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Viewpoints: A Conversation with Shirin Neshat and Shahzia Sikander

Shirin Neshat

Shirin Neshat

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.