Viewpoints: A Conversation with Shirin Neshat and Shahzia Sikander

Shirin Neshat
Shirin Neshat

Shirin Neshat and Shahzia Sikander are two critically acclaimed Asian American artists whose work examines, among other things, the themes of gender, Islam, tradition and identity. The two artists spoke with Vishakha Desai, the Asia Society’s Senior Vice President and Director of the Galleries and Cultural Programs, in a program called Viewpoints in December 2000.

Shirin Neshat has emerged in the international arena in the last few years as a major artist working in the media of photography, film and video. Born in Qazvin, Iran, Shirin Neshat came to the US as a teenager. She studied painting at the University of California at Berkeley, where she earned an MFA. After a decade-long hiatus from the art world, she emerged again as photographer and filmmaker in the late 1990s. Her solo exhibitions include shows at the Serpentine Gallery in London, the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as the Wexler Art Center in Columbus and a number of other institutions. She has also participated in a number of group projects. Her work has appeared in biennial shows in cities around the world, including Sydney, Istanbul, Venice, Johannesburg, and New York, where her film “Rapture” was one of the highlights of the Whitney Biennial. She has also shown her work in the Project 70 series at MOMA and at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Shahzia Sikander has been recognized as one of the most exciting young artists to emerge on the national scene. She was born in Lahore, Pakistan, where she received her BFA at the National College of Lahore. She moved to the United States to attend the Rhode Island School of Design, where she earned an MFA. She works both in painting, as well as in installation forms. Her solo exhibitions include “Acts of Balance” at the Whitney Museum at Phillip Morris, “Directions” at the Hirschorn Gallery in Washington, DC, as well as a very important show at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. Her work has also shown in group exhibitions, including the Whitney Biennial. Additionally, Shazia Sikander will be featured in an upcoming Asia Society exhibition entitled "Conversations with Traditions" in October 2001.

Vishakha Desai explains, "You might ask why we've thought about pairing Shirin and Shahzia…. Often times they are described as artists from the Islamic world who have really made it big in the New York art scene, as well as the international art scene. They are both artists who, in a way, force us to go beyond the kind of binaries that seem to emerge when we talk about contemporary art; binaries such as tradition versus modernity, cultural specificity versus the international art arena. They are artists who also think about these kinds of issues, both in their work, as well as in the way they approach their work." Below are excerpts from a discussion with the two artists.

Vishakha Desai: Sometimes when I have asked [artists] to do something at the Asia Society they have been reluctant and have said, "Well, I don’t want to be ghettoized. I don't want to be seen in just a strictly Asian context." But both of you agreed to come. How do you define yourselves, since you are women artists from the Islamic world? How do you think of yourselves in the context of the international art scene? Where would you put the emphasis in terms of self-definition?

Shahzia Sikander: Well, I think for me it's constantly shifting because a lot of it is about self-discovery. For me, the challenge is always to find myself in all these categories and then discard the categories. So in a sense, it's again creating this dichotomy of experience where it's something that defines you and then you try to defy it. In that respect, it doesn't really matter whether one is being shown in the context of being Asian or Asian-American or Pakistani or American. They all have something to add in the larger picture.

Vishakha Desai: So although you might say that it doesn't matter or it all matters, there is definitely a responsibility to all the aspects. Shirin?

Shirin Neshat: I think it would be very difficult for me to deny, since all of my work is about women and it's entirely about my country. I feel very proud that the work that I'm producing very much corresponds to the emotions of a woman. It's very important for me that people are aware of it.

In terms of the cultural specification, I think that I'm very much interested in the dialogue that it creates, so part of the work is very analytically approached. It becomes quite abstract and poetic, yet it really is meant to create discussion. So I'm very open to all possibilities that come from that.

I'm afraid though sometimes as I go along I find that conversations and discussions sometimes trivialize the very depth, the meaning of the work. Sometimes it's good to keep some mystery to the work, where not everything has to be defined and explained. So that's the only thing that makes me hesitate about really breaking down every single meaning of my work.

Vishakha Desai: I find that for all of us who have been born in one place and then move somewhere else, this notion of shifting the sense of who we are is so very important in the way we live. I was very aware at the time that you were talking about so many of your relatives who are now going back to Iran to live permanently. What does that mean? When I'm in India, I'm much more Indian than I am an American, but then when I'm here, I'm more American than Indian. I'm wondering if that's partly what happens to your work as well.

Shahzia Sikander: I haven't been back [since I moved to the U.S.]. So that would be something that I am looking forward to, specifically how I'm going to react, and also how people are going to react to my work. But I think that one thing that I'm sure of is that the individuality in the larger collective context is always an issue. One has become used to having the liberty to have all the time to devote to work here, whereas I think back home, always there was more to juggle.

Vishakha Desai: You mentioned "back home" and "my country." Is this notion of who you are and which one is your country shift for you as well, depending on where you are?

Shirin Neshat: Well, my situation might be a little different because working in my country is a little bit tough. So although I have been able to travel there, there are a few things I have decided on. Although the subject of my work is specifically about Iran, it's not always filmed in one nation. I work in Morocco for the most part. So for me, that's been a very interesting experience, and a way of developing a relationship with another country that is Islamic. But that's been an interesting process for me. Even though the subject is about Iran, I don't make my work in Iran.

Vishakha Desai: Is America ever a home?

Shirin Neshat: Yes. Absolutely. At this point, I have been here many years. I feel that I am very comfortable. I feel that I am American and at the same time Iranian. I'm allowing myself to travel around the world as I like and feel comfortable where I go.

Vishakha Desai: Speaking of home, I thought we might want to talk a little bit about your background. Clearly, for both of you the situation is quite different. But I was wondering if you could talk about when you knew you were going to be an artist, or what was it like for you in the early years pursuing your creative endeavors? For you [Shahzia], it was in Lahore. What was it like when you lived in Lahore?

Shahzia Sikander: I think that a lot has to do with self-expression. I found that being creative was definitely something that hadn't happened throughout school. I was interested in art, but it had never been consistent. It was a regiment, so it was very lukewarm as such. So I decided to go into an art school much later. I was already studying French literature. I wanted to just let go of that and move in another direction. So it was very much in the application. It was a very formative stage, and then sort of putting all the effort towards achieving it.

Vishakha Desai: You hadn't actually done anything before that time?

Shahzia Sikander: Not really. I had taken some classes and took the merit exams they had, and I went into a national college of art. Since then, it was always a very conscious decision.

Shirin Neshat: I had the opposite experience. Actually, no one in my family had ever been artistic. When I grew up, I had some artistic interest, and when I came to the United States, I decided to go to art school, but I was one of the worst students. I went to UC Berkeley. So when I graduated, I actually decided to stop being an artist. By the time that I graduated, I came to the conclusion that what I was doing wasn't really worth pursuing, or I didn't have the sense of maturity or purpose.

Vishakha Desai: What were you doing at that time?

Shirin Neshat: I was painting, but basically I felt, especially when I moved to New York, that one really had to have the desire and the interest to pursue an art career, but also really have something to contribute in a big way that was worth pursuing. I didn't feel like I had that. So I took about 10 years of a break. It was really only when I returned to Iran, the first time since the Islamic Revolution, that by then I had spent 10 years sort of educating myself in different ways outside of the art context. But also, I had reached a sort of intellectual maturity that I didn't have before. I also finally reached a subject that I felt really connected to. So the two were put together and eventually found a visual form. But it wasn't automatic at all.

Vishakha Desai: Often here I find that people talk about your work and they will talk about how it's based on the tradition and the traditional miniature form. You've talked about the fact that the decision you made is actually very subversive because it was not as if there was an ongoing continuation of tradition. You might want to talk a little bit about Lahore and miniature painting and the fact that it was in an academic setting.

Shahzia Sikander: We're talking about an academic institution, which is an outcome of the colonial experience. So the schooling that one got was still very Western, but very dated. So miniature painting did exist as a subject, and yet it was more like an apprenticeship. Plus, it was not the most popular subject, so nobody had graduated in 10 years.

Vishakha Desai: This is because your teacher also kept you there for hours.

Shahzia Sikander: That's right. But that is what interested me most. When I thought it through, I had the same relationship to tradition and miniature painting, especially that I kind of hated it. I grew up with examples of miniature painting around our house. That was what I started questioning. Where was that coming from?

Basically, again, choices were made because one got exposed to a lot of art in a historical context, and I remember meeting an ex-curator who bombarded us with 2,000 slides. So if that was interesting, the bulk of information was not available there, but was outside. When I did learn it, it was via the teacher, but also through works printed by the Smithsonian. So it was a very indirect relationship.

Vishakha Desai: So your notion and connection to tradition is actually not the way you would often define it.

Shahzia Sikander: No. I'm interested in the very fine play with tradition, but the intention was not to subvert or to reinvent, but definitely to take it on, to learn the language before you can talk.

Vishakha Desai: Shirin, how do you think about this notion of tradition and culture that... portrays an unchanging Islamic world?

Shirin Neshat: It's interesting. I was thinking in some ways with Shahzia's work that she takes a very traditional form of art, deconstructs it and changes it. Then her approach becomes somehow reverent in the way that she introduces some contemporary art elements. Although in form, it very much relates to some very ancient traditional forms of art of Iran. I feel what threads my work to the traditions of Iran or Islam, is the notion of poetry. I think that one underlying element in all of my work is that it is very, very poetic, and very metaphoric in its form of language. So I think that we're going about it in different ways.

Vishakha Desai: The dialogue is very much there, but coming from different directions.

Shirin Neshat: I applied calligraphy originally to my photography because I knew it would represent sort of a sacred form of Islamic art. In the composition of the photographs that I was doing, I felt that you had beauty, elegance, spirituality, everything that opposed or contradicted the political notions about Islam. So I was very interested in bringing together things that were sacred versus things that are very political....

Vishakha Desai: Shirin, can you speak a little about your "Women of Allah" series? Were these photographs inspired by your first visist to Iran after the Revolution? What spurred you on to begin to make art again?

Shirin Neshat: In 1993, I began to do photography. For the most part, the series called "The Women of Allah," focuses on the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and particularly on the subject of women in relation to violence and politics.

Having missed the period of the Revolution, like most Iranians who hadn't been back, it was quite shocking. It had already been about 10 years since the Revolution had taken place, so it had settled quite well. So for me, both visually and psychologically, it was, to say the least, quite shocking [to see] how the country had changed so immensely culturally, socially and politically, and how people had changed beyond their own recognition. It became an obsession to go back and understand the series of events that led to the Revolution and the changes, the complexity of all of that.

I became interested in women and how they were so immediately affected, but more so how they embodied some of these changes and some of this ideology. In fact, how in the Islamic tradition women embody so much more than men the value system of the society. So in a way, by studying the women, you can study the culture. So it wasn't really a feminist approach, it was more about first me, as a woman, being able to really relate to that. Because it's a big subject and the issue was so complex, I wanted to focus on an area that I could get a handle on, which was the subject of the martyrdom. There is also this dichotomy between the notion of love, of God, of fate, and that of purity, and these incredible acts of cruelty and violence and hatred involved in martyrdom. So for me, this series was about looking at that complex mental structure that is completely contradictory.

Of course, the "Women of Allah" was a big series, consisting of many photographs. Some of the images deal with the issue of the taboo around sexuality and a female body, as opposed to a male body. Obviously, they show the absurdity of the freedom that young men have as opposed to young women.

Vishakha Desai: What sort of photographs did you take in Iran or after you got back from Iran?

Shirin Neshat: I started to travel quite frequently to Iran. I became very fascinated. Again, it wasn't at all clear that I was going to come back and make art, but one thing led to another. I needed an outlet. I found that photography was a perfect tool. So I did these in New York. Very often, I posed in the photographs myself. So it's a very kind of naïve and spontaneous approach to all of this. I didn't even have an audience at that point.

Vishakha Desai: You've been doing photographs for a while, and yet it wasn't until your videos that people really began to look at the photographs again.

Shirin Neshat: I think that was because I didn't have an audience. I wasn't really making it for any shows or anything, and I'm glad for that. I'm really glad for that.

Vishakha Desai: I know that some people who have talked about your photographs, especially this particular series with hands, sometimes have said that it's too exotic. I remember this in '94 or '95 when we first actually met. I was very struck by that phrase. It seemed to me that all of the subtleties and the complexity that you bring to this picture is not something that people had any access to. I wonder how you felt about it when this was work that was being seen for the first time.

Shirin Neshat: I think there are several issues here. One is the issue of translation. I think the text became very much misunderstood, as people thought that it was purely decorative, and it wasn't; although I wasn't embarrassed by its decorative possibilities. But the poetry of these women was incredibly effective, although it could really only be understood by the Iranian people.

The other issue is that the application of calligraphy and the veil itself immediately become something very exotic. Any time you put a veil on someone, people think it's exotic. But in fact, that's the way that people dress.

Vishakha Desai: And yet, as you have pointed out, the veil is only half the story because Iranian women continue to be very powerful in their home.

Shirin Neshat: But I have to say that this group of photographs taught me a great deal about transcending to a new body of work. Since I didn't have an audience in mind previously, and now I did have an audience in mind, I had to really think about how to reformulate my ideas in a way that could be understood and kind of absorbed by those people who didn't come from that part of the world. So I learned a lot from these photographs, but also the nature of photographs is so rigid, and it's so final that you have to tell everything through a single image. It's impossible to do.

Vishakha Desai: Shahzia, I was just thinking about listening to Shirin and her going back to Iran and the shift that occurred in her work from photographs to then making a conscious decision that she's not going to do that anymore. Your work, on the one hand, could be seen as a continuity, but there is a really rather strong change.

Shahzia Sikander: I think moving away from that culture, definitely. I was more conscious of what exactly I was doing and what it was that interested me in the whole dialogue of deconstruction. I had worked in Pakistan for many years, so all that time was spent primarily focusing on very formal aspects and understanding the nature of performance. I think that coming here was more about the experience of living, claiming lived experience, and trying to interject that into the work. The audience had shifted, plus I was eager to discover a new audience, and in the same process, discover how to make a very highly image-oriented genre relevant to contemporary expression. That back and forth was a continuation. It didn't just start by coming to America already. I think it definitely had more time and more freedom.

Vishakha Desai: So for you [Shahzia], it's almost moving away from home that then propels you to something different. For you [Shirin], it's going back home that propels you into another whole kind of sensibility.

Shahzia Sikander: Yes. For me it's a choice. It's very different than a second generation immigrant. I came here by choice, so I have a very different relationship to America, definitely, and also I think mobility is very essential. It doesn't really matter where one is. There is no sense of loss either.

Vishakha Desai: We talked earlier about how you felt it was very important to the process, that it's very collaborative and that you're very committed to broader political, social, cultural issues that your work raises. Sometimes people have said that your work is much more about the personal, and from the personal to the broader issues. I wonder if you both would talk a little bit about the process of making your work and how it relates to these broader questions of politics, culture, etc.

Shirin Neshat: It's interesting the parallel of the personal versus the non-personal. I think that my work has very much been affected by personal experiences. I think particularly the photographic work reflects the point of view of an artist who has been away for a long time. It has that naïve and almost nostalgic perspective to it, which I'm not ashamed of. It was a process. And I think it's because I had been away for many years. I think that at some point, since I started to go back and forth, and I started to work in other parts of the Middle East, and since I became immersed in the community, that gap was broken. So I feel much more integrated in the subject that I'm working with. Every project leads to the next, to the next, to the next. And every project teaches me something. So I think that, even though the work, again, is very social and political in its connotations, there is the definite presence of my personal growth and development and how I'm changing. Those are all very candid, but they are there. I think in [Shazia's] work, as well.

Shahzia Sikander: Well, for me, the personal is very essential. It starts there, but just taking on miniature painting required a larger understanding of what it meant as a gesture to take on something that was very traditional, and was going to create a lot of issues, especially in juggling it as a contemporary medium. I was very interested in the post-colonial discourse as such because it affected throughout my childhood my education and my own representation as an individual and relationship to culture. So those issues were there. And this seemed an appropriate vehicle to navigate that.

Vishakha Desai: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the reception of your art here, and in the various layers of communities that you both are part of. You have talked about and alluded to the Ugandan community in America. You and I have talked about the South Asian community. How is your work perceived, depending on who is doing the looking?

Shirin Neshat: My work runs into a lot of problems with Iranians. I think that very often, since the subject is Islamic and very much deals with contemporary society and lots of people are not very happy with the current regime or the Islamic Revolution altogether. Or in fact, if they are living abroad, they haven't even returned since then. The fact that I have chosen that subject, even that itself is a sin as far as they are concerned. So they are not even interested in a dialogue.

They often look at the work as just a platform for a discussion, not as art work. So it's very difficult to have a conversation when they are not really approaching it as art, but purely as polemical discussion, which I'm not interested in, since I don't consider myself an activist. It's always been my effort to say that this work is really not about that. It's really about raising issues and raising questions, as opposed to answers. I think it's time for us to do that. So I get diverse reactions from Iranian people.

In terms of Westerners, I think that people have a better understanding of my recent work and I have had to do less explanation about what it means, although every project is not successful. But I think the approach is becoming more successful in the way of reaching a larger and more universal dialogue with people, even if the subject is still very Iranian in form and nature.

Vishakha Desai: I had a rather strange experience of looking at your work at the Whitney. It was very busy, lots of people were waiting in line. Then about two minutes later they came out and said, "Oh yeah, that's the woman who does all the stuff about Iran and veils." I was stunned. Having been to Iran now four times, I was really struck by the fact that if you didn't spend the time and really be there for the entire duration of the video, you couldn't really get the full sense of complexity. I wonder if I myself would have had the same level of experience had I not been to Iran. That was one of my questions. I wonder if you had that feeling, and yet at the same time you feel that people respond differently.

Shirin Neshat: Well, I think to an artist like myself, it's very important that when I develop the idea or when I produce the work, that I not really focus too much on what the audience is going to think or what they would expect. I think that would be a big mistake. I think that comes later. I think that it's very important that the intentions or the idea don't become distracted by that. You're right, no matter how you approach the veil, it becomes immediately exotic. But that's what people wear. This is something that is not my idea and is not a fiction. So that is totally beyond my work itself. So you do run into quite a bit of stereotyping. But then again, there are those people who look at it and in some bizarre way, identify with it. And there is no explanation for that, other than it goes beyond the work, I hope.

The following are audience questions.

Shirin, I know that you have talked about how some Iranians think of your work as sinful. Shahzia, perhaps you've had the same experience. How do you overcome that? How do you continue to work, despite that kind of criticism? Does it affect your own faith?

Shahzia Sikander: For me, it is never sacrilegious to pursue art or be creative, so I've never really had any feedback directed at that as such. But there is always criticism. There is always feedback, which is usually about the ex-pat situation, especially if you are showing in the U.S. There is also hostility towards America, which in Pakistan right now is, again, related to a lot of political issues.

Shirin Neshat: I think that criticism is very positive and it's constructive. I like to embark on that type of discussion. Unfortunately, when criticism is not constructive, it's purely on another level, it's not important. But nevertheless, every criticism makes me always think about my work, and really even take it on in terms of a serious issue. For the most part, I think that as an artist, when I create work, I am very much aware that not everyone is going to appreciate it or understand it. Particularly the kind of work that I'm doing which is so referential to current sociopolitical events. Everyone arrives to that piece with their preconceived ideas and information and history. How could an Iranian separate their personal history from certain work of mine? It's understandable. And also, visual art doesn't have a great history in Iran. They are not used to looking at art in the way that I'm presenting it.

Could Shahzia explain a little bit about one of her recurring images, which is the female torso tied at the feet. What is going on there?

Shahzia Sikander: Well, the female torso is referencing the entire sculpture. It's about the feminine, but it's also a relationship of sculpture to painting. As an independent form, it's also a commentary on the idea of beauty and aesthetics and how it's constructed throughout Western history as an Indian aesthetic. So all of that is what that image is constructing. Also, the personal aspect is that since it has no feet, it's self-referential, so it's afloat all the time, and it does not need a contact. That's how I was relating [to the world]. I was looking for a lot of Indian and Pakistani art when I was in graduate school to use in the context of my work. But there was very little available. So in a sense it was good because one had more freedom. So it's the play of how excessive freedom can be really confining too.

Vishakha Desai: We're out of time, but I want to thank you all for coming. Shahzia and Shirin, thanks for all of your insights tonight and good luck on your upcoming projects.