by Helena Blackstone
Shirin Neshat is split within by the barrier without: as an exile from Iran living in the U.S. she is caught between two worlds, simultaneously of both, and also of neither. To be exiled is to be divided not only from a homeland, but also from oneself. Although it is rarely directly addressed in her work, her state of exile unavoidably informs all of it, philosophically and emotionally. Charged with the impossible task of reconciling inviolable differences, one can see her work as a perpetual balancing act between these two worlds. In order to move forward, to exist, she must carve a passage for herself through the realities that invade her identity and that cast Iranian women as political territory.
Neshat’s Women of Allah (1993 – 97) series embodies these tensions, eliciting visceral responses to explore her identity and the conflicting lyricism and violence of the Muslim world: she arouses intense feelings which rage against each other until we too feel some of the perpetual turbulence of her world. In Speechless (1996), a woman stares out at us, the barrel of a gun peeking through the space between her cheek and her chador, Farsi script is printed so as to cover the skin of her face.
Speechless is an image that is strong, frightening, alienating, but there are also elements that counter this. We simultaneously feel threatened by the gun pointing straight at us, wonder whose unseen hand holds the gun so close to her skin, empathize with her because her eye glistens with sadness, and feel an echo on our own flesh of the calligraphy digitally etched onto hers. In this and other photos from Women of Allah, the script pulses with allusive possibility because of its placing on the body, though we cannot decipher it—on the palms of a woman’s hands (“Guardians of Revolution”), on the soles of a pair of feet (“Allegiance with Wakefulness”), or in the white of an eyeball (“Offered Eyes”).
The calligraphy contains the words of the Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad, famed for her daringly straightforward poetry about her experiences of love, sex, and the struggle for autonomy. The overlaying of this poetry onto skin makes each picture into the story of a woman and a body, which includes vulnerability, strength, pain, pleasure, banality, and spirituality.
“Hijab,” from which the Persian tradition of the chador (full-body cloak) originates, translates variously, including as “screen,” “curtain,” “barrier,” or “partition.” In its original incarnation in the Qur’an, such a partition is mentioned with the intention that it act between men and women (albeit as an instruction to be carried out by men): “when ye ask of them (the wives of the prophet) anything, ask it of them from behind a curtain.” 1
A partition defines, or even creates, one object or group as separated from any other. The partition between the sexes creates further divisions, not only between people but within individuals, in other words, between public and private selves, homosocial and heterosocial selves, and one’s identity as perceived within Iran and as perceived by the West. This last division is felt acutely, since the hajib can act as a barrier to understanding: the culture of the West tends to understand through visual means, whereas Islam espouses aniconism, which shows itself by a tendency away from figurative representation in Muslim art. The face we are confronted with in Speechless elicits recognition of and empathy for the pictured woman’s inner self. This goes some way to redress the West’s lack of understanding of the Iranian people.
The creation of Women of Allah is in some sense an attempt to regain a closeness to and explore her own relationship with her fellow Iranian women. Paradoxically, this act of creating a body of work did in one sense sever her ties: these stirring images can and have been construed as critical of the Iranian government. It means that she feels she can never go home, and has forever set herself apart in the role of exile.
- 33:53, according to translation by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, as quoted on the website of the University of Southern California.