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Viewpoints: A Conversation with Shirin Neshat and Shahzia Sikander

Shirin Neshat

Shirin Neshat

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.