SPOTLIGHT | SHIRIN NESHAT
collage by nacrowe
i remember when i was student teaching at BROOKLYN TECH almost a decade ago i had to film myself instructing students to later be dissected by my counterparts at TEACHERS COLLEGE COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY as part of my masters program. there was all this focus on presence and persona and clarity of instruction, etc. i was so caught up with that in mind that i got nervous a week later when the assistant principal walked in and saw a room full of students quietly reading and writing at their desks. she walked up to me in this silent space and said "there's a lot of action going on right now." and there was.
thats kind of how i felt when i first saw the work of noted PERSIAN artist/photographer/filmmaker SHIRIN NESHAT, her subjects emoted a depth and feeling that transcended their austere, silent poses.
if you look at early MUSLIM artwork, before they made the conscious decision against realism/naturalism in favor of calligraphy on religious grounds, there was a focus on the natural world. being surrounded by desert, depictions of heaven, as exemplified by the famous mosaics at the GREAT MOSQUE OF DAMASCUS, is a bountiful oasis with lush vegetation, plump fruits and blooming trees. like arable land, women are viewed as a resource subject to being protected, adored and objectified.
NESHAT's focus on feet, hands and eyes makes sense in that there is a cultural fetish on these exposed parts of the body when wearing an abaya and burqa much like the west have fetishized a women's' breasts, legs and backside. i saw this firsthand when attending school and later teaching in KUWAIT when we had cultural ministers visiting schools to make sure shirts and skirts were long enough in the classroom. very interesting indeed.
i remember my senior year in CALIFORNIA visiting the cadaver lab at UC DAVIS on a high school ANATOMY class trip and the parts of the body that they specifically covered were the eyes, hands and feet. apparently people faint at seeing those as they make the corpse feel "human." there is a power to those objects, thats all im saying.
what is interesting about NESHAT's work is that she takes PERSIAN calligraphy and contextualizes the female form into a sacred text. the melding of the sacred and the profane, the natural and the spiritual, the silent and the spoken. its powerful and thought-provoking and very much makes you consider your cultural baggage and preconceptions regarding the femininity of the other, in this case IRAN and SHI'A MUSLIM culture. there are depictions of a wide range of women, young and old, militant and praying, subdued and mysterious; all valid.
i find her work compelling and challenging and welcome others to explore it. a good companion piece to this subject is EDWARD SAID's post-colonial masterwork ORIENTALISM (PANTHEON, 1978) which examines the west's projections of exoticism and otherness to the outside world in order inoculate itself from exposure to new ideas that may complicate their need to dominate. fits in perfectly with this subject matter. enjoy.
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