Facing our revolutions: Shirin Neshat’s pictures from Egypt

How ethical is it to frame, look at and sell pictures of the suffering faces of the Egyptian revolution in galleries?

'What happens when a work of art is aesthetically provocative but metaphysically daunting?' asks Dabashi [EPA]

In the most recent exhibition of the New York-based Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, in what she has termed “Our House is on Fire” (2014), we see her travel to Cairo, where she is getting ready to make a feature film about the legendary singer Umm Kalthum, and there and then, make 22 large-scale colour photographs mostly of Egyptian faces.

Commissioned by the Rauschenberg Foundation, these pictures are haunting and haunted, staring right into your eyes with a piercing particularity, asking an unknown, unknowable question. As one reviewer put it:

“Larger than life size faces peer out from the enshrouding darkness like ghosts, with furrowed brows and grim stares, a few punctuated by tears. Neshat’s signature overpainted calligraphy adorns their faces, but unlike the bold texts of the young passionate activists of her previous series, here she opts for tiny filigreed text, so small and faint that it becomes indecipherable… Her palette has been consciously washed out, emptied and softened to be nearly monochrome and punctuated by the bright whiteness of individual whiskers. Each face tells a poignant tale of grief and perseverance.”

In an interview, Neshat herself said: When a revolution starts, there is something euphoric and contagious about it. No one thinks about the human cost and that’s the story I wanted to share, the grief that connects the victims and the victors.”

Such elegiac preludes to a work of art about a world historic event launched half way around the world and yet mounted here in New York makes one wonder. Of course revolutions come at a tremendous “cost” – if we were to place world historic events on a scale of cost-benefit analysis – and it is equally true that in the euphoric eruption of revolutions, people are oblivious to the range and depth of sacrifices they are making.

Of course revolutions come at a tremendous ‘cost’ – if we were to place world historic events on a scale of cost-benefit analysis – and it is equally true that in the euphoric eruption of revolutions, people are oblivious to the range and depth of sacrifices they are making.

But would that analysis dissuade them from launching these revolutions? Are these pictures, now that we see the suffering visages of Egyptians bearing witness to their revolution, mean they should not have done what they did? Isn’t it too early to mourn the suffering when these revolutions have scarcely begun?

The sublime philosopher of “the face”, Emmanuel Levinas, states towards the end of his masterpiece, Totality and Infinity (1961): “The face is present in its refusal to be contained.”

Can the faces of Egyptians half way through their revolutions be pictured, contained, framed, looked at, sold, bought and auctioned in a studio in downtown Cairo?

How do we face up to our revolutions, people it, read it as the topography of the revolts that are now changing the face of the world, as we know it? The challenge facing Neshat and other artists who dare to come close to this frightful moment, is precisely a Levinasian challenge: What exactly do we do with these faces, what do they represent, if anything, to what end, and for how long? The challenge is aesthetically provocative but metaphysically daunting and politically compromising.  

What happens when a work of art is aesthetically provocative but metaphysically daunting? Here, Neshat tries to capture a moment that is beyond recognition, when the face of the other has paused to expose itself for posterity.

Levinas famously believed that in its “nudity and defenselessness”, the face states: “Do not kill me.” But does the very same face not plead, “Do not picture, frame or curate me?”

The aggressive commodification of the work of art in New York (and by extension in North America and Western Europe and now through Sotheby, the Arab World and beyond) is where these and similar faces are mounted, staged and sold – and with them the Egyptian and other Arab revolutions. There is a banal sympathy at the heart of this curatorial liberalism – Egyptians are suffering – as if they don’t know and were just waiting to be photographed and curated in their suffering.

The art of these revolutions are yet to be born, yet to be fathomed, yet to be framed.

Neshat’s pictures are being read, alas, as a panegyric for the Egyptian revolution, and thus positing that momentous occasion as a fait accompli – the time to count and mourn the dead. The Egyptian revolution has been costly and is going wayward, but it is nowhere near finished. A dictator has been deposed, an incompetent but democratically elected president has been deposed by a military coup and much remains open-ended in Egypt.

The New York art scene is too eager to read mourning and closure to a vast revolutionary unfolding in Neshat’s work. This is not just a wrong reading of Neshat; it is also a wrong reading of that revolution. Mourning the Egyptian revolution and the Arab Spring precisely at a moment when it has scarcely begun is the wet dream of American liberal imperialism.

What Neshat has summoned here is a moment of pause, immortalised by her photographic tenacity to stabilise – against the grain of a history that is trembling today with unfolding verve and defiance. The metaphysical certainty of these pictures as a result defeats their aesthetic sublimity. Neshat has become a commodified item, increasingly removed by the global art industry from her palpitating, commanding, intuitive, power of connecting with her subject matters – the way the vintage Neshat commenced working more than two decades ago.

As her art struggles to remain connected to her subject, the commodification of that very art pulls it down into the foregrounding of a culture industry that wants to see the world “stabilised”, with its victors and victims remaining right where they are: disconnected, unequal in disequilibria.  

I recently visited Frida Kahlo’s home in Mexico City – shivering under the power of an artist who remained grounded in the pain and suffering of a people she claimed as hers, and they were hers to claim by abandoning herself, her name, her fame, her art to them, where they belonged – in the heart and minds of the fertile soil that can instantly tell between a fruitful life and one bought and sold in art galleries.

Iran, alas, can no longer be Mexico to Neshat, nor can Cairo when the Chelsea art galleries in New York have become the terra incognita for homeless and commodified artists from around the world. An unexamined world needs to be examined – either by artists fresh in their ability to imagine the unfolding present or by those agile in their imagination to see through the smokescreen of the dust humans make when altering their destiny.

The problem with Neshat’s work has always been the shortsighted commentaries that the North American and Western European art market prefixes to it. The faces she has photographed in Egypt are the topography of the emotive universe that accompanies and enriches the revolutions of our time. Her art as a result is the prolegomena of our future, compromised as it is by the commercial venues that bring it to us in compromising galleries.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York and the author, most recently, of The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism (Verso 2011).