Published  23/04/2015

Shirin Neshat: ‘Nothing is more powerful than human expression’

Shirin Neshat: ‘Nothing is more powerful than human expression’

The artist talks about her latest exhibition, for which she photographed ordinary people in Azerbaijan, how she incorporates poetry into her work, and her feelings about being so close to her own birthplace, Iran, which she has not visited for more than 20 years


Shirin Neshat, who was born in Iran in 1957, became internationally recognised in 1999 when her film Turbulent (1998) won the international prize at the Venice Biennale. The two-channel black-and-white film made a stark comment on the inequality of gender roles and the invisibility of women in Middle Eastern culture, using the medium of ancient Persian music and poetry. Poetry also often features in her still photographic works, inscribed on the portraits in beautiful calligraphy.

For the opening of the Yarat Contemporary Art Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan, Neshat has produced a new body of work, The Home of My Eyes, comprising 55 monochromatic portraits of local Azeri people, each overlaid with a mixture of Persian poetry and the subject’s own answers to four key questions:

• What does home mean to you?
• If you had to define an image of Azerbaijan, what would it be?
• What makes you most proud of being Azeri?
• What is your favourite celebration?

The works are hung on the two facing walls of the imposing 11-metre-high gallery in a converted Soviet-era naval building. Neshat describes the commission as a “portrait of the country” – a country that has only been in existence since 1991, when it gained independence from the Soviet Union, and borders on to her own native homeland, to which she has not returned since 1996.

Studio International spoke to Neshat after the opening of the centre.

Anna McNay: You yourself are Iranian but your mother has Azeri roots. How much did you know about Azerbaijan before you took on this commission?

Shirin Neshat: I knew very little about this culture, other than that we were once part of one country and eventually divided. I knew geographically we were right on the border. Also my husband’s last name is Azerbaijani because his father was from the Iranian side of Azerbaijan. And then recently, when I came to Baku, my mother said: “You know that my ancestors come from Baku?” My father, I remember, always spoke Turkish, and I realise, now that I’m back here studying the history a little more, that we have so much ancient culture in common. Azerbaijan has gone through a lot. But there is a definitive similarity – for example, we have Zoroastrian roots, and Nowruz [New Year], which is what they are celebrating now, is exactly how we celebrate it as Persians. Being here and seeing the sabzeh – the green sprouts that they put out for Nowruz – makes me think of my childhood.

AMc: How old were you when you left for America?

SN: I was 17.

AMc: So you went there to study?

SN: Yes, I went there to study. However, my teenage years were all spent in Iran. After moving to America I went back to Iran a few times in my 20s and again in my 30s. I haven’t been back now since 1996.

AMc: One of the questions you asked everyone you photographed was: “What does home mean to you?” What would your answer be to that? What is your concept of home?

SN: Originally this exhibition was meant to be a collection of my past works with just a few new works, but when I came to photograph the people, I became convinced that the thing to do was to devote the entire show to the people of Azerbaijan because I became so infatuated by their diverse faces. I felt that, as the opening of a museum of contemporary art, the show should be a tribute to the essence of this country: the diversity of religions, ethnicities and languages. When we were casting, I was really careful about choosing people from different generations, genders and diverse ethnic backgrounds. The people I met here all seemed so proud of being Azeri – regardless of their backgrounds. I guess part of me felt envious of that emotional and national attachment to a place.

AMc: So, for you, what is home?

SN: I am a nomad. I consider New York to be my home at the moment, but it’s something I have had to adapt to. When you are an immigrant, when you are a nomad, you learn to take every given space and just work around it and make it home and that has truly become my nature. In fact, if I went back to Iran, I’m not sure if I would really feel part of that society any more. So maybe I’ve lost that idea of home for ever.

AMc: So home is what you make it, wherever you are, really?

SN: Yes. At this point in my life, this is my reality and I have a strong feeling it might go on possibly for the rest of my life.

AMc: How did you decide what questions to ask your subjects, and what was their relevance?

SN: I worked recently on a project in Egypt, Our House Is on Fire (2013), where I photographed a group of elderly people who were affected by the revolution, and I learned that talking to people as they are being photographed opens them up. They feel like they are important – that their stories are important. So I felt it was an important point of entry into engaging with my subjects here and getting them to trust me.

Somebody commented yesterday that the answers are all very nationalistic – “How do you feel about your country?” “I love my country.” – but I didn’t control their answers. I didn’t even speak to them directly. They spoke in Russian and Azeri. If there is something very nationalistic that comes out of their answers, it is because this country has only been independent since 1991, so no wonder they feel so proud. This work is, in essence, a portrait of the country.

AMc: How important is each individual portrait within that? I mean, how significant is the story of each individual person within the one larger portrait?

SN: The installation is designed so the two walls can be seen as one piece. At the same time, however, there is a lot of resonance in each portrait and I think that each person in a way expresses a little bit about their own story, about their own generation and their own cultural setting, so perhaps they could stand on their own. Whatever is conveyed in their faces says something about their personality – but I didn’t interrogate them. I just asked them a couple of questions. I think their individual identities are perhaps hidden behind the image.

For me, the return to making portraits after making so many films and video installations has been an interesting challenge. In fact, this installation was partially inspired by my video Turbulent(1998), which is a two-channel projection, where the viewer is meant to stand in the middle or to the side. This was meant to have that same kind of emotional intensity, with the viewer caught in the middle of the people’s gazes and body gestures. For me, this photo installation is a very sculptural piece. The viewer is literally a participant, physically involved. I didn’t want to just make a conventional photographic portrait.

AMc: How does this still photographic work stand in relation to your moving image work?

SN: I think my photography has become more and more narrative. I can no longer seem to make a single photograph that works on its own. I have definitely been influenced by the storytelling ability of film-making but, in my photographs, I use no backgrounds, I’m very consistently a minimalist. I reduce my elements to the hands, to the face, to the gaze. I have a very sculptural relationship to the human figure. This is not the case in my films and videos, in which I use a lot of landscape, choreography and music and in which there is a lot of movement and, at times, even colour. There’s just something about human portraiture. Nothing is more powerful than human expression. I’ve never been seduced by using colour or landscape or objects in my photography. I find colour very seductive and distracting. I like beauty but I think there’s a severity in black and white that goes right to the heart and to the gut. Colour should only be used when there is a real purpose or necessity for it.

AMc: Each photograph has beautiful calligraphy on top of it. What is the purpose of this and what does it mean?

SN: The texts inscribed on the photographs are a mix of the subjects’ responses to my questions as well as of poetry by the 12th-century poet Nezami Ganjavi. Ganjavi was a famous Persian poet who moved to Azerbaijan; Iranians and Azeris have been arguing over this poet for a long time. We selected sections from his famous Khamseh(five), so named for its five-part structure,to integrate into the calligraphy and wrote them over and over. It’s all very carefully translated, line by line. It becomes like a mantra for each of the subjects. Poetry has always been an important part of my work: it adds depth and emotions, while the calligraphy adds a level of aesthetics. To me, this is another added level of beauty.

After we shot the photographs, I had the subjects look through all their images and see how beautiful they looked. Almost always they’d say something along the lines of: “Oh! I look like that?” And then we’d hug and kiss. We really felt connected. The difference between when they entered and when they left is unforgettable.

What I find fantastic about human portraiture is that it has the ability to take very ordinary people and make every one of them important and into a monument. If you look at these faces – from housewives to people who work in the oil refinery to little children – every one of them is so significant. And I believe we are all like that. I think of these people as sculptural monuments.

AMc: What do you normally look for in a portrait? What is it that you’re trying to bring out from behind the facade?

SN: Emotions.

AMc: Did the people you were photographing here in Baku behave naturally in front of the camera?

SN: When they first arrived, they didn’t really understand what they were coming to do. They didn’t speak the same language as me; I came from a different culture. So we began by offering them food and then interviewed them, and when we finally started to photograph them, there was a connection between us – I made them feel important. I promised them that I was not trying to make them play a role or pretend to be somebody else – I just wanted them to be themselves. I would make suggestions on their stance, but they eventually found the expressions and hand gestures that made them most comfortable. It was like a dance, an improvised dance. To me they are natural. Intuitively they are themselves. They didn’t try to perform and I was happy with that.

AMc: You can see their stories …

SN: … and their beauty …

AMc: … in the wrinkles.

SN: And the wisdom and the life that they have endured.

AMc: Yes, evidence of having lived.

SN: And one day we’ll all be like that. These moments are all part of being a human being. So, this tapestry of images is about trying to show everybody as dignified and beautiful regardless of their age.

AMc: That’s the point though, surely – it’s art, isn’t it? It should affect you aesthetically and emotionally.

SN: Absolutely.

AMc: I think the way this exhibition is hung is also really significant. It’s like going into someone’s home where they have photographs on the wall …

SN: … of the family …

AMc: … rather than lined up in a gallery.

SN: Yes, I really wanted to get away from the conventional presentation of photography. When I first came to see Yarat’s space, I thought that it felt like a chapel. So I wanted the installation to have a somewhat mystical resonance.

AMc: A lot of your work has been political. Do you feel that you’re free to express exactly what you’re thinking politically in your work, or do you feel you have to constrain it somewhat?

SN: No, I never censor myself. But I do give myself a lot of boundaries because I’m not the kind of artist who wants to point fingers. Even if I am critical, it’s in a very quiet and subversive way – it’s not in your face, that’s just not my style. I like subtlety. In that sense, even when I approach politics, there is a poetic aspect to it. I should add that my work usually reflects back in time – it’s rarely about the present moment.

AMc: Finally, does it feel strange to be so close to Iran but not quite there?

SN: Yes, it does. Even just walking around the old section of Baku makes me feel extremely homesick. Of course, Iran is very different from Baku, but the architecture and the way people look very much remind me of Iran when I was a child.

• Shirin Neshat: The Home of My Eyes is at Yarat Contemporary Art Centre, Baku, Azerbaijan until 23 June 2015. Shirin Neshat: Facing History will be showing at the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC, from 18 May – 20 September 2015.

This interview took place in Baku. Some of the information and quotations, however, were taken from a general question and answer session held with Shirin Neshat at Yarat Contemporary Art Centre. Thanks go to Yarat, and in particular Aida Mahmudova, and to Pelham Communications for taking Anna McNay to Baku and organising this interview.


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