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Radical History Review 86 (2003) 183-192
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After-Images of a Revolution
Shirin Neshat, Women of Allah (1994), Turbulent (1998), Rapture (1999), Fervor (2000).
Gita Hashemi, Of Shifting Shadows: Returning to the 1979 Iranian Revolution through an Exilic Journey in Memory and History, Exisle Creations, 2000, CD-ROM.
To hear Shirin Neshat speak about her work as an artist at the 2002 Society for Iranian Studies meeting in Bethesda, Maryland, where she also screened her most recent piece, Tuba, one would gather that she has received a great deal of criticism from her expatriate Iranian audience. Born in Qazvin, Iran, in 1957, this darling of the New York art scene said at the meeting that she considers herself a nomadic artist whose lifestyle informs her art. Though the images she has portrayed in still photography and on 16mm film generally depict Iranian subjects, she claims that her work is not a social critique of Iran, but rather her own inquiry into Iranian culture as it changed after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Arguing that the artist's responsibility is neither to validate nor to critique social and political ideas, she sees her art as a way of constructing a relationship to her own country of birth from the outside.
When Neshat first returned to Iran in 1990 after the Iranian Revolution, she found herself both shaken and stimulated by the ideology that had gripped her country of birth. 1 The outcome of her multiple visits thereafter—a series of photographs and film installations—reflects on questions of gender and identity under Islamic [End Page 183] rule: "I found them [women] to be the most potent subjects, in terms of how the social and political changes caused by the revolution affected their lives, how they embodied this new ideology, and how they were managing to survive the changes." 2 Hence women, and often veiled women in public spaces, became the focus of her installations, creating images that could, if evaluated uncritically, feed into and proliferate stereotypical representations of Middle Eastern cultures not unlike earlier traditions of orientalist art.
Her first still work, most notoriously serialized as Women of Allah (1994), portrays female figures whose photographed bodies bring together text, veil, and weapon. The concepts that enter the frame are in total conflict: the veiled female body, often stereotyped in Western discourses as submissive, illiterate, and backward, not only speaks here but it speaks both poetically and with arms. As Jonathan Goodman writes: "The gun barrel pointing out between a pair of beautiful feet in Allegiance with Wakefulness (1994) is a powerful corrective to the notion of Iranian women as passive beholders of political change. A poem is written on the soles [of the feet], an excerpt reads 'I pray for you guardian of the liberating Revolution.' The image makes an ambiguous statement, one calculated to disturb our presuppositions about her [Neshat's] stance." 3 Invested in its rigid presuppositions about the limited number of possible interpretations available for understanding the repercussions of the Islamic revolution, much of the Iranian expatriate community criticized Neshat's work for constructing stereotypical images of Iranian women and creating art that was in support of the repressive Islamic regime and its warring tendencies. Neshat moved on from photography to look for a universal, plural thematic that would intersect with the specifically Iranian cultural motifs that captured her interest. Her work for the screen shows this effort in its attempt to engage with a poetic language that is at once minimalist and humanist, in the spirit of director Abbas Kiarostami's work, but that is also uniquely powerful in its investments in the questions raised by the category of gender. [End Page 184]
The conflicting concepts once brought together in a single image in her black-and-white photography moved now to the gallery screen. In Neshat's Turbulent (1998), two screens facing each other project distinct oppositions. The screens' separation across a gallery floor reflects the dichotomies of gender relations in musical performances in Iranian society. Shoja Azari, Neshat's longtime collaborator, dressed in white, acts the part...