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Nostalgia for the Past I Have Never Had

This article was originally written in Persian and published on Mardomak website. Read the original article in Persian here.

by Gelare Khoshgozaran

The YouTube video of Shirin Neshat’s TED Talk has by now been shared numerous times by a large number of Iranian Facebook users.

Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat explores the paradox of being an artist in exile: a voice for her people, but unable to go home. In her work, she explores Iran pre- and post-Islamic Revolution, tracing political and societal change through powerful images of women.

Shortly after the video was released on Youtube, a similar video of a TEDx Talk by another Iranian woman artist, Morehshin Allahyari, became available. The latter, though obviously not getting anywhere near as many hits as Neshat’s, was soon shared by users on social media websites and became very popular amongst the similar Facebook users or TED Talks fans.

Art activist Morehshin Allahyari teams artists from the US and Iran in a creative exchange designed to build bridges between the countries. She urges us to take action and think about how we can use our own talents to extend what collaboration can look like.

Shirin Neshat, a woman in her fifties, dressed in a black outfit donning her signature hairstyle and facial makeup appeared on the TED stage to tell her “story” to the audience and listeners. Morehshin, on the other hand, half the age of Neshat, in her colorful outfit and with her pinkish hair, a constant smile on her face and a tone that was a mixture of irony, sarcasm and bitterness, was talking about the social role of art as a potential medium to bridge two countries at conflict, Iran and the United States.

After watching both of these videos, what became apparent in the concerns of these two Iranian women artists during their talks was the challenge of the exiled artist in attempting to alter the image of Iran and Iranians, especially Iranian women, in the eyes of the West. The expressed dissatisfaction and frustration was indicative of the urge to create and present a new image of, in Allahyari’s words, “what Iran, truly, is and is not”.

The most interesting and confusing issue though, in the different approaches and positions that these two artists had picked towards such a complex and multi-faceted issue, seemed to be the huge gap between their respective generations. Neshat’s words were a perfusion of nostalgia for the past that Allahyari’s generation intends to regard from a retrospectively critical point of view. Neshat’s claims for a “glorious past”, such as “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” helped make this gap all the more evident. It became obvious that, instead of yearning to revive “what we once had”, the new generation—more fond of the present tense conjugation of the verbs—is one that believes in a self-reflexivity towards the past; A self-reflexivity that seeks help from historical memory but is skeptical of “what [perhaps] we once had”, regarding the past critically in order to have a clearer view of what we have at the moment to be able to build a better future.

Neshat considers it part of her social conscientiousness as an artist to be the “voice of her people” even though she has no access to that country and its people anymore as an artist in exile. But the question here is how is it possible for an artist to be the voice of a people that she is culturally, historically, and geographically so distanced from?

According to Neshat, her frustration with the falseness of the image of Iranian women in the Western mind has caused her to dedicate a major part of her practice to a “criticism” of this image. However, what artists such as Neshat and her followers simply take for granted is that the image that the West has of the Iranian identity is not one that is immediate, neutral and organically formed—The roots and origins of this image and the way that it has been formed, communicated and received throughout the years is one that deserves its own respective in-depth study.  The question at hand is as proposed substitutes for this stereotypical image of the “Oriental Woman” in the realm of the Aesthetics, what other aspects of this identity do Neshat’s images reveal, and to what extent do they actually challenge and criticize this cliché that she claims they are disapproving of? 

During her talk, on the big TED screen behind Neshat appears the image of an Iranian Woman in Chador, with her two fingers on her half-opened mouth with a Henna tattoo on her hand that reads “Ya Ghamar-e Bani-Hashem”*; the makeup and tattoo, even if considered and read as symbolic, are to a great extent exoticized and bizarre, beautiful and unnerving. The women in Neshat’s works, to me as an Iranian woman, portray the exact same identity that, in Edward Said’s words’ “looks like nobody I have ever known in my life”; images of larger-than-life contradictions in unfamiliar subjects that are charming, as much as repelling, are reoccurring exaggerations, and elements that, put together, construct nothing but a rather more distasteful cliché of Orientalist representations of the Middle Eastern identity.  

In her talk, Neshat mentions that she had made those photographs after traveling to Iran after a good twelve years of being apart from it, when she had encountered an Iran that, according to her, had transformed from “Persian” to “Islamic”, “a country that was totally ideological and that I didn’t recognize anymore”, she explains. As she keeps talking, the pictures of the slideshow on the background change. Next, appear news photos of Iranian women in arms, Basij Militia women and Islamic Policewomen on the big screen behind her.  Some of these pictures—not photographed by Neshat herself—are from the time of the war and others are more recent. “I became very interested in this issue 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” she says as a photograph of her wearing a black chador, staring into the camera while pointing her gun towards the viewer appears.

Her use of the word “Persian” reminded me of everything that makes the word “culture” and its meaning, its connotations and its notional collocations as a word, all the more vague and complicated for me. I was confused, as the “Islamicized” Iran that she was talking about, was the only Iran that I had known in my entire life. This made me think that women like Allahyari and myself are the generation that once constituted the exotic-looking little girls who had made a desire in Neshat to revive the past that was different from the present of Iran that she had encountered when she had visited it after the Revolution. We were the little women—raised in a society that had once seemed alien and frightening to her—who have grown up today and turned into the women of the Green Movement, a huge inspiration to her: “Women who are educated, forward-thinking, non-traditional, sexually open, fearless and seriously Feminist”, she adds. Having heard this last statement of hers, I could then make sure that despite all the repetitive dropping of the word “feminist” when describing and talking about her work, Neshat had never made clear what the word “feminism” meant for her, and in what way it exactly related to her work. 

The use of the word “Feminist” as interchangeable with “feminine” has already become a very common mistake amongst a lot of people in Iran (and probably elsewhere); in that everything that has an attribution to “being a woman” or consists of an image of a woman is mistakenly considered “feminist” with no regards to the history, definition and the origins of a movement and methodology that is essentially against most of the beliefs and constructs that underlie the exotica of the likes of Neshat’s imagery. This addresses one of the biggest misinterpretations and a common misreading of the works of Neshat: beautifully exotic women, wearing makeup while half-clad in Chador that gives them a layer of sorrowfulness evoking both fear and sympathy in the eyes of the viewer.  Not only do Neshat’s images lack a Feminist criticism of the stereotypical images of the “Iranian woman”, they are complicit in the constructs and “standards” that Feminism is radically against.

* The phrase literally meaning “Oh, Shining Moon of Bani-Hashim”, is calling the name of Abolfazl, a famously courageous Shia Muslim martyr in the Battle of Karbala. The use of this phrase is at the times of feeling great awe or fear.

Via CVAD New Media Art Blog (University of North Texas) and W.O.R.D.S
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