Shirin Neshat: Fervor Essay

11/13/2004 - 02/19/2005

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Shirin Neshat: Fervor
Raechell Smith

An isolated dirt road. Two lone figures walk forward in solitude. A man and a woman emerge from separate directions, approaching one another from opposite paths. They come to a cross in the road, an intersection, but they pass in silence. Continuing forward on separate paths, they walk away from one another, each one alone. The man hesitates, glancing back over his shoulder toward the woman. His hopeful gaze is not returned. She keeps walking and he sees only the woman’s back and the movement of her cloak as it trails behind her in the dust. Fade to black.

Neshat’s Women of Allah

Beautifully photographed in black and white and accompanied by the mesmerizing sound and music composed and created by Sussan Deyhim, Fervor begins with a breathtaking filmic passage, visualizing the story of a chance meeting between a woman and a man. Their interaction, while fleeting and nearly invisible to the eyes of the viewer, is charged with a palpable tension – curiosity, perhaps even attraction – between these two individuals.

One might expect a casual greeting to pass between them, or hope for their eyes to meet, but our expectations are thwarted. Whatever obstacles there are to inhibit a direct exchange between them remain unnamed and invisible but, without a doubt, we immediately understand the weighty presence of these obstacles as a character in its own right, a figure as central to the story as the actors themselves.

Shirin Neshat, a visual artist with a unique bi-cultural fluency emanating from experience and knowledge of both East and West, has adopted the image of the veiled woman, specifically the women of Islam,in her work since the early 1990’s.

Born in Iran, Neshat came to the United States in 1973, encouraged by her family to study art in California. Upon Neshat’s return to Iran, in 1990, her first visit after living nearly two decades in the United States, she discovered a radically different social landscape than the one she left as a young adult. What occurred during her absence—an exile of sorts—was a series of severe shifts in political, religious, and ideological beliefs in her native Iran. It was during this pivotal return trip to her homeland that Neshat discovered this subject matter, the women of Islam, which would become the central motif for her work, and began to realize a mature artistic voice after a period of creative silence that had lasted at least 10 years.1

As an image, the veiled woman is a powerful signifier of cultural and religious difference to Western eyes. It is an image of the historical past and the present moment; one that embodies romanticized or academic notions of Orientalism, exoticism, passivity and submission, repression and innocence, and, ultimately, of difference.

In a successive series of photographs and, more recently, the multi-media installations created by Shirin Neshat, the female subject is veiled by a full-length chador. According to the Islamic order of dress in Iran, sexual pleasure, both optical and physical, is confined within the family and necessitates the veiling of women and the segregation—and, thusly, protection—of women and men from temptation, from desire.2

In Iran, a period of social unrest was followed by the Islamic revolution of 1979. The Shah of Iran fled the country, making way for the Islamic leader Ayatollah Khomeini to return to Iran from exile. The Shah’s twenty-year rule of Iran was overturned and, with popular support, assumed by Khomeini.  In this new Iran, the leadership of Khomeini resulted in a sharp rise in Islamic fundamentalism. The situation and its cumulative effect did much to fuel the population’s growing unrest and its intolerance and hatred of any and all foreign influence upon their culture. At the center of debate were the cultural and economic influences emanating from the West, particularly the United States. From a Western perspective, what many considered to be modernizing and progressive changes during the Shah’s regime—such as the lifting of many restrictive social codes of behavior and improved conditions concerning women’s rights—were eventually opposed and ultimately rejected by the new regime and the new Islamic society ushered in under Khomeini’s rule.

The physical changes exacted on life in Iran by the passionate and swift return to strict Islamic beliefs and ideology after the revolution were viewed as shocking – not only to the world but to the eyes of the artist Shirin Neshat as well. One of these changes, as discussed by Iranian author Minou Reeves, was the re-emergence of the chadorand the symbolic attributes it assumed in the new Iran. “The chador, the traditional black veil that envelops a Moslem woman from top to toe, came to symbolize a form of political protest – an identity with Islamic values and a rejection of the Westernizing process instituted by the Shah.”3

For Neshat, what began as a fairly private, artistic quest to gain a better understanding of some of these changes4 and provided what was, personally, a possibility for reconnecting to her past, became a broader conceptual exploration of the representation (or misrepresentation) of identity and experience. As an opportunity, the occasion created a challenge for Neshat to re-imagine and create a more accurate and multifaceted portrait of the Islamic woman. As such, the artist’s vision is culturally specific, concerning the enormous changes that have affected contemporary Iranian culture and the experience of women (and men) in Islam.

As Neshat has explained in her own words, “from the beginning I made a decision that this work was not going to be about me or my opinions on the subject, and that my position was going to be no position. I then put myself at a place of only asking questions but never answering them. The main question and curiosity was simply being a woman in Islam. I then decided to put the trust in those woman’s words who have lived and experienced the life of a woman behind a veil.”5

And so, Neshat began to construct a more complex portrait of Islam using the veiled woman as the central motif in her work, relying on and responding to media representations rich in well-rehearsed stereotypes. The chador has come to represent one of the most ubiquitous symbols of religious, ideological, and political contrast between East and West. As an image and as a symbol, the chador has become as much identified in the art world with Shirin Neshat as it is now associated, within a larger, more global context, with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran and around the world. It is a signifier of distance and difference.

Many representations of Muslim women in the media, in all likelihood, have been enlivened by the power they have to perpetuate certain narrow, constructed myths of a cultural identity. But, contrary to the intentions with which they are generally conjured, these images have in fact never really lent themselves to encouraging or creating a more truthful or compassionate understanding of divergent beliefs and customs and their gross complexities.

Revealing this fact has become the artist’s motivation and a smart strategy. Neshat’s creative considerations of the individual, communal, religious, sexual, ideological, and political differences that currently exist represent the clash between the two cultures from which she comes and to which she now belongs. Over the past decade, however, as her work has become more complex and increasingly sophisticated in its use of media and subject matter, she has managed to create work that is able to transcend the specifics of one culture. Engaging a visual and philosophical language that capitalizes on the expressive potential of duality, Neshat has come to focus on the elemental aspects of emotional intelligence and the conflicts that difference creates, imagining the multiple facets of human experience and their consequences in allegory.

In an early series of photographs entitled The Women of Allah, Neshat portrayed women in the role of martyr, the shahadat. In The Rebellious Silence, a work from this series, words are borrowed from the writings of an Iranian woman, painted in ink across the surface of the image where skin has been left exposed by the veil. The woman’s gaze is direct and defiant; her face is boldly bisected by the profile of a weapon. The veil and its association with violence in a post-Islamic revolution and post 9-11 era are undeniable. Neshat’s image does contain notions of violence, delivering the implications of women’s involvement in rebellious acts and terrorism. The beauty of the image dispels none of this but the combination of violence and beauty does serve to shock one out of complacency and passive viewing.

Neshat’s representations of Islamic women embody multiple aspects of the feminine, including the believer, the soldier, the life-giver, the nurturer, the protected, and the seductress. The numerous dimensions of experience revealed invoke the personal, communal, political, ideological, and spiritual conditions of existence.
Bonding, a work of profound and touching intimacy, depicts two sets of hands, those of a mother enveloping those of a child. We are reminded, at once, that such moments of quiet passion are shared beyond whatever cultural or geographic borders may exist. A more political reading of this same work, however, may fail to conceal the belief held by some women of Islam that to give birth to and nurture future generations of soldiers in Allah’s war is an honor. It is precisely this combination of beauty, visual brevity, and her ability to engage in the expression of dualities, complexities, and contradictions that makes Neshat’s work so profound.

In her trilogy of films (Turbulent, Rapture, and Fervor) and others that follow, Neshat’s subject matter becomes increasingly layered. The fluency and precision that guide her use of media and the artist’s mastery of metaphor, poetics, and archetypes serve to add new levels of meaning and content. The compositions, concerning the separation of men and women, the differences that exist between the sexes, and the assumptions about such things from both within and outside Islamic culture, become an ongoing meditation. Such are the occasions for Neshat to depict universal experiences that encompass a range of passions, present in different ways in all lives across cultures.

In the case of Fervor, it is private and romantic passion that is explored. In other films, however, Neshat has also considered the passions of isolation and exile, grief and mourning, religious ritual and devotion, private realms of an inner life, and the constraints of living as an individual within a community.

As the narrative of Fervor continues, we see the man and woman immersed within the midst of a crowd. The crowd enters into the assembly hall and is divided one half from the other, the men from the women. Neshat begins to render the strict cultural segregation of the sexes in her composition. The curtain provides an important bisection, ensuring discretion and separation. Through the power of suggestion, the curtain also images the cultural forces that serve to distance these individuals and deny the possibility of interaction between them. The once-isolated individuals, now firmly placed within their community, adhere still to the defined codes of Islamic behavior as they listen—segregated within their community—to the orator’s impassioned tale.

The popular and ancient tale recounted for the crowd by the storyteller is also illustrated in a scroll painting, unfurled to reveal the story’s two central figures. It is a story of a man and a woman, forbidden desire, and sexual transgression. A version of this story is familiar within many cultures. William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for example, narrates a story of love between two young lovers whose union is forbidden by their circumstances. In Fervor, Neshat encourages a comparison between the couple depicted in the painting and the orator’s tale and the man and woman of her own tale, leading us to believe that they, too, are divided by the ties that bind them. As the passion of the speaker swells to a fervor and the crowd sings out, in unison, the orator’s chant condemning Satan and the presence of evil, the woman flees the hall, leaving the man behind.

In their desire for both a sense of belonging and for unity, Fervor’s Romeo and Juliet may be as trapped by the circumstances of their place and time as we all are. The ways in which we envision evil and transgression may differ according to custom, tradition, and belief, and yet don’t we all have a desire for and claim to the larger hope for harmony and peaceful coexistence?

Neshat herself has addressed such universal readings as a goal: “I’m interested in juxtaposing the traditional with the modern, but there are other, more philosophical aspects that interest me as well – the desire of all human beings to be free, to escape conditioning, be it social, cultural, or political, and how we’re trapped by all kinds of iconographies and social codes. I try to combine these elements to convey a sense of human crisis and emotion.”6
In the film’s remaining seconds, we see the man and woman reunited outside of the assembly hall, if only briefly, before they silently drift away from one another, disappearing towards opposite ends of a remote passageway. In the story of Fervor, it is perhaps the junction of greatest vagueness; however, it leaves the audience with the hope that these two individuals may eventually overcome their separation and the obstacles they face.

In the hands of a gifted artist, metaphor may not ultimately equal truth, but it can serve powerful ends. Perhaps there is still the possibility to hope for a kind of unity, even in the face of challenges, and a world that embraces the opposite of separateness, division, segregation, opposition, misunderstanding, and absolutes? I hope it is what the artist Shirin Neshat would like for us to believe.

[1] Minna Proctor, “New Style Sacred Allegory: The Video Art of Shirin Neshat,” Aperture, Spring 2002, No. 166, pp. 72-78.
[2] excerpts from Ayatollah Mortaza Mottaheri’s book, Women’s Rights in Islam in Minou Reeves, Female Warriors of Allah: Women and the Islamic Revolution. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1989, p. 178.
[3] Reeves, p. 10.
[4] Linda Bertucci, “Shirin Neshat: Eastern Values,” Flash Art, November/December, 1997, pp. 84-87.
[5] Bertucci, p. 84.
[6] Octavio Zaya, “Shirin Neshat,” Interview, September 1999, p. 166.