Artist Shirin Neshat is an Iranian but has lived in the US since the 1970s. Like many Iranians who now live abroad, she felt that Iran would continue on the same pace as ever, without any major turn in the straight road. However, to her surprise, the anti-hijab protests did not subside within a few days but have been ongoing for almost six weeks.
They were kicked off when a 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was arrested in Tehran on 13th September 2022 for violating the rule that required her to wear a headscarf or hijab. The people of Iran were enraged when Mahsa Amini died in custody and there were reports that she had been beaten with a baton by police officers. The initial protests were held at Mahsa Amini’s funeral in Saqqez. They were marked by women ripping off their headscarves in an expression of solidarity. After this initial spark, the protests have continued to multiply.
Shirin is a multimedia artist and is a supporter of the protests. She has allowed many of her works to be displayed on buildings in London and in Los Angeles. Her work has gained renewed relevance as it deals with women and their bodies, particularly the implications of veiled women of Iran dealing with the female presence in a male-dominated culture. Her works, though deeply rooted in Iran, have never been shown there. Her photographs and video installations are an attempt to capture the cultural issues that Iran suffers from. Women are locus points in her works.
Neshat attended college in the US and when she returned to visit Iran in 1990, she found Iran to have completely transformed due to the Iranian Revolution. A conservative Islamic republic had become firmly established in the country. Her contrasting experience made her produce artworks that dealt with the theme of the collision of the ideas of the east and the west.
A series of photographs that she created in the 1990s is titled ‘On Guard’. They depict women wearing a chador or a large black cloth that is usually worn by Iranian women to cover themselves. The focus of the photographs is on the parts of the women that the chador has left uncovered such as the eyes and the feet. These photographic prints are then inscribed with Farsi poetry.
The first series that pushed her into fame was titled ‘Women of Allah\’, 1993-97. She worked on the series after her shock of visiting Iran in 1990 and witnessing the regressive laws. The works are a series of self-portraits which are covered in Iranian poetry by Forough Farrokhzad and Tahereh Saffarzadeh. The protests in Iran (and around the world) and the direct participation of women have pushed Shirin Neshat’s large expanse of work into a renewed spotlight. They not only help us understand the struggles of Iranian women but also serve as visual symbols for gatherings of Iranian women around the world in solidarity with the protests. Her images are used to mobilise and spread the word.
In an interview with W Magazine, she stated, “What’s really powerful is one single person taking that responsibility, and that becomes a symbol for everyone else,” and that “Iranian people need solidarity, and they need to know that those outside are supporting them.”
In light of the ongoing protests in Iran, Lilah Raptopolous talked to Neshat for the FT weekend podcast and Neshat elaborated that in her works she has showcased how the bodies of women have been a point of contestation historically. With changes in government in Iran, the lives of Iranian women have also altered. In 1925, the buzz was about making Iran more modern and hijabs were not allowed to be worn in public. After the 1979 Iranian revolution and its hijack by Khomeini, the hijab became mandatory. In both cases, women’s bodies became politicised and now the hijab has become one of the symbols of Iran that the government does not want to do away with.
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Eleanor Heartney, an art critic, observed that Neshat “makes art through her identities as an Iranian and as a woman, but reshapes them to speak to larger issues of freedom, individuality, societal oppression, the pain of exile, and the power of the erotic.”