In celebration of International Women’s Day, MoFo’s Narges Kahvazadeh moderated a discussion with Shirin Neshat, award-winning Iranian American visual artist and filmmaker. During the program, Shirin highlighted some of her pieces while also sharing her story of immigrating to the United States and how her art is giving voice to the women in Iran (and women around the world) in their fight for equality.
Critically acclaimed, Shirin’s art has been featured in numerous solo exhibitions in museums internationally, from Munich and Italy to Los Angeles and Detroit.
In addition to her photography, she has directed three feature-length films, Women Without Men (2009), which received the Silver Lion Award for Best Director at the 66th Venice International Film Festival; Looking for Oum Kulthum (2017); and most recently, Land of Dreams, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2021.
Her films have received multiple awards, including the Golden Lion Award, the First International Prize at the 48th Biennale di Venezia, the Hiroshima Freedom Prize, the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, and the prestigious Praemium Imperiale Award in Tokyo.
Shirin’s parents sent her at age 17 to live in the United States. She would visit home periodically over the next few years but was unable to return following the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and would not see her family again for 12 years. In 1990, she was finally able to travel back to Iran and reunite with her family. Shirin was shocked to discover how the country had changed during her time away. Inspired by her visit and the emotions that accompanied it, she decided to become an artist. “The core of my subjects remains related to Iran. I think part of it was because I really didn’t want to once again lose this connection between myself and my country,” she explained. “Art became this tool to help me keep that relationship alive.”
Now a prominent visual artist, Shirin uses her art to evoke issues of power, religion, race, and gender, and the relationship between the past and present, East and West, individual and collective, through the lens of her personal experiences as an Iranian woman living in exile.
Her digital art piece, called “Woman Life Freedom,” was on display in London’s Piccadilly Circus and at Pendry West Hollywood in Los Angeles in the Fall of 2022. The photograph is of two hands, one holding bullets and the other with an illustration of a paisley on the palm. Inscribed on the hands is poetry written by women in Farsi.
Shirin prefaced her discussion of the piece by explaining her fascination with Iranian identity and the reality that Iran’s culture and history are often overlooked. “The world knows us as this oppressed country that is basically defined as a very backward culture, yet there’s another side of us which is incredibly rich, ancient, lyrical: a powerful culture of mystics, writers, scientists, mathematicians, and poets.” At the core of Iranian identity, Shirin stated, is Iranian women. The piece illustrates how Iranian women have been divided between two different worlds that are in contradiction with one another. “The grief of not only the women but the people of Iran who are coming from such a powerful past and powerful history but have been reduced to this contemporary definition is purely vicious and violent and it’s holding us down.”
However, Shirin clarified that there is a distinction between her art and her activism. For her, it is important that art does not determine a viewer’s beliefs. “I like to create and organize certain symbols and allegories, certain narratives and concepts, and put it in front of my audience and let them emotionally and intellectually relate to it and decide for themselves what they think,” she explained.
Learn more about Shirin and her art.