Being at home in exile: Shirin Neshat at work

Shirin Neshat has overcome her obstacles and become an iconic figure very much like Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe.

Jury member Shirin Neshat speaks during news conference at 63rd Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin
Shirin Neshat's art began with her photographic engagements with the journalistic images depicted in North America and Western Europe of Muslim women and their veiling habits - in conformity or in defiance [Reuters]

Beginning from April 7 until July 7, 2013, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) in Detroit, Michigan, is home to a major mid-career retrospective of the work of Shirin Neshat – a globally celebrated Iranian artist living in New York.  

Working from the depth of her experiences as an Iranian artist living in exile over the last three decades, almost the entirety of the life of the Islamic republic ruling her homeland, Shirin Neshat has by now established a critical constellation of factors definitive to her work: women with or without veiling, men in plain white clothes, Persian poetry and prose exuding from their faces and bodies, all coming together to play on a porous border line between femininity, gendered binaries, subdued eroticism, all staged at the threshold of a pending violence.  

Over the years, many far less talented claims to artistry, most famously the notorious Islamophobe Ayaan Hirsi Ali and her collaborator the late Theo van Gogh, have tried to imitate her work, but they have all categorically failed and she is now staged and celebrated at the prime height of her career as a vastly imaginative, deeply engaging and invariably provocative artist whose work has reached a global audience far beyond the limits of her nationality or even the politics of her location in the United States. From Detroit, Michigan, Shirin Neshat is on her way to Beijing in China for a major retrospective on her work. From Asia to North Africa to Latin America, Europe, the US, and the Arab and Muslim world she is widely exhibited, debated and discussed.  

Shirin Neshat’s work has been at times criticised for updating “the Western Orientalist imageries” – and perhaps justifiably so: though the charge conceals a far deeper conundrum of an expatriate artist deeply rooted in her ancestral culture and yet critically engaged in the visual registers of her own time. Shirin Neshat’s art began with her photographic engagements with the journalistic images depicted in North America and Western Europe of Muslim women and their veiling habits – in conformity or in defiance.  But while both those clichés and the kinds of equally cliché accusations of orientalism that they solicited kept pace with each other, Shirin Neshat’s work persistently paved the way to chart uncharted and by definition dangerous interlays between piety and eroticism in multiple visual registers.  

Visual reflection

Today as we walk through the labyrinth of her mid-career retrospective at DIA, competently curated by Rebecca Hart and her colleagues, we feel in the presence of a magnificent constellation of an artist’s vision that has successfully overcome not just her short sighted critiques and a vast spectrum of Orientalising journalistic art criticism that has used and abused her for their own reasons and purposes, but also a debilitating politics of location that keeps haunting and thus frames an Iranian (or Arab, or Muslim) artist before she has blinked an eye to think and imagine herself otherwise. 

It is precisely terms such as “exile” and “expatriate” that conceal the emerging site of visual reflection from which Shirin Neshat’s work has emerged. So far as the opposing poles of “home” and “exile” keep exacerbating each other concealed will remain the more evident fact of empowered locations and disenfranchised communities (formed and framed by the material reality of a borderless geography) that are located in between those two fictions. Central to that space remains the economics of artistic production that at one and the same time decide what art is and yet channels them in a corporatised direction that nullifies its very function in a very tumultuous world.  

The site of the DIA in Detroit is a telling example of that thinning out of the public that is to be the sphere in which works of art have a rendezvous with their history. Between the site of the museum and any hotel at which any visitor to Detroit might be staying are the ghostly ruins of a vastly depleted urbanity, punctuated only by the raucous of a baseball game between New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers. Decades of racialised class conflicts, subsequent suburbanisation of urban life, and a sustained record of governmental neglect have turned Detroit into a haunted cosmopolis actively remembering its once thriving urbanity but incapable of any meaningful renewal. How can any aspect of contemporary art be meaningful in this context?  

Shirin Neshat’s work defies received or institutionalised aesthetics [Getty Images]

The obscene corporatisation of the American art scene has now reached a point where even old fashioned galleries are losing their sites and momentum to online auctions that has let art critiques writing obituaries for the gallery scenes, which had already deeply compromised the artist by catering to corporate tastes and power. As Jerry Saltz puts it in this now widely circulated piece among artists:  

Artists and dealers are as passionate as ever about creating good shows, but fewer and fewer people are actually seeing them. Chelsea galleries used to hum with activity; now they’re often eerily empty….  Fewer ideas are being exchanged, fewer aesthetic arguments initiated. I can’t turn to the woman next to me and ask what she thinks, because there’s nobody there.

Instead, the blood sport of taste is playing out in circles of hedge-fund billionaires and professional curators, many of whom claim to be anti-market. There used to be shared story lines of contemporary art: the way artists developed, exchanged ideas, caromed off each other’s work, engaged with their critics. Now no one knows the narrative; the thread has been lost. 

Here the role of courageous and principled curators (of whom I know many) operating perforce between public and private funding is more than ever critical in helping artists navigate between success and presence in the public sphere. What saves an artist from the maladies of a deeply corporatised art scene is her or his presence on a public sphere far beyond the rich and powerful donors and/or collectors that now have a disproportionate power over the commodified dispensation of her or his creative imagination. 

The same is a fortiori true about the role of the art critiques who must remain integral to that public sphere far beyond the limitations of an opening reception in which they may be present. It is only on that public sphere, however modified in the age of cyberspace auctioning, and certainly beyond the limitations of the Chelsea neighbourhood in New York, that the visual intelligence of a work of art can be assayed.  

Body politic

What unites Shirin Neshat’s work is a manner of visual contemplation of body and politics – and thus body politic – that has managed to imagine, visualise and stage what has been historically the narrative domain of masculinist metaphysics – from medieval scholasticism to modern ideologies. She has now overcome all her obstacles and become an iconic figure very much the same way that Frida Kahlo or Georgia O’Keeffe were iconic to their time, or more recently like Lee Krasner, Faith Ringgold, or Kara Walker who have transcended their time by seeing through and sublating the quintessence of their world.    

Like any great artist producing work of art on a massive scale, Shirin Neshat has had her share of misconceptions and flawed deliveries – particularly in her theatrical work – OverRuled (2011), Logic of the Birds (2002) – but they pale in comparison with the solid evidence of an abiding vision that from her earliest photography to the most recent videos and first feature film, Women without Men (2009), which mark the expansive aesthetic of an artist working on the porous and uncertain borders of multiple cultures and climes.  

Shirin Neshat’s work defies received or institutionalised aesthetics. Some of her admirers praise her for the wrong reasons, as do those who criticise her also do so with stale and self-circuited terminologies, sentiments and politics. She has made wrong collaborative choices, and she has been party to abusive reading of her own work. In a time when cliché conceptualisation of “Muslim women” or fetishised conceptions of “veiling” is integral to a globalised “war on terror”, all predicated on the ludicrous notion that Muslim women need saving from Muslim men, especially by white men in military uniform (to paraphrase Gayatri Spivak’s apt phrase), works such as Shirin Neshat’s become easy prey to abusive encounters.  

Some of these abuses are rooted in the works themselves, others imposed and manufactured around her polyfocal imageries. But beyond all these passing politics of location and the pitfalls of an artist coming to fruition on the emerging liminal spaces that overcome all binaries, her work has triumphed to posit an overriding reading of the Muslim body – as enigmatic and befuddling as any other body placed in the counter-metaphysics of its defiance of all powers and authorities that seek to discipline and punish it.    

The fact of a dual or even multiple audiences can at time dismantle the work of art, and at other times enable it to mean on more than one or two layers and contexts. But the enigma of the work itself – beyond its visual allusions to Islam, or Muslims, or Iran – has now come together to stage and deliver a transaesthetic of eroticism and piety, mundane politics and visual frivolity, left hitherto untapped in Muslim creative imagination, which is now perforce sublated and staged on a global scale, corresponding precisely with the fact and phenomenon of being a Muslim in the world.  

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. Among his books is Masters and Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema (2007).