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Faces of Successful Iranian Americans: Shirin Neshat: Pursuing a Dream

Shirin Neshat: Pursuing a Dream

(Following is an excerpt from a publication in Persian, Faces of Successful Iranian Americans, by the Bureau of International Information Programs of the State Department.)

"The most important message [I can give to other Iranian-Americans] is to try to look within, not without, for strength, confidence, and sense of individuality."  As a world-renowned film maker and artist, Shirin Neshat certainly embodies all three traits.

Shirin Neshat

According to the Guggenheim Museum, Shirin Neshat, "portrays the emotional space of exile in her photographs and films. She questions the role of women in Islamic society, recognizing the tensions between a collective cultural identity and one driven by individual concerns. Neshat uses the chador, the head-to-toe Islamic covering that is mandatory for women in Iran, as an icon for repression and female identity."

Shirin Neshat was born in Qazvin, Iran on March 26, 1957 to an upper middle class family.  Her father, a doctor, admired the West and always dreamed of sending his children to study in the Europe or America.  "He fantasized about the West, romanticized the West, and slowly rejected all of his own values; both my parents did," says Neshat.  "What happened, I think, was that their identity slowly dissolved; they exchanged it for comfort.  It served their class."

Neshat often refers to her father, who was also a great intellectual, as her main inspiration. As a child, she attended Catholic boarding school in Tehran and at age seventeen, she left Iran for the United States to study art in Los Angeles.

Although her move to America was mandated by her father, Shirin says that as a child, "it always excited me to dream about going to the West."  A year after the Iranian Revolution, she left Iran with her sister and moved to the San Francisco Bay area.  While her sister returned to Tehran a few years later, Shirin stayed and eventually enrolled in UC Berkeley to work towards a BA, an MA, and finally, a Masters of Fine Art.


As an immigrant in America, Neshat is familiar with the trials and tribulations of adapting to a new culture and community: "At first, you experience feelings of alienation which won't allow you to fit in with the rest of the community which you may need to be a part of in order to succeed."

Asked about her opinion on the length of time necessary for an immigrant to adapt to a new way of life in America, Neshat responds, "I cannot generalize. The situation changes from person to person.  For some people it takes sometimes twenty to thirty years, for others, only a few months."

Guardians of Revolution (Women of Allah series), 1994 B&W RC print & ink (photo taken by Cynthia Preston); 11 x 14"/27.9 x 35.6 cm

Neshat's own ability to adapt to her new surroundings was apparent in her success.  After graduate school she moved to New York City and began her endeavors as an artist. Yet she does not consider any of the work that she did in that period as outstanding. After visiting Iran in 1990 and realizing that the culture she had grown up with had changed so drastically, she was inspired to begin her first major work: the Women of Allah series, portraits of Muslim women overlaid with Persian calligraphy.

Along with her visual art and photography, Neshat began working on short films and video and sound installations, such as her 1999 short Rapture.  Her split-screen installation, Turbulent, won first prize at the famed Venice Biennale in 1999.

Ralph Rugoff of the Financial Times said of Neshat's video installations:  "Describing the narrative of Neshat's video installations is ultimately no more revealing than summarizing the story-line of an opera: suffice to say that her art is fuelled by a tumultuous and surprising sensuality, a heady mix of violence and seduction that is conveyed in both her striking cinematography and powerful sound track.

"Rapture proceeds to knock down our own clichés about Islam as even as it poetically dramatizes the suppressed tension on which that culture's equilibrium rests."  Her work is also featured at the Guggenheim, the Whitney, and the British Museum.   She has been awarded other honors as well, such as the Lillian Gish Award (2006), the Hiroshima Peace Prize in Japan (2005), and the Golden Lion Award in Venice.

Famed art critic Okwui Enwezor, who is currently the Dean of Academic Affairs and Senior Vice President at San Francisco Art Institute comments: "In Neshat's work there is always a degree of ambiguity as to whether she is mocking, or willfully exploiting our ignorance of Islam: our intimacy with the figure of the East, our fantasy of a mysterious and palpable Orient. She presents us with what we may interpret as Islam's exoticism, only to deflate those assumptions by contradicting us. The power of her work then, is in its disarming simplicity, in its bare essentiality ... These images destabilize the idea that if something is beautiful it must be easy to swallow."

Of course, not all the commentary regarding Shirin Neshat is positive. Some have criticized her for a lack of subjectivity. Jed Pearl for The New Republic wrote of Neshat in 2001, "All that a viewer gets is a generalized mood, a kind of artsier MTV."

But Neshat herself says that she wants people to "take away with them not some heavy political statement but something that really touches them on the most emotional level."

Regardless of the nature of criticism, Shirin Neshat has become one of the most well-known Persian artists in the Western art world and an inspiration to other Iranians.  "I'm an artist," she says, "and I think my art is my contribution to the Iranian people."

As an Iranian, Neshat has a tremendous amount of pride for her homeland and its people. "As we know throughout history," she says, "Iran has always been considered a profoundly rich and sophisticated culture.  Most of us Iranians are hard workers and are also highly educated which helps tremendously with the grasp of the global culture and with facing its competitive nature."

Living in the United States has had an impact on Shirin Neshat's ability to pursue her dream and her career as an artist.  She, like many immigrants before her, experienced the positive aspects of living in a democratic society, "I appreciate the sense of freedom that exists in this country and the fact that it is really up to you whether you want to become somebody or not.  The society is otherwise quite flexible; it does not set up too many limits."

As a visual artist and filmmaker, Neshat knew she was always interested in art, as an occupation and as a way of life.  She has thus taken an artistic approach to her own life and way of living: "I've learned to pioneer my own sets of rules, values, models, and even cultures.  Especially living in New York, most of us in one way or another feel like being nomads.  Of course, this lifestyle has its limits and downfalls but it is equally exhilarating with unforeseeable possibilities."

Nesaht credits the United States for imbuing her with her sense of independence and individuality, as well as for allowing her to maintain her sense of Iranian-ness.  At times it was difficult living in a country other than her homeland, especially when her two countries were totally at odds with each other. But she does attribute a lot of her success to living in America.  She says, "I cannot imagine that I would have had any success in Iran, or even in Europe, which is a much more conservative society than the US."

At the same time, Neshat is both realistic and critical in terms of her outlook towards America. She charges that there is "an imperial undertone" in this country and that imperialism is as much a part of America's identity as is its democracy.  "I believe if America is a truly democratic society, one should be able to stay honest and tell the truth."

While she recognizes the advantages of living in America, she also believes that "much of the success of Iranians in the US is not only due to the nature of American society, but is also the result of these individuals' personal efforts and contributions to this society."

As is true for many who are new to America, the competitiveness in society was at first jarring to her.  For Neshat, her motivation to succeed stemmed from an emotional and physical will to survive in the world.  Although there is never a complete cessation of competition, Neshat used awareness as a way of dealing with the pressure of competition. "The most important method is to become aware of the vicious cycle of the competitive nature of any success.  I always tell myself, never take yourself or your career too seriously, and everything will be fine."

As a New Yorker, Neshat dealt with a lot of pressure, but still, living and being an artist in the artistic and cultural center of the world has great advantages as well.  "New York [is] a center for artistic and cultural exchange. I've met numerous interesting people and without a doubt these connections and exposures have been fundamental to my formation, recognition, and visibility.  Unfortunately, it is almost impossible for an artist to exist in a vacuum these days."

According to, Neshat's work is "always aesthetically compelling [and] equally thematically ambiguous, never settling on a simple or singular meaning, never offering social commentary within prescribed limits: Though focused on the particulars of sex segregation and the suppression of women in contemporary Iran, Neshat underscores the relevance of her poetic, disturbing, moving ensembles to a broader culture."

In the past few years, Neshat has made only a few videos, including Mahdokht (2004) and Zarin (2005).  But she is currently working on a feature-length film based on Shahrnush Parsipur's novel, Women without Men.  Neshat hopes to show the film at the Cannes film festival.  "I am in the final stages of post production of my first feature-length film called Women without Men which is an adaptation of a novel written by Shahrnush Parsipur. This film will hopefully be released in theaters in the fall of 2008.  Also, I'm preparing some new video installations which are scheduled to be exhibited at the Gladstone Gallery in January 2008."

Given her success as a photographer and artist thus far, many predict that her career as a filmmaker will certainly take off in the same fashion.

About U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) engages international audiences on issues of foreign policy, society and values to help create an environment receptive to U.S. national interests.

... Payvand News - 05/07/09 ... --

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