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Viewpoints: A Conversation with Shirin Neshat and Shahzia Sikander

Shirin Neshat

Shirin Neshat

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.