- Unsaying Life Stories:The Self-Representational Art of Shirin Neshat and Ghazel
What connects the two artists in Figures 1 and 2 across time and place? (See pages 40 and 41.) The protagonists seem to be so "at home" in their landscape that they do not stand out as disruptions to a cultural rhythm. They are wearing clothing that symbolizes Iran, and they are in an environment that evokes Iranian art and architecture. In Figure 1, a scene in Shirin Neshat's video Soliloquy (1999), a woman stands near the kind of dome one often sees in Islamic architecture; the compatibility of the curved and the straight lines is striking. The woman is washing herself, possibly in preparation for prayer. Her hands are artistically dyed with henna. Her eyes are closed as the water runs down her face. She seems to be unaware of the camera, involved in a private moment, a purification ritual perhaps. Her clothing, her hands, and the architectural background are all consistent with familiar images of the Middle East. The woman marching in a black chador in a video still by Ghazel (Figure 2) also seems to be quite "at home." The text underneath the image says that both her grandfathers were colonels. This "bothness" is repeated by the text written underneath the image, which appears both in English and in French. She marches to the right of the frame with the straight posture and hint of pants and boots characteristic of a soldier. Like the protagonist in Neshat's video, she neither looks at the camera nor seems to care that it is there. She seems to be re-enacting a private moment of family history.
At least, this is what the images say at first glance. Upon closer inspection, the viewer learns that the two protagonists are the artists themselves. They are more than conscious of the camera; they have actually directed these visual narratives. They are posing. This is one role from among many that they could have played. Both artists are native to Iran, but they are [End Page 39] acting in their own productions. They are playing a particular role. They have made the directorial decisions about camera angle and distance, about the time and place, and about the final look of the production. They make images: they are fully aware that they have pictured themselves alongside symbols of Iran.
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So why are they pretending not to be conscious of the camera? The conscious decisions of the artists point to an issue that is left unsaid but whose absence says a lot. Perhaps, beneath all this effort to seem comfortable, there is discomfort as well. Are these people in fact "at home," or has home become foreign to them? Has this alienation propelled these artists to picture themselves together with readily identifiable, traditional markers of Iranian culture? Are these productions a way of re-negotiating their place with their native land, to find a voice, a space from which to speak?
Culturally hybrid persons are often caught in the crossfire of prejudices. For hybrid Iranians, these prejudices are exacerbated by international political tensions that fall along three dimensions of limited visions. They include historical prejudice, where each nation dominates the other in the telling of history; cultural prejudice, stemming from mutual suspicion and ignorance; and political prejudice, as a result of inflexibility, of an unwillingness to [End Page 40] envision the other's view. Art can be a powerful means for challenging the stereotypes of mutually antagonistic nations. In autobiographical art, moreover, artists may use the "telling-self" to "unsay" what has been attributed to them through these stereotypes. By literally and metaphorically engaging the public in seeing alternative realities and histories, these artist-philosophers offer an alternative of historical collaboration, cultural knowledge, and political flexibility.
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This deconstructive approach to representation is a significant feature of the camera-based work of two contemporary Iranian women artists: Shirin Neshat (b. 1957) and Ghazel (b. 1966...