    @LookieHippie women without men is wo xD xD

  27. Caligula says:

    @SuicidalWormPoo The solution is not wishful thinking (western art as entertainment), is actually getting over social establishment. That is what she is pointing out so I guess you didn't get her core ideas.

  28. Micah Lindstrom says:

    Soon, so it seems, will come fatherless generations that are also motherless now. All will go to war, and boys will become corrupted statues and girls will become shadows of the beauty they could have grown into. If this all continues, this next generation will be such. Humanity cannot fix itself, but will instead bear itself unbearable till all roads are exhausted and one remains. In Christ alone. Not in faithless religion, but in Christ alone.

  29. Sverre Kvernmo says:

    09:59 – 10:10 seems a bit anarchic, even for an outspoken artist, and takes away from the strength of her message. I'm also a little skeptical of symbol/icon/text-based art in general. Effective enough patterns, but intelligible to those who don't read (I assume) Persian. I guess she speaks more directly to her people that way, but also ends up distancing herself slightly from other cultures in the process. An interesting perspective into the mindset of an obviously passionate person.

  30. Leonidas GGG says:

    So, America is responsable for the regime that is now in Iran… talk about irony.

  31. solsav says:

    Iran wasn't doing so good before the islamic revolution. No sustainable democracy before and after. even Women Seclusion in islam is inherited from persian culture. who are we trying to fool? instead of putting the blame on religion, regime or whatever, lets face it: authoritarian culture has been Iran's culture from the day it existed and still is. Though western meddle can't be neglected, lets accept that this is our historical culture choice and our own fault and lets try fixing it that way.

  32. marcdaddy33 says:

    So Iran's secular society was stolen by the American government? Another proof that all of this terrorism going on is, at root, the fault of the American and Western governments.

  33. Tolstoievsky says:

    intrebarea e care erau valorile persane si cum difera de cele islamice, cand valorile tipei asteia sunt defapt profund americanizate.

  34. mona k says:

    Wow! No word to describe how beautiful was that.

  35. wynngoes says:

    oh no. snapping a picture might be easy (though it is so much more than that especially if you're working with large format film like Shirin does), but making an image that is powerful and full of depth is certainly not. photography is as much a language as any other form of art. so really, in making meaningful art, what matters is not how easy the medium is but how well it is used.

  36. wynngoes says:

    gregory crewdson must be your nightmare

  37. Sepideh Sadatizarrini says:

    I am an Iranian visual artist and you told whatever I liked to say, but I don't agree with the part of our culture anyway, I wish we join and try for freedom of our country although it doesn't seem to be so much easy to reach!

  38. mir rel says:

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  39. Almir Matri says:

    Let’s get it out there. I’m green with envy with my cousin. He has actually been alone for life. By some luck, he has got a model to love him in no time. How can that be achievable? He informed me he tried the Cupid Love System (Google it!) I wish someone beautiful said that to me… I cannot recall ever before seeing him so cheerful. Sort of makes me sick.

  40. Audie Lyn says:

    well, so this nomadic artist ,said : Iran was once a secular society, they had democrazy. BUT i doubt if she do remember ,that Iran was also once a Persian civilization, and she didn't mention who's stolen and destroyed it. I love the persian cicillization, but unfortunately, it's gone

  41. Teresa Fawkes says:

    38 people are Mahmoud Ahmedinejad

  42. Mazatzin Ionesco says:

    Es una gran luchadora social!! Una gran artista!

  43. Tariq AlHajri says:

    Beautiful and powerful speech

  44. j. ja. says:

    I have never seen such fascist people as the Iranians.. i am afghan and refugee in iran

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