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Iranian-American Artist Channels Arab Spring In New Exhibition

With "The Masses," Iranian artist Shirin Neshat's depicts those affected by oppression, protests, and civil unrest.
With "The Masses," Iranian artist Shirin Neshat's depicts those affected by oppression, protests, and civil unrest.
NEW YORK -- Renowned Iranian-American artist Shirin Neshat says her new exhibition, a series of photographs inspired by the Arab Spring and a short film about government censorship, is her most political work yet -- channeling both current events and the situation in her native country.

The exhibition, hosted by the Gladstone Gallery in New York City's artsy Chelsea neighborhood, drew hundreds to its opening night on January 12.

Afterward, Neshat told RFE/RL that she saw the work as her own reflection on and contribution to the wave of popular uprisings that swept through the Middle East and North Africa last year.

"As metaphoric as it is, this is I think the most directly political work I have done," she said.

But for its consideration of the Arab Spring, the exhibition also clearly takes up the state of affairs in Iran.

The People And Their Rulers

The photographic series is broken up into three sections: "The Masses," "The Patriots," and "The Villains."

Together, they are titled "Book of Kings," a reference to the "Shahnameh," an epic 10th-century poem by the Persian writer Firdawsi.

"The Masses" -- those affected by oppression, protests, and civil unrest -- are portrayed through dozens of portraits that fill a wall. Neshat described their facial expressions as overwhelmed with worry, anxiety, and sadness.

"The Patriots" section features a row of larger portraits of people standing with hands over their hearts -- which Neshat said was a symbol of allegiance to country, as well as an expression of pride, dignity, fearlessness, commitment, and defiance.

"The Villains," three bare-chested men, hold their hands either behind them or in front of them. Neshat described their expressions as exuding "confidence and total control."

All of the photos are inscribed with intricate calligraphy, taken both from "Shahnameh" and from contemporary Iranian poets.

Neshat said that the poems on each of the photos reference the relationship between common people and those in power.

No Avoiding Politics

In 1974 Neshat left Iran for the United States, where she studied art. She has since earned international acclaim as a filmmaker and photographer, frequently taking up Islam and women as subjects of her work.

She was a supporter of the popular protests in Iran that followed the disputed presidential election in 2009.

Given her background and the nature of the topics she explores, Neshat said that more or less overtly, there would always be a political dimension to her work.

"Every work that I have made, in one way or another, encounters the question of politics," she said, "being [that I am] Iranian, being someone who is living in exile, being someone whose life is very much affected every day with the course of events in the world, in terms of the relationship between the U.S. and Iran."

Putting Art On Trial

In the short film that accompanies the photos, an Iranian man and woman sing a poem by the poet Rumi. A judge shouts for silence as the man plays the sitar.

Shirin Neshat at the opening of her new exhibition in New York.
Shirin Neshat at the opening of her new exhibition in New York.
Neshat explained that it was not only the people, but the art form itself, that was being challenged and judged.

"It was the poem that was under investigation, as [the judge is] interpreting it as subversive and against the law and against God's will," she said.

"So it's really kind of a parody, a sort of absurd scenario of how, in fact, people's imagination [and] mysticism, people who are not really following the codes and regulations of the government, are always under attack."

She added that with journalists, filmmakers, and artists being imprisoned in Iran and in the Arab world because of their work, it was a fitting statement to put a poem by one of the region's most beloved poets on trial.

Neshat said her film "has a similar intention as the photographs, which is to convey this confrontation between the absurdity of the theocracy and people's ideology, versus people who are relying on their imagination and the power of art and poetry and music to arrive at a very beautiful state that the government tries to take away from them."

Neshat's exhibition runs through February 11.

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