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Shirin Neshat - Contemporary Visual Iranian-American Artist

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In this paper, I will present a brief introduction to Shirin Neshat, who is a thriving contemporary visual Iranian-American artist. I will also consider one piece of hers in particular, taking a critical look at the meaning and impact of the work in relevance to the theme of identity.

Shirin Neshat was born in Qazvin, Iran in 1957. Shirin grew up in a privileged household with her father who practiced medicine and a mother who stayed at home. In result of Shirin's westernized upbringing, she was sent to the U.S. to finish her education at U.C. Berkeley at the age of 17. She earned a B.A., M.A. and an M.F.A at U.C. Berkeley and moved to New York shortly after. In the 1979, Shirin's homeland experienced the Iranian Revolution that removed the shah of his powers, stripped the society of all western ideas and practices (including the dictation of public and private behavior), and instated a government with clerics, which banned Shirin from returning to Iran until 1990. Upon her return to Iran, Shirin was stunned by the multitude of change that overcame her homeland and left her with a feeling of displacement and loss of her own cultural identity. The loss she experienced overwhelmed her and inspired her to understand and express through art, what had happened to Iran's cultural identity, primarily in the case of women.

Shirin is most famous for her photography and films. Shirin's work reflects the experiences of women who live in complex Islamic societies and are faced with conflicts of feminism, gender roles, cultural identity, and the clash of traditional and modernity. All of Neshat's work is viewed from a serious standpoint and leaves a strong emotional impact on the viewer. One who knows nothing about the Islamic culture may be disturbed or offended by her work. Most of Shirin's film works are narratives abou t Iranian women living in an Islamic society and are more understandable than her film stills or photographs. The most famous films are shot in black and white with symbolic imagery of women in the Iranian society. While her films are what she is most famous for, her photography is the focus of this paper. Shirin's most notorious series of photos was shot in 1995 and titled "Women of Allah". The series of photos features Muslim women and Neshat herself in full chador, holding weapons; on the hands and faces Shirin inscribes ancient Persian poetry written in Farsi, an ancient Iranian script. The final portraits are gelatin silver prints with an overlay of pen and ink used for the script that is written on the photographs. The photographs ultimately relate back to the cultural identity of Muslim women in Iran in an Islamic society.

The most compelling portrait of that series is titled "Women of Allah 1". The photograph "Women of Allah (1)" is of Neshat herself dressed in the chador holding a weapon and a colorful tulip with Farsi script written on the backdrop of the photograph. Shirins facial expression is blank but there is a since of sadness in her eyes. The photo only portrays Neshat facing forward holding a weapon, which is only visible from the waste down. The weapon stands upright and is clutched between both hands along with a colorful flower. The chador that she wears is draped over her body, leaving only her face and forearms exposed. Although the chador is representational of many underlying meanings, it brings attention to the weapon and the flower. The flower is the one object to appear in color, and its colors represent those seen in the Iranian flag. In the background, there is a bold black script written horizontally covering the wall that Neshat is standing infront of.

Through the photograph, "Women of Allagh 1" Shirin explores multiple themes and ideologies that relate back to her own cultural identity. There is a wide range of issues and themes that relate back to this piece of work.

This is done by her personification ofNeshat magnifies the Islamic culture and its identity by creating an image that is is violent, shocking, troubling and transfixing but also filled with beauty, femininity, and fragility. From the eyes of a westerner, this image exemplifies portrays an abundance of Muslim traditions, a religion that oppresses women, the idea of martyr with deadly weapons, and a mysterious woman yster


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