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The Detroit Institute of Arts currently hosts a mid-career retrospective of Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, best known for her photographic work. Years in the planning by Rebecca Hart, associate curator of contemporary art, the exhibition combines photography, film, and video installations dealing with identity, gender, and politics. This first major display of her work in ten years contains two photographic works, Women of Allah, The Book of Kings, along with eight video installations.
Recent polling indicates that Americans have an overwhelming dislike for Iran as evidenced in a March 2013 Gallup poll. When asked, “What is your overall opinion of Iran?” 87% of the respondents said unfavorable. So why would the DIA mount an exhibition by an Iranian American artist in light of current dislike by so many? In addition to mounting the exhibition of Shirin Neshat’s work, the museum also presents a series of lectures and films, all designed to offer the community an opportunity to participate in a conversation about socially engaged art. What we are seeing is the museum as educator.
To understand the exhibition, one needs to know of the artist’s birth in a small religious town, Qazvin, in the northwest region of Iran. Raising their daughter in a time of a progressive climate for women and the arts, her well-to-do parents sent Shirin to the United States to study in 1979, coinciding with the Islamic Revolution that brought the current regime into power. Kept in exile in the United States, she spent her adult life as an artist studying the personal and the political.
Neshat explores the relationships of women to the militancy of Islamic fundamentalism, depicting weapons, and portraits of women overlaid with Persian calligraphy. In the work, Speechless (1996) Neshat portrays an Iranian woman in hijab, the barrel of a gun, and many lines of calligraphy in Farsi from Persian literature. Black wooden frames hold the large black and white photographs, printed using a resin coated paper. More recently, The Book of Kings, inspired by the political wave of uprisings throughout the Arab world last year, explores the underlying socio-cultural structures and conditions as they relate to the control of power. Displayed on three walls, forty photographs measuring 45 in x 60 in reveal lines of Persian calligraphy covering their surfaces, only discovered in most cases upon close inspection. The body of work titled, The Book of Kings, stems from the ancient Shahnameh, an epic tragedy written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi. The Book of Kings tells the historical and mythical past of Greater Iran from the creation of the world until the 7th century Islamic conquest of Persia.
Living and working in New York City at the time of 9/11 Neshat struggled to process the tragedy that took place only blocks away. A growing and rampant anti-Muslim sentiment caused her to question whether the United States accepted her and other Muslims. Seemingly in response, Neshat collaborated with Shoja Azari to develop the novel Women Without Men by Shahrnush Parsiur, into a feature film by the same name. The film won Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice film festival in 2009.
Screened at the Detroit Film Theater in conjunction with the opening of the exhibit, the film profiles four women in Iran in 1953 when a British-American coup removed the democratically elected government. The magical yet realistic story explores the lives of these women from a social, psychological and political point of view as they eventually meet in a metaphorical garden. The most memorable woman Zarin, an unusually thin prostitute, flees a brothel to find refuge at a women’s public bath, where she scrubs her body raw in an attempt to cleanse herself from the imprint of the men who have used her. Shahrnush Parsiur, imprisoned for the text, writes openly about women’s sexuality and discontent. First published in 1989, the novel and film remain banned in Iran.
This exhibition represents a progressive move by the DIA, potentially controversial, but more importantly, educational. In each photo gallery, signage helps the viewer decipher the symbolic elements in the photography. Part of the GLOBAL IMAGINARIES / Individual Realities series, the Detroit Institute of Arts offers a platform for artists and communities to share ideas and conversation that provide an ethical, cultural, and political framework to better understand our world.
The Shirin Neshat exhibition runs from April 7-July 7, 2013 and does not have a special exhibition fee.
Ron Scott is a pseudonym for a writer based in the Detroit area. View more articles by Ron Scott.