Enjoy Shirin Neshat's thrilling art. But...
November 30, 2000
Let us all rejoice in the fact that once produced, the work of art no longer belongs
to its maker. Let us particularly rejoice in the fact that as viewers, we can revel
in Shirin Neshat's art without requiring her own instructions. For to be guided by
this artist through her work is to be derailed from the thrilling and universal experience
In a recent interview with Arthur Danto in the Fall 2000 issue of Bomb Magazine,
Neshat talks about her work including her most recent video installations. As a fan
of Neshat's work, I read the article several times and from several different perspectives,
that of an artist, a woman and an Iranian, and from most, I found myself disagreeing
The artist in me found it unsettling that a fellow artist would ever praise an
event, much less the Islamic Revolution of Iran, for having "purified the Iranian
All the experiences of the last half a century point to the fact that "purity"
is a concept to be suspicious of. In fact, as Salman Rushdie puts it, if there is
a lesson to be learned from the horrors of all the recent ethnic cleansings, it is
that impurity is a good thing and that we all need to be leery of all things perfect
or the quest for purity.
But of all people, it is puzzling for such a comment to have been made by an artist.
Artists know better than any other group that the precursor to creativity is the
utmost readiness to embrace all things imperfect, exotic and unknown. During its
initial years, the Iranian revolution, on the other hand, quarantined and blocked
the nation from diverse cultural exposure.
Yet, this may be a simple difference of opinion. My major point of contention
is with a notion that Neshat and many other women activists articulate as the aspirations
of the Iranian women's movement:
"Our idea of feminism is similar to that of the West. From
my understanding, Western feminism is about reaching a certain level of equality
between men and women. But I don't believe we strive for the same thing. Iranian
women for example feel that men and women have their own distinct roles and places,
they are not competitive. I believe their struggle is to reach an equilibrium necessary
in a just and healthy society. They want the domestic responsibility, which actually
gives them a lot of power. Where they suffer is in their inability to maintain their
rights as women, for example in the areas of divorce, child custody, voting,..."
A queasy feeling comes over me when certain primary terms, like equality, are
casually replaced with others, like equilibrium. As a "child of the revolution,"
I have learned the hard way that something was profoundly altered about my education
when the Arabic synonym of "in the name of god," replaced its Persian counterpart
in the beginning of my school textbooks. Some concepts are only interchangeable on
the pages of hulking library dictionaries but never in real life that is charged
with memories, histories and inescapable nuances.
Neshat's words are at best uninformed about the history of Western feminism, even
if such a broad and unified group were to exist. To speak of the Western women's
movement as having a homogenous impulse to achieve equal footing with men is to neglect
the pain of all the wives and mothers who were riddled with the guilt of having left
their families at home while marching in the streets for their right to vote.
Nor could those women have seen beyond their immediate quest for equal civil rights
at the time. They could not fathom the life of the tough single female corporate
executive of the year 2000 precisely because it is only equality and as a result
of it, freedom, that breeds possibility. And it is only in having access to possibilities
and choices that individuality emerges and authenticity flourishes.
In order to have the opinion of the public on their side, maybe the women who
live under the rule of the Islamic Republic must assume socially unthreatening rhetoric
and posture so that their crusade will not conjure the image of Western women in
the minds of the paranoid authorities.
But those of us not subjected to the same conditions can enjoy the benefits of
clarity and truthfulness. In the year 2000, Iranian women are demanding the equal
rights that so many of their Western counterparts have already achieved.
Once they achieve equal civil rights, will they follow in the footsteps of Western
women or will they invent new and different ways of being women in Iranian society?
This is a question that only the future generations who will be born to and live
with equality can answer. They are the ones who will enjoy the fruits of infinite
possibilities and become their own authentic women.
Until that day, the viewers can get a glimpse of the painful solitude of the Iranian
woman as portrayed in Neshat's Turbulent and dream of breaking free and sailing
upon uncharted waters as in her Rapture.