"I am interested in making work that opens up the subject of contemporary Islam. This subject is inseperable from revolutions and violence today. My images are about how the Islamic population is portrayed in the world today, and about how this portrayal may be a misrepresentation."
Shirin Neshat

The acclaimed series The Women of Allah deals principally with Islamic women in the military and with the concept of Shahadat (martyrdom).  To Neshat, Shahadat represents "the heart of Fundamental Islamic ideology", but she remarks immediately that it's a concept which is hardly comprehendable according to Western definitions. "In the West, essentially, all beliefs are evaluated within universal criteria of rationality and truth. Those belief systems which do not comply with Western definition of rationality are considered "irrational". The question is how we can pass judgements on the beliefs of other cultures when they are "unfamiliar" to us and, in the case of Muslims are completely in conflict with our own. There is an arrogance in this type of evaluation where Westerners always prevail as the "right", "superior" and "progressive" and Muslims are portrayed as "wrong", "inferior", and "fanatic".

In the West, we also tend to overlook that "Islamic Fundamentalism" has been the product of Western domination and colonization of Muslim countries. And this "Islamization" has been muslim's movement to bring back a sense of cohesion in their troubled communities, to "purify" their cultures, to reclaim their independent identity and to abandon Western influences. To Muslims, Islam is their only hope for survival in a world that they can not compete with, and feel threatened by.

I think, the condition of Muslim women interests Westerners because they so vividly embody Muslim values, everything that is "alien" about that culture and that we don't understand. The media's selective abd obsessive coverage of Muslim women is to sensationalize subjects that interest the Western Public by characterizing Muslim women as "submissive" and "weak" and Muslim men as "barbaric" and "violent" men. The media serves two purposes here: firstly it validates the myth that the West is ultimately "correct" in every aspect of civilization, including the way they treat their women; and secondly: it perpetuates the "orientalisation" of Muslim characterization, as they maintain a "fairy-tale" image of their lives without real consideration for "truth"."

In her large-size (40 X 60 inch), black and white portraits of Iranian women, Neshat explores the stereotypical characterisations of  Muslim women. Three recurring elements: veiled women, the presence of a weapon, and on the unveiled body-parts: Farsi calligraphy. Neshat selected extracts from poems by contemporary Iranian women writers. Like the writings by Forough Farokhzad (who lived through the Shah's period, and) "whose writing is extremely personal and non-political. She wrote openly about women's emotional and sexual desires at a time that no other woman has dared to." Or the poetry by Tahereh Saffarzadeh (inspiritional to Neshat's The Women of Allah series) which "is religious and expresses little about her personal world. Tahereh was intensely involved with the Islamic revolution and her writing is mostly about her love affair with God and Islam".

Neshat's pictures are paradoxes. One the one hand we see the "orientalist" stereotypes: seductive, erotic, innocent. On the other hand, we see proud, militant, armed and dangerous women. "Each image is constructed to magnify the contradictory forces of spirituality, beauty and innocence on the one hand with cruelty, violence, hatred on the other, co-existing within the complex structure of Islam".

But Neshat is no preacher. She does not attempt to glorify shahadat, but merely "tries to understand it within its Islamic context". She does not resolve the paradoxes she presents. Her intentionally ambiguous and puzzling work invites us to rethink our stereotypical perception of the Other, and draw our own conclusions.

In this sense the artist -- who grew up in Iran, but was educated and lives in the US -- is more of a mediator. A mediator, not just between different opinions, but between radically opposed point-of-views. In Iran, arch-enemy number one is the US. For most Americans, Iranian culture represents a stone-age mentality, a culture of fundamentalists, extremists, Fatwah's and ayatollah's.

Neshat's work is a self-critical discourse, a discourse by the self who is "simultaneously comfortable and uncomfortable" Here, as well as There.

"More and more artists are beginning to act as social critics and offer very interesting and intelligent readings of our societies that would be otherwise difficult to tackle with words. (...) each artist's personal, educational and ethnic background plays a critical role in the context of his/her art. We respond according to the way we view the world and understand the potential of art. In my personal work I use Western methodology, borrowed from the history of conceptual art, to engage in a non-Western narrative. I use art to explore, to learn and in the process inform others of what I discover. My intention however is not to be "correct" or to "preach". I generally don't believe that it is the artists' place or responsibility to be correct and differentiate between right or wrong. For that reason, I am extremely unconfortable with politically correct art".

(*) All quotes are by Shirin Neshat, and are extracted from: "The Politics of Spirituality: Speaking with Shirin Neshat", by Anne Kirker, in Photophile, november 1996; and "Shirin Neshat: Armed and Dangerous", by Octavio Zaya, in RUDE, Spring 1996.

Exhibition presented by: City of Women & Moderna galerija Ljubljana
Supported by: Soros Center for Contemporary Arts - Ljubljana

Date and time of event: 
Oct 17th 20:00
Place of event: 
Moderna galerija (FESTIVAL OPENING)