To anyone who has set foot in the Middle East over the past decade, the rise of women photographers has been a singular constant in a region beset by political upheaval and social strife. In the midst of the turbulence, it is women who have most visibly stepped forward to tell the stories of their countries and their own generation. Employing a range of techniques, from the unflinching realist gaze of photojournalism to subtle, story-soaked art photography, their work struggles with internal questions of sexuality and politics, refracted through a visual language that is powerful in its candor. “She Who Tells A Story,” a new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, features the work of Iranian and Arab women photographers from throughout the Middle East. It includes images from “The Book of Kings,” the latest exhibit of the New York-based artist Shirin Neshat, whose photographs and video installations have dealt with gender, politics, and religion for over two decades. Her contribution to the collection is distinguished by its deep historical gaze, which scans over centuries of Iranian history and invokes aesthetics of myth and patriotism, locating the recent Arab and Iranian in a richly layered socio-political continuum. She talks to us about her recent work, and her new project, a film biography of the Egyptian legend Om Kolthoum.
Can you describe the series you named The Book of Kings, for readers who haven't been able to see the exhibition? The Boston exhibit includes only one or two images, but as a whole it includes numerous portraits of individuals with calligraphy inscribed on their bodies, correct?
The whole body of the Book of Kings is divided into three parts, Patriots, Villains, and the Masses. The patriots have their hands on their hearts, similar to images of soldiers and nationalists, images of people devoted to nation. With the villains, who are the people in power, everything is very stylised and conceptualized. Then I had about 45 images of men and women, young and old, and I assembled all the images together as one group, the Masses, meaning the ones who witnessed, who were the targets and bore the consequence of this clash between the people who fight those in power, and the villains who fight to retain their power. There are also some images that are more independent, of executed bodies, limbs hanging, or a chest with hand on it, so together everything captures this moment of the Arab Spring. But that's more on the surface, as it actually goes deeper into that one historical moment. The Book of Kings, the Shahnameh, the reason I made the reference to it, aesthetically and dramatically, is that if you look at what the book is about, it is an epic poem of heroes and tales of people who fought villains, of people who lost their lives and their heads, and fought their country. There is always this notion of patriotism intersecting with atrocities, violence, killing, and war. It was very interesting to bring this mythological, ancient history and put it on the bodies of contemporary people. So this whole series has many layers.
So your Book of Kings tells this sweeping historical story, but anchors it right in the very present. What aspect of the recent upheavals – from Iran's Green movement through to the Arab Spring – do you see mirrored in Ferdowsi? The Shahnameh is certainly full of strong women, did that partly inspire the parallel?
If you look at my work in retrospect, my very first series Women of Allah captures a part of Iranian history that was about the Islamic revolution, and it focused on women more or less. It showed a very different kind of woman and conviction, much more idealogical and religious, women who were brainwashed by religion and ideology. This series shows another part of Iranian history, which is a completely different reality for women. They're not ideological, not brainwashed, rather they're educated and forwarding thinking. If you put the images [from the Book of Kings], like the one of Roja, next to one of the classic images from that [early] series, it explains everything about where we were in 1979 and where we were in 2009, in terms of growth and development within the Iranian community.
Much of the change has come out of education, women are very different people than they were before. I've tried to look at this without being biased or taking sides, without saying that it's good to an activist or whether it's good to be religious or not. But just by looking at images of contemporary women, by looking at the photojournalism and images of women protesting that came out of the Green movement, and then going back and looking at images of women on the streets in 1979, it's a very different narrative. Part of it was also the fact that I, like many others, was so inspired by this youth, their sense of conviction and courage, and I wanted to devote a whole body of work to that spirit of activism and the courage that it took. The series The Book of Kings is more about capturing a moment in Iranian history, and the Arab Spring as well, but also paying tribute to that spirit of activism, which has unfortunately now taken a different course, but was still very precious.
The villains of today seem just as villainous as those of the past, the villains of the Shahnameh. From Mubarak to Sisi, they immediately fill up that space. But the heroes, both in your images and in real life, seem more fleeting somehow. Do you think we hold the heroes of the Green movement and the Arab Spring, people like Neda and Wael Ghonim or whoever, in the same esteem?
It's interesting you say that, because it refers back to that whole movement, which had no sense of leadership. What was very different and very interesting about the Arab Spring and the Green movement, what put them apart from other mass uprisings, was that you did not have just one person provoking the public. For the people this was intentional, this absence of leadership on their part, and therefore the movements took on a more anonymous face, whether in Egypt or Iran, or Tunisia, or Turkey. So I think that absence of leadership is part of the identity of all these recent movements. So the faces of patriotism become more anonymous, and I think that's a very important part of the identity of these historical uprisings across these different countries, which had a few things in common: they were non-ideological, driven by the youth, and had an absence of leadership. So it's interesting that not one face as has emerged as representative.
The role of the body, its fragility as this contested space over which politics and ideas are fought, has been a central theme in your work. In the Book of Kings, the women are still occupying that same exposed place before the camera, but they seem less vulnerable somehow.
In Book of Kings the women are not veiled, and that reflects something about the level of confidence that comes with this new generation, which was absent before. That confidence shows in their body postures, they are very beautiful, as you can see in the images, and they are very conscious of it, but they are confident about their beauty and not using it as a sexual object. There is a new kind of maturity, which goes back to this idea of education. The older generation was more inhibited, hiding in the way that religion defines and conceals the body as a problem area, as something that's shameful. While the new generation really celebrates their body, they're not afraid of their own sexuality, but they don't want to be like men, they want to be women. It's almost a new idea of feminism which I find very intersecting. In my own generation, although we did not grow up religious, we still grew up with lots of taboos about the body, and felt a shame and fascination around it.
I tried to show these women who were strikingly beautiful, but also to show that this was not their only issue. To be desired is not essential, it is just one part beauty and sensuality, which makes it then really like an additional strength. As with the men, many of the men are almost beautiful in their strength, they are full of pride and integrity, and it shows. I really did target in their physical body posture, their gazes, the way they looked into camera, that sense of connection; the body here is another way of expressing the transformation of the people, the young generation of Iran, transforming from what it used to be into what it is today.
What do you see defining or linking together the work of this new generation of women photographers in the Middle East?
I think this new generation of women artists is obviously connecting much more to photography, because with photography you can still extract some of the realism and sociology that are such a critical part of their lives and couldn’t be recreated in painting or sculpture. It's also very interesting the way that they show some influence of Western photography, but at same time have their own way of capturing life and situations. I'm familiar with some of the work that's being exhibited, and it's interesting to see how they have a very distinct look from the work of men photographers. Perhaps the most interesting part of this exhibition is to see it as a collection, how these women photographers are going about telling their narratives, and how influenced they are by other genres of photography. Some of this new work is more gimmicky, if I just want to be blunt, re-enacting things we’ve already seen in the West, but with an Eastern judgement; some is really unique and original in the way that it tells its story. The strength of the show would be in seeing the collection together, reflecting this whole area and its younger generation.
In contemporary Middle Eastern art, both painting and photography, there seems to be an intellectually lazy trend of juxtaposing some random elements of modernity and tradition, and then expecting the simple act of pairing to do all the work. There is a ready audience for this, much of it sells and the market for contemporary Middle Eastern art is thriving. Do you this new generation of women artists is in danger of working too much at the surface, since there is such a ready audience for work that carries a simple message, or a simplistic critique of their societies?
The excitement about Western culture looking into the Islamic world, especially into places not so easily accessible, is a mixed blessing. It places a great deal of demand and attention on that region, and on artists' work, but at same time it expects a certain sensationalism and certain things that are not necessarily healthy for an artist. Especially for a young artist, who hasn't yet developed a degree of maturity, it's easy to rush into something because there is so much interest. This was the case for a time with calligraphy, for example, now there's a turn toward women photographers using themselves in their work, or using other cliches elements. But at the same time it's also an opportunity for these young people to find a way to articulate themselves. No one is going to fool the international art wold with something that is mediocre, but the ultimate question is what kind of work stops being important because it captures a sociology that informs people, as opposed to a great work of art that will outlast all those boundaries. This is the question we need to insist on, are these [works] really good or are they good because they are Middle Eastern? And this is something I am battling with myself, as my goal is not to be an artist from Iran but to be a good artist, and in terms of the reception of work, the audience, sales, there needs to be some balance, and even with my own integrity. How do I go about developing my ideas in a way that is really honest and serves a different audience? For young artists just coming and out being discovered it's a whole lot to deal with. Maybe it's better not to think about it.
Photography is extremely popular in Iran, I wonder what you make of this trend? Is it an urge to document or connect with the world?
I think it has to do with realism, as life is so interesting as it is. Paintings are for places like Switzerland, where you have great landscape and flowers. When you've got so much stuff going on, when you walk out your door and see an unbelievable narrative, it's hard to put it in any other form but photography and cinema. As ways of storytelling it's very interesting how photography and film making seems to be more popular in countries that are politically troubled. At least that's how I approach it, and it has really served my purpose.
What drew you to work on Om Kolthoum?
She embodies everything that I stand for, which is this kind of convergence of art and politics. She is on the one hand, the greatest artist of the 20 century in the Muslim world, she touched the hearts of million and millions, who came to tears every time they listened to her and fell into a state of ecstacy; and she also remained iconic as symbol of peace, unity, who fought for her country, who was allies with different leaders like [Gamal Abdel] Nasser. It's just a phenomenon how this woman had this double character and as a female artist, became so beloved by men and women, rich and poor, working class and elites, by intellectuals; how an artist at that period became elevated to that height.
For me, a minuscule artist compared to her, as someone who is constantly navigating between reaching hearts and emotions, being so involved with political subject, I wanted to be under her skin, essentially to get to exactly that, who was she? How could she do that? I was drawn to the nature of her music, that has affected so many, and I also deliberately wanted to move to the next level, to go beyond just the Iranian horizon and onto another idea. But she is such an idol, I have had many female idols, Forough Farrokhzad, Shahrnosh Parsipour, and now Om Kolthoum has become an obsession. But I think it makes a lot of sense, because my work is about art and politics, and she is very much about that.
Om Kolthoum, as an artist, harmonizes spiritual and earthly love in a way that is very unique, do we have anything that approaches an Iranian equivalent to that? Someone who makes both faith and lost love seem equally essential.
We don't have anyone in Iran who became as international. Om Kolthoum transcended Eygpt, she went even beyond to the Western world. We do have people like Qamar Ol-Moluk, who had that emotional resonance; I remember my father with Delkesh and Marzieh, but they were very regional, they belonged to that nation. But with Om Kolthoum she resonated far beyond, there was something else about her, she wasn't just an Egyptian symbol, she was a Middle Eastern symbol. I can't say we have that. Googosh is Iranian, not international and not Middle Eastern. Kiarostami is the only one I can think of. But her music goes beyond words.
What has the reaction been like in Egypt to you, as an Iranian, making a film about their beloved Om Kolthoum?
We were very worried about this, about how people would reaction. But honestly everyone, including very prominent filmmakers, felt it was actually very good that we were not Egyptian and really encouraged us. Whether we can actually there or not, I'm not sure, but Egyptians have been very supportive.
What drew you to working on Women Without Men? There's a specific history of that coup which has sort of overtaken our national imagination, held in a permanent sense of victimhood...We are bound up in politics, our music is political, our books are often a response to politics. How do you find this?
I found the surrealism of story fascinating, but going back to what I mentioned before, my interest in that fusion between art and politics, emotionality and rationality, this was a great opportunity to be able to talk about both women and the country, and I thought it would be fascinating to make Iran like the sixth female charter; the women had ups and downs and so did Iran. I thought it was fascinating, in this allegorical way to bring the country in and treat it as a character. It gave such immense opportunities that were metaphoric, poetic and surreal, as an artist working in very stylized way. The film is full of flaws, but it did succeed in being original and finding its own way to tell the story. For those not used to the conceptual approach a lot was lost in translation, but it will live through time and have its own life. This new film will be slightly different, it's a biography so I don't have as much liberty in imagining things that didn't happen.
Some observers have talked about your work being 'abused,' or having certain politics imposed upon it. When people talk about Orientalism, what do you think the conversation is really about?
As an artist, when you create a work, you have no idea how it is going to be interpreted in different ways, and later when it is, you yourself are in awe that someone could draw one conclusion or another. But that's is the nature of making art, you do what you do and leave other interpret as they receive it. One could see same the film and draw different conclusions from other, be affected by different aspects of the same work. I've been accused of doing different things in the same work. Women of Allah, Muslims would call disrespectful of Islam, and then also the opposite, the more secular accused me of promoting a radical Islam. It's really shocking to me the opposite views of the same work, so I came to the conclusion that while you're making the work you have certain ideas in mind, and the rest you're a servant to it, and is draws different interpretations. I even end up having different views about my own work later, that's part of the act of interpretation, people have the right to do whatever.
Is there any particular work you've felt differently about with time?
Women without Men was highly debated, and I could see certain people's side, even though we thought weren't biased when we were making it. Some thought it was pro-communist, thought I never thought of it like that, when we really tried to be unbiased. So that was one. And I still feel like in all of my work I try very hard to take that neutral position, but later I see maybe it wasn't as neutral as I thought.