Shirin Neshat’s studio is one for the 21st century: one end features a storyboard of photographs for Neshat’s next project, a biopic on the life of Egypt’s most popular singer, Oum Kalthoum; while between the windows on the Canal Street wall hangs a 50” flat screen TV, perhaps in place of an easel. It takes a few minutes to notice, but tucked away by the door is a little rolling table and some shelves with brushes and ink for Neshat’s calligraphic work. “Usually all these people, like Jeff Koons, have a factory full of people. It takes me forever!” she cheerfully grumbles over the care that goes into her signature photo portraits that she inscribed with Farsi text. In her most recent exhibition The Book of Kings at Barbara Gladstone this past winter, the inky writing comprised of contemporary Persian poetry and passages from prisoners’ journals. “I hadn’t been doing photography for 10 years,” she explains. “It was difficult to go back to a single person and get something very significant from their gaze.”
The focal point of Neshat’s The Book of Kings show was a series of portraits of Iranian and Arab faces, divided into three headings: victims, villains and martyrs. She shows me a 19th century postcard from Iran: it’s a picture of the student body and teachers from a religious school. This was her source for many of the gestures in her photographs. The teachers with their arms crossed authoritatively—villains; students with hands over their hearts, a typical Persian gesture of supplication—victims. To Neshat, the ambiguous hand gesture says it all: “The Book of Kings is an epic of tragedies, fathers killing sons, doing anything for their country. Sacrifice and courage are the central themes, but always with killing, cutting off heads, brutality.” Neshat sees this as a viable metaphor for the current situation in her country where, for the last 60 years, altruistic intentions have been co-opted by duplicitous political regimes.
Since leaving and returning to photography, Neshat has been creating film and video, most notably her feature film Women Without Men, based on the novel by Iranian author Shahrnush Parsipur which she co-wrote with her partner of 14 years, the filmmaker, writer and multimedia artist Shoja Azari. Neshat and Azari worked on the film for six years. Though the feature is about Iran, it couldn’t be shot there, and the actors were expatriates, if Iranian at all; “We knew that it was quite risky to bring people from Iran, because the book has been banned—one of the actresses was actually Hungarian!” Pirated DVDs of Women Without Men were sold on the street of Tehran before the film had even premiered in the United States. “It was a great pleasure for me,” Neshat confides.
She has not been back to Iran since 1996. Though she isn’t barred from the country, Neshat just doesn’t feel comfortable or safe going back. But she points out wryly, “I don’t have any interest to be drawn into political discussion, the work speaks for itself as to which camp I belong!” and indeed Neshat did take part in a three-day hunger protest against the Iranian election in 2009, supporting the Green Revolution. “Iranians have survived through the power of their poetry,” adding emphatically, “it’s not just poetry, we, as Iranians, have relied on the subversive qualities of poetic language to defend ourselves.”
As for her next project, Neshat is busy studying Egyptian history from the 1920s, ’50s and ’70s, the three periods in which her movie about singer Oum Kolthum is set. I ask her if she feels like a veteran after already making a feature, “I’ve learned a lot, making Women Without Men was like going to university for cinema.” But there were some new revelations, especially studying vintage Egyptian hair and makeup: “I absolutely love this part of it—it was new to me as a visual artist.” She will move to Cairo in June, and start shooting the film in October.
Living in New York since 1983, Neshat is no stranger to the nomadic life. She has moved nearly eight times around Little Italy, the Lower East Side, Noho, Soho, you name it. She’s become very attached to New York; “It is my Tehran,” she states flatly. “I knew New York when it was really bohemian, and my identity as an artist is a part of the fabric of this city.” A shadow does cross her face momentarily when we chat about the fantastic New York spring so far, “It’s been a long time since I felt the spring in Iran. What makes me the most nostalgic is when I remember being on my father’s farm in Qazvin, when everything went into blossom, the fragrance of all the cherry blossoms, apples, pears and peaches.” But she adds mischievously, “Although, my mother said it was snowing there yesterday.”